Economy | Fuel: consumption, price… What you need to know about bioethanol

After a record-breaking 2021, bioethanol sales are expected to rise strongly again this year. Faced with unprecedented increases in the price of gasoline and diesel, many motorists are opting for this fuel, which is half the price but is not necessarily the solution to climate change.

What it is ?

Bioethanol, sold under the name superethanol-E85 or E85, is a fuel in which the alcohol, ethanol, replaces some of the gasoline found in conventional fuels. There are two types of ethanol: synthetic, made from petroleum, and organic, bioethanol, made from wheat, corn, or sugar beets. Ethanol is present in all types of fuel in varying proportions. E85 contains 65 to 85% bioethanol compared to 5-10% in fossil fuels.

For a century

The use of ethanol as a fuel or component dates back to the 1920s, it was eclipsed by oil in the 1960s, and its use was revived in 1973 after the oil crisis. Today, 30% of French gas stations offer bioethanol, i.e. 2739 according to bioethanolcarburant.com. For several months now, bioethanol, sold in France since 2007, has been experiencing a peak in popularity. E85 sales are up 33% in 2021 compared to 2020 and reach 4% of gasoline sales, according to the Bioethanol Collective.

We are talking about lower taxes and therefore a very attractive price: 0.93 cents per liter on average last week in France, which is half that of conventional fuel.

How to use it?

The first option is to buy a car that is already equipped. If car manufacturers remain skeptical, some have already started, such as Ford and Jaguar-Land Rover, which sold nearly 6,000 adapted vehicles in 2021. Another possibility: retrofitting your vehicle. In 2021, more than 30,000 motorists installed an approved box called “flex-fuel” in an approved garage, more than double the number in 2020, according to the Collective. But it costs between 700 and 1600 euros, depending on the installers.

So Matilda, a 21-year-old student whose name has been changed, chose another option: for “600 euro“In September, she carried out a reprogramming, that is, a modification of the parameters of her car.”I calculated that my investment will pay off after 11,000 km of run and I have already done it“, she noted.

Pierre, whose name was also changed, made the same choice. “It was in my head for quite a long time, and when the gasoline exceeded two euros, I rushed off.“, says the 51-year-old pastry chef, who saw the price of his full portion drop from 100 euros to 45 euros.

However, this practice is illegal: the law prohibits changing the parameters of the car indicated in its gray card.

Not a durable solution

Bioethanol is cheaper and emits less CO2 per liter than conventional fuel, but it is needed in larger quantities: an ethanol vehicle consumes on average 15–25% more fuel than a gasoline vehicle. And since bioethanol comes primarily from food crops, starting with beets, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with these crops must also be considered to assess its full climate impact.

However, over the entire cycle, biofuels used in Europe have a carbon footprint of just 2% lower than that of gasoline, according to the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) in a major comparative study published in 2021. In addition, ethanol production increases the harmful effects of industrial agriculture on soil, water and air. Thus, the use of synthetic pesticides such as neonicotinoids is very often practiced for the intensive cultivation of corn or beets, the Inspire association warns in its “car assistant“.

Finally, the sector may face a major challenge in the coming years: its ability to meet demand under European regulations. Europe limits the share of biofuels from food crops in transport energy to 7%. In 2019, long before the 2021 explosion, France had already peaked at 6.8%.

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