EU in doubt over alternatives to oil

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Biofuels, natural gas, hydrogen… None of the candidates to replace oil in vehicles are entirely convincing at the moment, according to the Commission which says it lacks a long-term vision supported by carmakers and the oil industry.

Alternatives to replace oil in transport are "urgently needed" but a long-term vision on what technology is best suited to replace it is still up in the air, said Fabrizio Barbaso, Deputy Director General at the Commission's transport and energy department.

Speaking at a conference on "future energy sources for transport" in Brussels, Barbaso indicated that the Commission had already identified three main candidates for the job - biofuels, natural gas, and hydrogen.

But he said each one of these present "tremendous technological challenges" that are just starting to be addressed, for instance by joint EU research efforts such as technology platforms (on biofuels, hydrogen, etc.). Natural gas currently enjoys little support from automakers or the oil industry, meaning the technology would need heavy subsidies to be maintained in the contest for oil substitution.

"My feeling is that we have not yet reached [an agreement on] policies largely supported by all parties," Barbaso said. And until significant progress is made, he said the Commission considers energy efficiency as its "number one priority".

A revision of the Commission's long term strategy (White paper) on transport is due to be presented on 22 June. The new document, seen by EurActiv, for the first time introduces a section on energy. It recommends action be pursued on various fronts, such as reducing fuel consumption, supporting research and bringing mature new technologies to the market through standard setting and regulations (such as Euro 5).

But it also recognises that much is still to be agreed at EU level, in particular under the European energy policy currently in the early stages of definition.

Positions: 

Anders Röj, a fuels expert with Volvo and head of fuels and lubricants at the European car manufacturer lobby ACEA, said industry needs long term certainty on technologies if it is to make the right investment choices. "We cannot have [a different] fuel of the year" every time, he said. He indicated that so-called second generation biofuels based on biomass gasification were currently the most efficient and less costly type of alternative fuels. But he added that easier access to new biomass resources should be provided, together with the related logistics. The aim, he said, should be to develop an "integrated biorefinery" concept by 2020 that can integrate different production options for biofuels.

Carmakers and oil companies are busy trying to develop more energy-efficient cars. Every year, Shell organises a fuel economy competition for students and semi professional independent teams. The 2006 edition was won by an ethanol-powered vehicle and was attended by EU energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

Volvo recently presented a new "Multi-Fuel" prototype car that can run on five different fuels: hythane (10% hydrogen and 90% methane), biomethane, compressed natural gas (CNG), E85 bioethanol (85% bioethanol and 15% petrol) and petrol.

Chemicals manufacturer DuPont and oil major BP on 20 June announced that they developed a new biofuel called 'biobutanol', which they say produces 30% more energy than ethanol. According to the two companies, biobutanol can be blended with traditional in proportions higher than 10% without making changes to engine technology. Current engines are said to be able to cope with biofuel blends of up to 10%. 

Timeline: 
  • Autumn 2006: Commission to present energy efficiency action plan which will include measures to reduce fuel consumption
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