Whatever happened to biofuel cars?

Remember biofuels? Remember the mad rush to bring dual-fuel cars to the market? Remember running out to buy a Mondeo, Focus, V50 or Saab 9-5 because, if you fancied, you could run it on prune juice? Whatever happened there? Why did the buofuels bubble burst so comprehensively, taking with it the second hand values of those cars?
The idea behind such fuels seemed sound. The most popular version in Europe was E85, called that because it consisted of an 85 per cent mix of methanol and 15 per cent regular unleaded. That methanol was produced by distilling it from plant sources, most commonly corn. No wonder it appealed so much to us; it was like whiskey for cars...
There were other appealing aspects too. It was cheaper than normal unleaded, thanks to a  government subsidy and the cars that could run on it were also cheaper, thanks to a €2,500 kickback on the Vehicle Registration Tax.
And of course there was the idea that they were fabulously environmentally friendly. After all, instead of digging deep into the Earth and scooping up dead dinosaurs and Triassic forests in liquid form, you could make fuel for cars from the very green and pleasant land we walk about on today. The concept behind biofuels was that of a closed carbon loop. The plants being grown to make the fuel absorb carbon dioxide from the air as part of the process of photosynthesis. When they’re turned into fuel, and burned, that carbon is released again but it can then be re-absorbed by the next crop of petrol plants. Nice idea, isn’t it?
It certainly seemed so but then other issues began to rear their unpleasant heads. For all the largesse of food that we in the wealthy west consume, there are some scary predictions as to quite how we are going to keep feeding the world’s ever-growing population. Turning vast areas of arable land over to the creation of biofuels seemed at best perverse when so many millions are starving every day. And then there’s the very question of arable land itself. There were suggestions and accusations that huge swathes of rain forest in both South America and East Asia were being chopped down to create open fields for the growing of sugar cane and palm oil plants – much of both earmarked for biofuel distilling.
With the green lobby torn between a carbon rock and a deforestation hard place, biofuels simply dropped off the map. In an Irish context, the cars and fuel were both made instantly obsolete by the arrival of Co2-based motor tax and the withdrawal of the VRT rebate on biofuel models. Yet another dead end in our search for a zero-impact private transport solution.
But perhaps we were too hasty. A recent vote in the EU Commission failed to lay the ground for new negotiations on biofuels legislation and it is intransigence and vested interests at the pinnacle of the legislature that is holding back a new generation of truly eco-friendly biofuels, say environmental campaigners.

Laura Buffet - Clean Fuels Campaigner
Laura Buffet - Clean Fuels Campaigner at environmental pressure group Transport & Environment

"EU biofuels laws aim at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport fuels to help fight climate change. But when we take into account the total GHG emissions of these alternative fuels, most biofuels consumed today in Europe have higher emissions than the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace. This is because the production of land-based biofuels indirectly leads to deforestation and land clearing, which both increase emissions. These indirect emissions are known as indirect land-use change (ILUC) emissions. We then called 'bad biofuels' those that are driving rainforest destruction and pushing up food prices. This category includes most of the so-called  first-generation biofuels, mainly biodiesel made of palm oil, rapeseed and soya beans” Laura Buffet told us. Buffet is the clean fuels campaigner at environmental pressure group Transport & Environment and she also told us that there are real potential benefits to the use of biofuels, and it’s legislation that’s holding them back:
"On the contrary, you have biofuels which can deliver real GHG emissions savings. The biofuels produced from waste and residues are part of this category, also known as “advanced” biofuels. A recent study shows that these biofuels could potentially displace 13 per cent of road fuel consumption in the EU in 2020, and 16 per cent in 2030.
"So, the potential for advanced biofuels to contribute to the decarbonisation of Europe´s transport is there. But there is a real issue over the mass commercialisation of these advanced technologies. This industry needs a clear policy framework to make long-term investments and supply a larger share of the EU market. That is why the current reform of the EU biofuels laws is so crucial for the future of these advanced biofuels. Accounting for ILUC emissions in the EU biofuels regulatory framework would provide the much-needed investment certainty for these advanced biofuels to take off because biofuels would compete based on full carbon accounting.
"In the push to reform biofuels policy, so far, vested interests are winning out over innovators willing and able to produce more sustainable biofuels.”
The worrying thing is that the EU is still subsidising the biofuels industry by €7-billion every year, yet the target for biofuels use has been cut by half. With new Commission elections not scheduled until May of next year, it’s unlikely that this conundrum is going to be solved, at a legislative level, any time soon.
That leaves both some good news and bad news for anyone thinking of buying a second-hand biofuels cars. On the downside, if you want one or if you already have one, then the value of that car is never going to be particularly good. With the market utterly obsessed with diesel-powered cars right now, you are taking a risk investing in petrol power. But, if you’re not desperate for a diesel then there are some potential bargains to be had. A Volvo V40 1.8 flex-fuel, for instance, can be around €1-2,000 cheaper than an equivalent diesel-engined version, and if you’re not knocking up mega miles, then the overall running costs needn’t be a lot worse. And who knows? If the EU ever gets its act together on biofuels then you may actually be future-proofing yourself...
Want to make sure that the biofuel cars you are checking out have a solid history? Not written off? Never been a taxi? Never nicked? Then check it out with Motorcheck.ie