Biofuels are coming back into both public and Governmental focus in Ireland, not least with the recent announcement that the cost of adding extra biofuel blends to petrol and diesel will be "cushioned" for the consumer until at least the second half of 2022.
By blending biofuels, fuels sourced from crops, into regular petrol and diesel, their carbon impact can theoretically be softened – the carbon emitted from burning biofuels has, again theoretically, been absorbed by the plants when they were growing. But will the Government’s latest commitments to more biofuel use push up prices at the pumps?
Biofuels have a bit of a bad rep in Ireland. Back in the early 2000s, Ford, Volvo, and Saab all introduced biofuel-capable cars, which could run on what is called E85 fuel.
That’s a blended fuel, incorporating 85 per cent ethanol alcohol, made from plants, and 15 per cent normal unleaded. Cars had to be specially modified at the time, as E85 is a more corrosive fuel than unleaded petrol, but in general terms it’s a simple enough thing, mechanically.
However, the plan was scuppered when concerns emerged that crops grown for E85 fuel could potentially displace crops grown for actual food. Maxol was the only fuel supplier in the State that actually sold E85, and it soon gave that up as a bad job.
Many E85-capable cars were sold, mainly thanks to a VRT-reduction tax break, but research showed that they were mostly being driven around on unleaded. Ireland’s first chance at a biofuel revolution was quietly shelved.
Could we be on the cusp of a second? Certainly, Dr Paul Deane thinks we ought to be. Deane is a senior research fellow at the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine in University College Cork, and he's adamant that more biofuel use could dramatically help cut Ireland's CO2 emissions.
“Electrification of passenger cars will be an important element in reducing emissions but it cannot do it all, partly because the turnover of Ireland’s car stock – this has consequences for EV sales – is slower than the emissions reduction necessary and heavy transport poses a significant challenge for electrification,” Deane told The Irish Times.
“In research funded by the Irish BioEnergy Association, which is yet to be published, we found that road transport emissions can reduce by 50 per cent with a wide range of measures from a significant increase in EV sales; increased public transport; behaviour change, such as remote working; and the continued use of sustainable biofuels.”
According to Deane, sustainable biofuels are the “hidden giant of transport decarbonisation in Ireland and Europe” and they helped Ireland save some 520,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions last year, according to data from the Government’s Climate Action Plan, compared with an estimated 20,000 tonnes of savings from EVs.
“These emissions savings are like having 230,000 invisible electric cars on the road in so far as it offers the same benefit” says Deane. “To meet the emission reduction targets, the sales of EVs must grow strongly and in parallel Ireland should at least double its sustainable biofuel policy. This means increasing ethanol blends from E5 to E10 and biodiesel blends from B7 to B12.”
Those are regular unleaded or diesel with a small mixture of biofuel (5 per cent for E5, 12 per cent for B12 and so on) blended in.
Before you go worrying about the potential costs of converting your petrol or diesel car to run on such fuels, rest easy in the knowledge that it already can. Almost all recent models are E10 and B12 ready, and some cars are even already being prepped for the upcoming E25 standard.
E5 and B7 fuels are already widely available, so you've been running on those for ages. The step up to E10 and B12 is not a difficult one, and has already been taken in markets such as France and the United Kingdom.
However, the concerns about crop-growing issues, and even the use of so-called "virgin" palm oil as a component of biofuels, have not gone away. Laura Buffet, energy director at T&E, told The Irish Times: "Nowadays consumers can choose whether they want to buy goods tainted with palm oil. This is not the case for transport. The EU's transport sector is currently propping up demand for ruinous palm oil without consumers knowing it. We need to phase out palm oil biofuels immediately," said Buffet.
“While palm oil may be the worst, as history has shown, producers will simply move to what is cheap. In reality, unless we take action now palm will be replaced with soy or other virgin oils, moving the problem from one part of the world to another. Crop biofuels are not the solution for Europe’s transport and they never will be.”
You'd expect James Cogan to disagree with that. Cogan is the head of EU and Ireland Governmental affairs for Ethanol Europe, and is an advocate of the use of biofuels. And advocate, but someone who recognises that there needs to be greater action at the European Commission level to ensure that only beneficial biofuels are actually used.
"There are worrying biofuels," Cogan told The Irish Times. "They are the high volumes, nearly half the total, of used cooking biodiesel coming from southeast Asia, with 80 million litres from China, 18 million from Malaysia and six million from Indonesia.
