Can biofuel survive?
13 September 2006
Saab's biofuel powered concept car
Is this 'new' eco-friendly fuel, the future? Or will the Government allow it to become just 'another LPG' in disguise?
There's a dangerous whiff of deja vu surrounding the arguments in favour of biofuel: "It's good for the environment but it will need tax breaks"; "it's less fuel-efficient than conventional fossil fuels but don't let that put you off"; "the vehicles are easy to convert and the costs are low"; "there aren't many filling stations but just you wait - it's really going to take off. honest".
For any fleet manager who ever bought an LPG vehicle - and suffered problems with reliability, refuelling
or reselling - these statements will sound horribly familiar and hollow.
Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) was touted as the ecological fuel of the future by both environmentalists
and Tony Blair's Government for a brief few years either side of the Millennium. The "things can only get better" new Labour politicians waded in with major fuel duty rebates making LPG half the price of petrol or diesel and offered grants toward the cost of conversion (via Powershift).
BP and other big oil giants promised to install LPG pumps nationwide and manufacturers including Vauxhall, Ford, Nissan, Volvo and Daewoo all added LPG editions to their ranges. The world seemed as good as saved.
But fast-forward to 2006 and filling up with LPG is an exercise in forward route-planning like no other. And you can name carmakers that list LPG vehicles in their range on a few fingers.
LPG didn't go mainstream because you can't fill up in enough places. At the last count there are 1246 filling sites in the UK out of a forecourt total of about 10,000, and a one-in-seven chance of refuelling is not any way to run a business, certainly not a critical mass.
LPG also needs a separate pump and tank to store the stuff - a complicated, expensive and planning permission-intensive process, and to convert the vehicles themselves requires an extra fuel tank (often reducing boot space) and a second filler cap - into which you insert an awkward and alien nozzle. The fact that the Eurotunnel still won't allow LPG vehicles on to its trains on safety grounds doesn't help the fuel's perception, either. Throw in varied conversion quality and a wary and/or ignorant used car market, and it's clear why dual-fuel LPG has never properly taken off - despite the half-price fuel that gave it such a good head start.
But maybe, just maybe, biofuel will be different. Yes, like LPG it's a less efficient fuel in town (you need more of it to travel the same distance as petrol or diesel), and yes, unless you live in pockets of East Anglia and Somerset you've no chance of filling up. But what is different about biofuel is that converting conventional fuel pumps is easy and inexpensive (you don't need a different tank for a start) and adapting the cars is also much easier - only one nozzle and the same tank - whatever fuel you fill up with, thanks to a few tweaks to the engine. There are also no dash switches to install for changing fuel type, and the good news continues with the fact that Ford for one is now offering its flex-fuel vehicles at the same price as its conventional-fuelled cars.
The raw material for the fuel is more sustainable than LPG (a fossil fuel production by-product) long term too. Biofuels can easily be grown from local renewable sources such as cereal crops and sugar beet, which absorb CO2 as they grow before they are harvested, thus largely offsetting the CO2 they emit when used as fuel.
Biofuel's production costs are, however, still high for now - until economies of scale kick in - and the existing 20 pence duty cut only brings it into line with petrol or diesel prices. In Sweden, better tax breaks have made the fuel mainstream - 80% of all Ford Focuses sold there are flex-fuel. Our Government hasn't followed this lead, which is why, for now, buying biofuel cars in the UK makes no commercial sense and is crazily tokenistic. It will literally cost you the same to travel less far, assuming you can fill up with biofuel at all.
Given the Government's avowed pledge to stamp out CO2 wherever it finds it, you'd think that biofuel would be a useful tool in its armoury. But unless it gets further duty cuts and tax breaks soon (to acknowledge its total emissions benefits - which could mean a total overhaul of the CO2 and VED tax systems to move from 'tailpipe' to 'well-to-wheel' measurement), this promising fuel could end up being even less successful than LPG. And it really is an eco alternative that deserves better.