Under new EU rules, petrol must contain 10% biofuel, but the environmental benefits remain in doubt

Any new environmental regulation that might require consumers to moderate their behaviour, or to spend a small amount more, invariably attracts scaremongering headlines.

One recent example was the European Union-mandated phase-out of old-style lightbulbs, which was “green madness” over which “consumers are positively incandescent with rage”, according to the UK’s Daily Express newspaper. Perhaps some consumers were silently simmering, but for the great majority, the transition to more energy-efficient lighting has been smooth.

Not all fears are groundless, however. Worries have arisen over the introduction in the UK of E10 petrol that contains 10% biofuel in the form of ethanol. The arrival of E10 is also a consequence of EU regulation. EU countries agreed in 2009 to a directive that requires transportation fuels to contain 10% biofuel by 2020.

The primary concerns about E10 are that it is less efficient than current fuels, and that the environmental benefits – reduced greenhouse-gas emissions – might not be all that have been claimed in the past. A further worry is that some older cars will be unable to run on E10 fuel. E10 is, however, already widely used in countries such as Australia, France, Germany and the United States.

On fuel efficiency, according to tests run for consumer group What Car?, E10 will be more expensive for motorists because it waters down the fuel energy punch, and so consumers will need to buy more of it. What Car? calculated a fuel efficiency loss of up to 11.5% for a Dacia Sandero, though other models fared better.

The What Car? tests echoed the findings of an April 2013 report from venerable thinktank Chatham House. According to this, E10 could cost UK motorists £1.3bn annually by 2020, because of its lower energy density.

Chris Hunt, director-general of the United Kingdom Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA) says: “It is a well-known fact that ethanol does not contain the same energy content as hydrocarbons.” But the energy loss depends on the source of the ethanol and other variables, and further research is needed. UKPIA is contributing to a study being carried out by the European commission’s Joint Research Centre that might resolve the issue.

Impact unclear

The jury is also out on the environmental impact. Clare Wenner, head of transport at the Renewable Energy Association, says E10 means a 3% energy loss, “which drivers will barely notice”, but “E10 will reduce each vehicle’s greenhouse emissions by 5.8%, which the climate certainly will notice.” What Car? is not so sure. It says its tests found that E10 actually increased exhaust pipe CO2 emissions, though it adds that this could be “partially offset by the renewable properties of bio-ethanol and the fact that the crops used to produce it absorb CO2 while growing”.

Meanwhile, Brussels, which came up with the 10% biofuel target in the first place, has gone cold on the idea, because of uncertainty over the environmental benefits.

The European commission says it will change its biofuels target after 2020 – but countries will need to work towards the 10% in the meantime. Transport will eventually be made to contribute to greenhouse-gas reductions by other means, but these have yet to be decided.

Nevertheless, for better or worse, the UK consumer will have to learn to live with E10. “I wouldn’t foresee that biofuels will disappear,” UKPIA’s Hunt says.

biofuels  E10  emissions  energy-efficient  environmental regulation  motorists  petrol  renewable energy  UKPIA 

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