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INSIDER: Another alternative fuel up in smoke?

Date: 02 April 2008

The Insider is a fleet manager with years of invaluable experience

First it was LPG and now it's biofuels, if the latest stories are anything to go by.

So biofuel is the latest alternative to petrol and diesel in danger of losing its saviour status. As someone who got lured onto the LPG branchline, I'm pretty much inured to the claims made for eco wonder-fuels, but it did seem that only a year or two ago the near-future was going to be plant-powered.

Now the Government's highest-ranking environment scientist, a chap called Robert Watson, has said it would be "insane" if we advocated a fuel policy "that's actually leading to an increase in the greenhouse gases from biofuels".

Of course, this time, the revolution was going to take place without help from fleets, unlike with LPG. That was pushed with Powershift grants to pay for dual-fuel conversions, cuts in the benefit-in-kind percentage rate, freezes on already low fuel duty and heavens knows what else. Back in 2002 I bought Vauxhall dual-fuel vans and even some Rovers (I know, I know). I think one of them was even registered for free entry into Ken Livingstone's brand-spanking new London congestion charge.

Why we thought it was going to remain the favoured tipple of the Government I'll never know. Dual-fuel cars were pretty clean at the tailpipe, but CO2 emissions were worse than equivalent diesels, perhaps, because, er I dunno, LPG was a fossil fuel maybe? Actually, there was no equivalent diesel because for some reason it was always entry petrol engines that got converted, so the vans struggled. Now the Government is raising duty on the fuel, Ken is scrapping the congestion charge exemption and garages are disappearing. RIP LPG.

You still get a 2% BIK reduction on LPG, as you now do for cars running on 85% biofuel as of this Budget, weirdly. But since the Government has said the 20p duty discount for biofuels will vanish in two years, the fleet temptation has been all but eliminated. Learnt from the LPG debacle no doubt.

No, the plan is that we'll all be doing our biofuel bit - fleet driver and private punter alike - simply by pumping the regular dino-juice into our cars. By 2010 it'll be diluted by 5% with biofuel, whether petrol or diesel.

Now though it seems that plan is under threat as a consequence of the increasing hand-wringing about side-effects. A farmer mate of mine reckons although his grain prices are high thanks to the biofuel demand, any excess profit is wiped out by increased feed prices for his cattle. Coupled with stories that Brazilian and Indonesian farmers are hacking down virgin, carbon-sink rainforest to plant biofuel crops and you've got to say biofuels are in danger of heading for the same barrier that scuppered LPG. Now, who's for battery power?