The UK will move to new E10 petrol late this year, but is it the final green step for conventional fuels, or will cleaner, synthetic versions of conventional fuels play a part in the road to Net Zero?
In September, UK forecourts will start selling something called E10 petrol, in a bid to reduce carbon emissions from petrol cars without drivers or fleets having to do anything different.
So, what is E10 fuel? The ‘E’ stands for ethanol and the 10 is a percentage.
The ethanol used in E10 is less carbon intensive than regular petrol because it’s made synthetically by fermenting low-grade grain, sugars and wood waste.
In the UK we’re already using E5 in unleaded petrol (a 5% mix) and this is safe to use in all petrol cars. However, the move to E10 (a 10% mix of greener ethanol) could harm petrol cars built before 2011.
The Government claims the move could cut transport CO2 emissions by 750,000 tonnes a year; “the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road”.
Commenting on the scheduled introduction of E10, transport secretary, Grant Shapps (pictured left) says: “We’re going further and faster than ever to cut emissions from our roads, cleaning up our air as we accelerate toward a zero-emission-transport future.
“Although more and more motorists are driving electric vehicles, there are steps we can take to reduce emissions from the millions of vehicles already on our roads – the small switch to E10 petrol will help drivers across the country reduce the environmental impact of every journey, as we build back greener.”
The two petrol blends that are currently widely available in the UK contain no more than 5% ethanol, known as E5; the fuel being rolled out in September has up to 10%. Using bioethanol in place of traditional petrol can reduce CO2 emissions and, therefore, increasing the ethanol content of petrol could help meet our climate change targets.
“A small number of older vehicles, including classic cars and some from the early 2000s, will continue to need E5 fuel, which is why supplies of E5 petrol will be maintained in the ‘super’ grade. We are advising motorists to use the new E10 compatibility checker to see if their vehicle is compatible,” Shapps says.
“There are good biofuels and bad biofuels. Fortunately, the UK has a good record, producing them from waste”
With just about all company cars in use being less than 10 years old, fleets don’t need to worry about the change.
E10 isn’t the only synthetic fuel and there are others on the horizon but the issue surrounding them is the power needed to create them.
“The end-game is to have fully synthetic fuels,” according to Nick Molden (pictured right), the co-founder of emissions testing firm Emissions Analytics.
“Until recently, electric vehicles were seen as the only option to cutting carbon emissions for light vehicles, but more recently the hydrogen lobby has got its act together and now also synthetic fuels which makes it a three-way fight for what will power cars in future.”
E10, at the tailpipe, is about the same as regular petrol in terms of emissions, says Molden. He points out the savings are upstream and depend on the provenance of its production, but if that’s accounted for then biofuels such as E10 are the “easy” option.
Molden believes E10 is just a stepping-stone to better things. “It comes down to the decarbonisation of the electricity grid,” he adds.
His point being that without green electricity we’re just shifting the problem from the tailpipe to the place that the power is produced. This applies to battery-electric cars, hydrogen and synthetic fuels. It’s obvious why this is the case for EVs, but both hydrogen and synthetic fuels production need power in the form of electricity.
“EVs claim to be the most efficient now because the loss between the electricity generation and use is less than it is for other fuels. In 10 to 20 years, when we have surplus green electricity, then we can use it to generate synthetic fuels. But that’s not now,” says Molden.
“However, there are scenarios where we will have surplus green electricity. That makes battery EVs a stepping-stone because batteries in vehicles are heavy and use a lot of raw materials; and these are raw materials that are only available in a small number of places throughout the world.”
E10 isn’t the only synthetic fuel. E85 is available in the USA, according to Molden but engines need to be specially designed to work with it. However, E15 “would be okay” to use for most modern engines. Shell has also developed a synthetic diesel called GTL, which does the same job.
There is one downside to E10, adds Molden: “Using it results in a 2% drop in fuel economy over petrol without any ‘E’ component.”
Longer term, there is the possibility that we could have truly zero-carbon ‘petrol’. “We can ‘pull’ carbon from the air using green electricity and turn it into fuel, at which point we have double win,” says Molden. “We’re not using fossil fuels and we’re taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.”
However, his favoured route forward is standard, non-plug-in hybrids, which he claims result in a 30% drop in CO2 with no change in behaviour. He claims this compares to a 50% drop in CO2 for full EVs and “single figures for E-fuels”.
He concludes: “This is why de-carbonisation of the grid should be the priority and then the different fuels can fight it out on a level playing field.”
Andy Eastlake (pictured left), managing director of Zemo (formerly the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership), backs the idea of e-fuels as part of the journey to net zero.
“We’ve been pushing E10 since 2012. Whatever the vehicle you’re running it should be running on the cleanest fuel, so why not E10?” he says.
However, he reinforced Molden’s view about being careful to only generate synthetic fuels from greener sources: “There are good biofuels and bad biofuels, fortunately the UK has a good record on this, producing them from waste.”
While Eastlake also said producing fuel by taking carbon from the air and hydrogen from water was a possibility, he didn’t see it as a long-term solution.
“You can synthesise fuel that way, but it takes a lot of energy. Where it will be useful is for air transport as no one really believes you’ll have battery-powered long-haul flight. And while we’re testing these fuels it’s best to do it on the ground, so they could be used in heavy trucks.”
However, longer term he believes it would be better to stick with electricity as that offers truly zero tailpipe emissions.