Decrypted: Ethanol Biofuels a Boon for the Wallet but a Dead End?

Decrypted: Ethanol Biofuels a Boon for the Wallet but a Dead End?

Since the skyrocketing of traditional fuel prices at the end of 2021, sales of new bioethanol-powered cars and conversions of their cars by private individuals have increased significantly. But this biofuel is not exempt from criticism or promises not yet fulfilled. Overview, going over the research on e-fuels that motorsport will introduce in F2 from 2023, in F1 from 2026, while the European Union is holding discussions this month that will decide the fate of heat engines in the car beyond 2035.

€0.63, €0.68 or €0.74: the price of a liter of E85 Superethanol on the website, this Friday September 9 at stations near Montpellier, is enough to leave you with the doubt to motorists who drive with gasoline or diesel. The price difference is enough for the profession to gladly proclaim that its E85 is the fuel of purchasing power and consumers are not wrong.

1- Very high volumes and conversions

With almost 468,000 m3 in 2021, and 4% of the gasoline market, Superethanol sales had “it advanced 33% in one year. A priori we would be at +70% in the last twelve months”, slides Nicolás Kurtsoglou, engineer of the National Union of Agricultural Producers of Alcohol. The SNPAA expects to finish in 2022 “about 7% of the market”having gained 90,000 users in the first half alone, 18,900 new cars and 71,000 converted vehicles.

With 271,000 cars absorbing E85 in France at the end of July, there is hardly any risk of a shortage: “France, the leading European producer, is a net exporter of bioethanol”says Nicholas Kurtsoglou. There is also no tension in the price, it only varies in the proportion of gasoline mixed with ethanol: “From 15 to 40% depending on the season, more in winter, less in summer.”

As a bonus, driving on ethanol falls under the exemptions to access Montpellier’s low-emissions zone, for example. The paint looks good, but…

2- The environmental controversy

In addition to its economic benefit, the ethanol sector claims an ecological gain. “Pure bioethanol is 77% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasolinedefends the technician of the SNPAA, 50% for E85. Biogenic CO2 that does not increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Made from sugar beet, corn and wheat, the so-called first-generation bioethanol releases the CO2 that the plant had absorbed during its growth during its combustion. Except that the use of plantations for this purpose, “It is a way of doing things directly in competition with the food industry, pointe Thibault Cantat, specialist in new fuels of the Atomic Energy Commission, CEA. In Europe it is clearly on the downside, we do not want competition between the two sectors while populations and tensions in the food markets increase.

The Court of Auditors issued a very critical report on December 20, 2021. Even more so is Geenpeace France, which judges that “not a good deal”, released Jérôme Frignet, its program director. The activist lists the impacts on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, land withdrawn from animal or human food or “Risk that food crops are returned to natural spaces. It is not a good idea, both for the climate and for public health and the economic balance is negative for society.

3- Promising 2nd and 3rd generation

Since 2019, from Aimargues to Vergèze (Gard) he drives daily a coach of the liO regional network fueled with elaborated ethanol, which is said to be second generation. There is no agricultural material in the composition of this ED95, but 95% “ethanol from wine waste” and 5% non-fossil additive. “It is a co-product of the wine distilleryexplains Franck D’Herbomez, director of the Vauvert production unit of the Union of Mediterranean Distilleries (UDM). We recover the pomace, pomace from the pressing of the grape, and the lees of our partners, 200 cooperative wineries and 5,000 individuals” to manufacture six products including this ED95, which therefore does not take up land and does not incorporate gasoline.

UDM production is 1,000 m3, wine residues that provide 9% of the ethanol distilled in France. But the deposit of raw material restricts its development… On the contrary, the third generation, that of micro and macroalgae, “not limited by biomass”grown in bioreactors, but its industrial output is uncertain, admits CEA’s Thibault Cantat. “We are still at the beginning of the story, it will depend on the costs.”

4- Prospects beyond 2035?

The deadline is the end of the heat engine in the European Union, a wish of the Commission approved in July by Parliament. But the Council of Ministers wants climate-neutral fuels to remain authorized and negotiations between these three institutions began this month. Will they save ethanol? The sector wants to believe in this by promoting rechargeable hybrids powered by its fuels. I’m not sure that the recent climatic excesses, the alarm bells sounding everywhere on the subject, indicate that this is the direction of history: pollute more, not just less.

LPG has its followers

220,000 vehicles on the road in France, this is still a drop in the ocean in the private car fleet, but LPG engines are also on the rise. In two years, their number has increased by 10%, mainly due to the sale of new cars of the Dacia and Renault brands -the only offer available- and more modestly due to conversions of second-hand models, 600 in 2021“, says Sophie Gaudillière, director of the LPG group within the sector organization, France Liquid Gas. “There is a renewed interest from the Frenchobserve. We saw 40% growth in fuel sales last year, we’re at 80% at the end of July compared to the same period last year.

The Renault group offer is one of the engines of this growth. The Crit’Air1 sticker too, but as with ethanol, the price of LPG is its main asset, around €0.85/l, although the car’s consumption is somewhat higher. In addition, although it is a petroleum derivative, its price per liter is stable. “It is a refinery co-product. 30% comes from refining in France and 70% from non-Russian imports, which are subject to tensions but without common measure with gasoline.

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