“Virgin palm oil is half the price of used cooking oil, the certification process is very weak and there are no anti-fraud measures in place to detect and defeat the illegal substitution of used cooking oil with virgin palm oil. It’s a licence to print money. Ireland’s car owners could be putting a litre or more of palm oil into their tanks with each fill, based on the fraud opportunity.
"We know exactly where the biofuels – 240 million litres last year – come from, because thankfully the National Oil Reserves Agency publishes the data. Ireland and the UK are good at publishing the data. The European Commission refuses to do so and this week Emily O'Reilly, the EU ombudsman, issued a verdict of maladministration against them for their refusal to do so. Ms O'Reilly said she is both concerned and disappointed with the commission's reply."
It’s this lack of proper regulation from the top that’s undoing the potential good that biofuels can do. If they’re infected, so to speak, with palm oil that comes from freshly cut-down trees, that’s a double-whammy of both carbon emissions (from the logging operations) and deforestation (which leaves fewer trees to soak up carbon). If that process can be stopped, biofuels could become as saintly as they’re supposed to be.
“Biofuels made from European crops are an extremely effective peace-of-mind measure for achieving progress” says Cogan. “A decade or two ago there was a concern that crop-based biofuels might impact food stocks. This concern has been entirely put to rest as food availability has reached all-time highs worldwide, food prices remain low and in any case are linked to oil prices, while growing meat consumption, excess food consumption in general, and waste now account for the overwhelming majority of the world’s agricultural output.
“Over-consumption of sugar and starch is at the centre of a global health and obesity crisis. In places where food stocks are at risk the causes are corruption, natural calamity, war and inequality, rather than any fundamental lack of supply in the markets. The latest EU report on biofuels notes that in recent years, no correlation has been observed between food prices and biofuel demand. Any impact on food prices is small compared to other dynamics in the global food market.”
On top of which, biofuels could potentially trigger rises – significant rises – in the price of fuel at the pump, which has already reached record highs. Making biofuels is, currently, more expensive than pumping oil out of the ground and refining it, so every percentage of biofuel added to petrol or diesel pushes up the price.
For the moment, the Irish Government has committed to shielding consumers from any rise in fuel costs associated with higher blends of biofuels, but according to Cogan, the devil for drivers could well be in the detail.
“The Irish Government statement on biofuels brings an end to its cosy predictable relationship with the oil industry.” Cogan said. “The increase in the obligation [to add more biofuels into the national fuel mix] might add up to one cent per litre of fuel based on the higher cost of biofuels compared to fossil fuel, so the Government is amply over-compensating when cutting the fuel tax.”
The Government has said it will trim the National Oil Reserves Agency’s levy and a give a one cent per litre reduction in excise duty to allow for the higher cost of biofuels.
“It is certainly remarkable that the Irish Government, or any government, is so desperate to avoid citizens thinking climate action might actually come with a cost. Cost and public appetite are factors that climate analysts always ignore,” said Cogan.
According to Cogan, 2022 will be the first year that Irish fuel suppliers will need to find more “biofuel certificates” than can be easily found. These are certificates which, under the EU’s regulations, must be issued to prove the source and authenticity of biofuel supplies. To meet the new commitments, Ireland will need possibly as many as 100 million more certs than were used in 2019.
“Their number one option is moving to E10 unleaded, which would bring an extra 50 million certs. But as a demonstration of just how averse the Irish are to making any progress whatsoever, neither the fuel companies nor the Government are showing any willingness to make the effort to introduce E10,” said Cogan.
“Ireland is applying a 2 per cent cap on conventional biofuels, in line with RED2. This is inexplicable when the EU average is 5 per cent and when there is much untapped highly sustainable conventional biofuel capacity in Europe. This won’t affect the introduction of E10 but it will leave Ireland in great difficulty when it cuts back on used cooking oil from southeast Asia, as it won’t be able to deploy oilseed biodiesel to a large enough extent to cover the shortfall.”
Does that open up a chance for Ireland’s farmers – who already feel under attack by the Climate Action Plan – to potentially diversify and start producing eco-friendly fuels themselves?
“For heavy transport, indigenous biomethane produced from agricultural wastes and grass silage is a promising option for Ireland as it ticks a number of boxes such as offering farmers an option to diversify land use while allowing emissions from big trucks that can convert to compressed natural gas to be tackled” said Deane. “I wouldn’t say that any of these options are easy but they are necessary if we want to hit the ambition paid in the Climate Action Plan.”