Decryption: ethanol biofuels, a boon for the wallet but a dead end?

Decryption: ethanol biofuels, a boon for the wallet but a dead end?

Since the soaring prices of traditional fuels at the end of 2021, sales of new cars running on bioethanol and conversions of their cars by individuals have increased significantly. But this biofuel is not free from criticism or promises not yet kept. Overview, going through the research on e-fuels that motorsport will introduce in F2 from 2023, in F1 from 2026, while the European Union is conducting discussions this month which will decide the fate of heat engines in the automobile beyond 2035.

€0.63, 0.68 or 0.74: the price of a liter of E85 superethanol on the site fuel-prices.gouv.fr, this Friday September 9 in stations close to Montpellier, has something to leave the motorist driving on gasoline or diesel pensive. The price difference is worth the profession to proclaim willingly that its E85 is the fuel of purchasing power and consumers are not mistaken.

1- Soaring volumes and conversions

At nearly 468,000 m3 in 2021, and 4% of the gasoline market, sales of Superethanol had “progressed by 33% in one year. A priori, we would be at + 70% over the last twelve months”, slips Nicolas Kurtsoglou, engineer at the National Union of Agricultural Alcohol Producers. The SNPAA hopes to complete 2022 “around 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 Nicolas Kurtsoglou. No tension on the price either, it only varies on the share of gasoline mixed with ethanol: “15 to 40% depending on the season, more in winter, less in summer.”

As a bonus, driving on ethanol one enters the exemptions for access to the low emission zone of Montpellier, for example. The painting 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 SNPAA technician, 50% for E85. Biogenic CO2 that does not increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Made from sugar beet, corn and wheat, so-called first-generation bioethanol releases during its combustion the CO2 that the plant had absorbed during its growth. Except that using plantations for this purpose, “It’s a way of doing things directly in competition with the food industry, advanced Thibault Cantat, specialist in new fuels in Central commission of nuclear energyECA. In Europe, it is clearly down, we do not want competition between the two sectors while populations and tensions on the food markets are increasing.

The Court of Auditors rendered on December 20, 2021 a very critical report. Geenpeace France is even more so, which judges that “it’s not a good deal”loose Jérôme Frignet, its program director. The activist lists the impacts on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, land withdrawn for animal or human food or “Risk of pushing food crops back to natural areas. This 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 generations

Since 2019, from Aimargues to Vergèze (Gard) has been driving a coach from the liO regional network fueled with elaborate ethanol, said to be second generation, on a daily basis. No agricultural material in the composition of this ED95, but 95% “ethanol from wine residues” and 5% non-fossil additive. “It is a wine distillery co-productexplains Franck D’Herbomez, director of the Vauvert production unit of the Union of Mediterranean Distilleries (UDM). We recover the marc, residue from the pressing of the grapes, and the lees of our members, 200 cooperative cellars and 5,000 private individuals” to make six products including this ED95, which therefore does not monopolize land and does not incorporate gasoline.

The production of theUDM is 1000m3, wine residues providing 9% of distilled ethanol in France. But the raw material deposit restricts their development… Conversely, the third generation, that of micro and macro-algae, “is not limited by biomass”grown in bioreactors, but its industrial emergence is uncertain, admits Thibault Cantat, of the CEA. “We are still at the beginning of the story, it will depend on the costs.”

4- Prospects beyond 2035?

The deadline is that of the end of the heat engine in the European Union, the Commission’s wish adopted in July by Parliament. But the Council of Ministers wants climate-neutral fuels to remain authorized and negotiations began this month between these three institutions. Will they save ethanols? The sector wants to believe in it by promoting rechargeable hybrids supplied with its fuels. Not sure that the recent climatic excesses, the alarms which sound on all sides on the subject indicate that it is about the direction of the history: to pollute more, not only less.

LPG has its followers

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

The Renault group’s offer is one of the drivers of this growth. The Crit’Air1 sticker too, but as with ethanol, the price of LPG is its main asset, around €0.85/l, even if the consumption of the car is a little higher. Moreover, although it is a petroleum derivative, its price per liter is stable. “It’s 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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