The UK must introduce a new ‘green’ petrol that could cause harm to older vehicles in order to reach strict European emissions targets, MPs have heard.
MPs on the government’s energy select committee have been told that introducing the new blend of petrol - which contains more ethanol than today’s fuel - is the UK’s only viable route to meeting the emissions targets, which call for 10% of transport energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.
The new blend of petrol, known as E10, has so far not been rolled out over fears that it could drive up prices at the pumps, as well as causing damage in some older vehicles.
Speaking at the select committee hearing, Jonathan Murray, head of policy and operations at the Low Carbon Vehicles partnership, said that currently around 7% of transport energy came from renewable sources.
He said that recommendations were made to the government last year to deploy the E10 petrol blend and also to introduce more waste biodiesel into diesel fuels, and that those measures would give the UK “the best chance” of improving its renewable energy figure.
“Petrol with a higher blend of ethanol has been anticipated in the motor industry for a long time and has involved in various regulations and international standards,” he told MPs “This is about transition.”
What is E10 fuel?
At the moment, the petrol you put in your car contains around 5% of ethanol. Ethanol is used to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but its downside is that it supplies around 30% less energy than pure petrol - it's a less efficient fuel.
E10 fuel is so named because it contains 10% ethanol. Since 2013, oil companies have been allowed to supply petrol containing 10% ethanol, but none has yet made the move to supply it. Now, there is increasing pressure to use E10 petrol in place of the E5 blend in order to increase the percentage of UK transport which comes from renewable energy sources.
Will my car be able to run on E10 fuel?
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which represents the views of the motor industry, says that around 92.2% of petrol-powered cars in the UK are E10 compatible.
Fortunately, the vast majority of cars which can’t use E10 are older vehicles, and their number decreases every year as those cars are taken off the road. By 2020, just 3% of petrol vehicles won’t be compatible with E10.
As a general rule, if your car was built after 2002, it will be fine, although there are some exceptions to that as recently as 2009. As of 2011, all new cars sold in the UK must be compatible with E10 fuel.
In cars that can’t run on E10 fuel, the ethanol in the petrol will act as a solvent, and can loosen deposits in the fuel system, causing fuel pump, hose, filter and fuel injector blockages. It’s also corrosive to some seals, plastics and metals, and can lead to fuel leaks and even engine failure.
The switch has been compared in terms of scale to the switch between leaded and unleaded petrol, and experts have warned that a significant public awareness campaign will be needed to educate drivers on which vehicles can and can’t use the E10 fuel.
The good news is that the switch will not happen overnight - sales of the current E5 petrol blend will continue alongside E10 fuel until at least January of next year, and it has been recommended that a special blend of E5 petrol should still be offered at forecourts beyond that.
Petrol pumps dispensing fuel with more than 5% ethanol will be labelled as such, too, so look out for a label saying: ‘UNLEADED PETROL 95 E10 Not suitable for all vehicles: consult vehicle manufacturer before use. BS EN 228’
Will it cost me more at the pumps?
Experts have estimated that it could cost you up to £40 extra per year to fill up - the equivalent of adding 1p to the cost of a litre of fuel.
Will there be any change to my car’s fuel economy or CO2 emissions?
Unfortunately yes - while E10 fuel is undoubtedly kinder to the environment, it isn’t as kind to your engine’s fuel economy. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the use of E10 fuel compared with pure petrol results in a 3-4% reduction in fuel economy. That means if you’re running a car which currently returns 50.0mpg, it would return around 48.0mpg when running on E10 petrol.
In 2014, What Car? tested E10 petrol on four different cars, comparing it to pure petrol. Our test cars, and the results we gathered, are shown below, but you can read the full story here.
- Dacia Sandero, 0.9-litre petrol - the Dacia experienced an 11.5% drop in mpg, equal to an extra £202 in fuel over 12,000 miles.
- Hyundai i30, 1.6-litre petrol - a 9.8% drop in fuel economy, equivalent to an extra £16 per month in fuel
- Toyota Prius+, 1.8-litre petrol - only a small drop in economy for the Toyota, at just 6.4%
- Mini Paceman, 1.6-litre petrol - the Mini fared the best in our tests, experiencing only a 5.9% drop in economy
Our test conclusions showed that more powerful cars cope better with E10 fuel, while those cars with smaller engines - often bought by drivers on tight budgets - are the worst affected. That also explains why our results differ from those gathered in the US, where most cars still use large V6 and V8 petrol engines.
Why does our fuel need to change?
Back in 2009, all EU member states signed up to the Renewable Energy Directive, which requires 10% of road transport energy to be from renewable sources by 2020.
With electric cars still accounting for a minority of vehicle sales, the job has fallen to biofuels, specifically bioethanol produced by fermenting crops such as corn and sugar cane. It seems a simple solution, but critics warn of deforestation, which has its own CO2 implications, and land being grabbed from food crops. This, they argue, will exacerbate food poverty as prices are forced up.
There is limited ‘hard’ data about the real-world effects of E10, despite the US and Brazil having used it for many years.
In Europe the transition has been slower, with France converting in 2009, followed by Germany and Finland in 2011. There, E10 fuel take-up has been hampered by some inconsistent marketing plus consumer nervousness.
According to Finnish recovery operator Autlitto, the introduction of E10 in Finland caused ‘huge turmoil’ because of rumours it could cause engine failure and high fuel consumption. In fact, it reports the number of engine problems caused by E10 is negligible.
The Low CVP’s Andy Eastlake insists the UK is better prepared than Germany, for example, where, at the time of E10 introduction only 80% of cars were compatible with the fuel, compared to more than 90% in Britain now.
What about the EU referendum?
On 23 June 2016, UK voters will decide if the country will remain part of the European Union or not. If the country decides to 'Brexit', it's highly likely that we will continue down the path of rolling out E10 fuel nationwide, because its introduction will help the country to combat rising greenhouse gas pollution. If we stay in the EU the same will happen, but as yet there is no time limit in place to decide when E10 will be introduced.
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