Do biofuels still have a place in 2009?

Published: 07 January 2009

I recently spent time with Saab’s bioethanol experts – and it got me thinking. Are they heading down a dead-end with their E85-fuelled vehicles? Or are they right to persist with biofuels, even if public perception swung dramatically in 2008?

They certainly don’t sell many in the UK. Since 2006, Saab Biopower cars make up less than half of one percent of sales here – but the UK is notoriously behind other markets with its acceptance of bioethanol cars.

Sweden: firm believers in biofuels

Back in the homeland, half the buses in Stockholm run on bioethanol – and a third of all new cars sold in Sweden every year run on the green stuff, including one in five Saabs. As ever with fuel debates, availability is a big issue: the UK has only 20 filling stations with bioethanol, compared with 60 in Ireland and 350 in France. Compare that with the 1050 in Sweden and you can see why it’s popular there.

Okay, so you can mix bioethanol with regular petrol, but then of course you’re turning your back on its green credentials. Saab argues that even if petrol stations in the UK aren’t supporting the use of bioefuels as much as they could or should, it’s still possible to run your car on petrol in the meantime and keep your options open for the future.

We already know from Ben Oliver’s report in the August 2008 issue of CAR magazine that ethanol is majorly supported in Brazil, where a quarter of cars run on biofuels. But can you imagine having the sugar plantations required in the UK and the resultant change required in the agricultural system? Supporters argue we already import much of our energy, so why is shipping in biofuels any different?

How do biofuels perform on the road?

I drove the latest Saab XWD/Aero running on biofuel and can confirm it in no way affects the performance of the car compared with regular UK models slurping unleaded. Could I detect the higher power outputs and combustion efficiency of Saab’s Biofuels engines? It’s touch and go.

Critics say that Saab is backing the Betamax of the fuel world, but I still admire the plucky Swedes for developing E85 cars. Who knows what could come from this in the future.

We all look to develop and advance ourselves for the better, so why not the environment we live in? Maybe this is a useful starting block for what is to come. IMO we should be looking at all options – whether they be electric, hybrid, plug-in or biofuel. And you know what? I prefer a car to sound and feel like a car, and that’s why I still struggle with the milkfloat connotations of electric cars.

Would I buy a biofuel car? Not at a premium – too many uncertainties remain. But I still believe they’re right to develop the technology. None of us should put all our eggs in one basket…

>> Just as importantly, what do you think of biofuels? Click on ‘Add your comment’ below and let us know