Concern raised over popular biofuel option

The Federal Energy Office says the potential of E85 (right) is limited Keystone

The introduction of bioethanol E85 to Switzerland has proven a success with 3,000 cars now using the woodchip-based fuel, distributors say.

This content was published on June 24, 2008 - 08:31

But as demand has grown over the past two years, concerns have been raised over how environmentally friendly it really is.

Since being introduced in 2006 in the town of Winterthur, the Swiss bioethanol product has become available in 38 petrol stations around the country, GI-BioE, the group representing distribution and promotion of the fuel said on Monday.

Bioethanol E85 is a mixture of 85 per cent alcohol fermented from vegetable matter and wood chips and 15 per cent conventional petrol. One litre costs around SFr1.50 ($1.43) and emits up to 75 per cent less carbon dioxide than normal petrol.

Around 3,000 of the four million vehicles on the road use bioethanol, of which 1,500 were new cars sold in 2007 equipped for the fuel.

Felix Stockar, GI-BioE secretary-general, said: "It represents a very modest percentage but we can say that at the level of ecological cars it really is a success. We are happy."

He described the rise to 3,000 cars in two years as "remarkable" and said it showed that it was a promising alternative for those who wanted environmentally friendly travel.

As opposed to the alternative corn-based bioethanol, E85 does not depend on or interfere with food supplies, he added.

No panacea

GI-BioE estimates that natural supplies for the Swiss-made brand could cope with up to 9,000 users in the next four years. After that it could consider imports, a factor that could infringe on the fuel's environment credentials.

But the Federal Energy Office says it might not be the panacea for global fuel problems.

Spokesman Martin Pulfer recognises that Swiss bioethanol had an advantage in terms of CO2 emissions and dependence on energy from abroad, but says its potential is "limited".

In the long-term, biofuel usage could increase to ten per cent of all fuels used, according to estimates by Alcosuisse, the commercial arm of the state-run Swiss Alcohol Board.

Another point against bioethanol is its high need for energy and water in production. The Energy Office says it still needs to determine whether wood chip ethanol has the advantage over other food-based bioethanols that are entering the market.

The government maintains that biogas produced from household waste or compost has the least harmful effect on the environment.

Industry in transition

"In certain amounts bioethanol could be all right, but to make an industry out of fuel that has to go from Brazil to Switzerland is contrary to environmental protection," said Clément Tolusso, a spokesman for Greenpeace Switzerland.

"In principle we are largely opposed to agrofuels because they do not fundamentally resolve the problem of mobility or the private use of cars.

"The logic should be that if we have a problem with fuel we try to resolve the problem at the source, that is by thinking about our preferred mode of travel and the vehicles we use."

Stockar said despite the short-term optimism, the long-term future of the Swiss bioethanol industry was difficult to foresee.

"It will depend absolutely on the development of the market.

"In the next ten years the automobile will undergo big changes. It's a fact. It is moving enormously and we are one of many bioethanol initiatives."

swissinfo, Jessica Dacey


Biofuels are any kind of fuel made from living things, or from the waste they produce. They should produce less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional transport fuels.

Burning the fuels releases carbon dioxide but growing the plants absorbs a comparable amount of the gas from the atmosphere.

However, energy is used in farming and processing the crops and this can make biofuels as polluting as petroleum-based fuels, depending on what is grown and how it is treated.

Production of ethanol doubled globally between 2000 and 2005, with biodiesel output quadrupling. Brazil leads the world in production and use, making about 16 billion litres per year of ethanol from its sugarcane industry.

According to recent figures, biofuels contributed 0.3% of total energy consumption in European Union countries in 2003, which rose to 2% in 2006.

The EU wants to raise that level to 5.75% by the end of 2010. France has the more ambitious goal of consuming 7% biofuels in 2010 and 10% in 2015. Bioethanol fuel in Spain already accounts for 3% of the total consumption.

The US has announced it wants bioethanol to make up 10% of all car fuel consumption by 2010.

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Tax breaks

July 1 marks the start of a law aimed at reducing taxation of imported biofuels, if their environmental and social impact proves to be positive. The basics of the legislation are still being worked out through consultation and it is not expected that the law will be fully enforced until the autumn.

Alcosuisse, the commercial arm of the state-run Swiss Alcohol Board, says it does not expect anything to change in the short term, with very strict regulations to be put in place governing imports.

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