Detroit News colors the ethanol argument

Interesting that I write an article hassling Saab about BioPower availability in the USA and on the same day, the Detroit News puts out what amounts pretty much to a scare article about ethanol.

The article’s written by the Sussex based Neil Winton, the European correspondent for Detroit News and in terms of facts, it doesn’t get off to a great start:


dat ain’t a 9-3, kiddo

But this isn’t a snark piece. Not completely at least. It’s not something that I’d normally care to spend too much time on, but given the tome I wrote this morning I think something needs to be said.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Europe’s car manufacturers, led by Saab and closely followed by Ford, are endangering their credibility with buyers as they exaggerate the environmental benefits of ethanol and hide its disadvantages in a desperate scramble to catch up with the need to appear green.

Saab are in a desperate scramble to appear green?

Tell us more, Neil:

After soft-pedaling the problem for years, Europe’s automotive manufacturers have been caught out by a sudden sea change in public opinion, which now wants more attention paid to the need to conserve fuel and protect the environment. Tire-squealing, macho advertising campaigns underlining speed and performance are on the way out; green, tree hugging is in.

I’d like to see the tire-squealing macho advertising campaign from Saab that Neil’s referring to. He opened with a focus on Saab so I assume that he’s still pointing this particular arrow at them.

Let’s deal with this.

Saab’s credentials as a ‘green’ manufacturer should be fairly plain to see, I’d have thought. Perhaps if Neil had looked into them a little more prior to this article he would have seen that. So, for Neil’s benefit….

Saab have had a vehicle recycling centre in Sweden for quite a while.

Saab were one of the first companies to cease use of CFC based air conditioning systems back in 1991.

Saab have been producing turbocharged vehicles since the late 1970s, getting the power of a six cylinder engine from a four, with the economy of a four to match.

After a brief flirtation with a V6 during the 1990s, Saab only got it’s second ever six cylinder engine in 2006.

There’s probably a bunch more I could write here if I had the time or the inclination, but I think that those in the know would agree that Saab could hardly be called an environmentally irresponsible company.

Ford can defend themselves.

Now, back to Neil:

Saab, General Motors’ Swedish up-market subsidiary, is running a TV ad campaign which claims its new ethanol Flex Fuel engines, powered by renewable fuel which sucks in CO2 as it grows, can cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to an amazing 70 percent.

Given that he’s in England, this would be the ad he’s referring to. It does claim an extra 25hp but there’s no claim of a 70% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no other ad listed on the Saab UK BioPower site.

I don’t want to be accused of too much petty pedantry, but if you’re writing something that’s supposed to inform the public about an issue you believe to be misrepresented, it’s best to not misrepresent your point of view.

They do, however, say in their Q&A section that it can result in a cut in C02 of up to 80% at the tailpipe based on the increased consumption when running on E85. This is a figure that needs some explanation and I wish I was the man for the job. Other sites that I can find mention cuts from 10% to 34% but I can’t find a proper explanation for the 80% claim. That’s something I’ll pursue.

I can, however, recall time spent with a CSIRO scientist named David Lamb back in January who told me (and Richo) about the legitimacy of E85 as a fuel source for reducing emissions and cutting dependancy on oil (article by him here). He’d run plenty of tests that showed genuine reductions at the tailpape. The big issue, from his point of view, was the source crop used for the fuel. The more efficient it was, the more genuine the gains made.


I’m not going to go through this article paragraph by paragraph. It’s taken me long enough just to get this far.

There’s several issues that bear stating quite directly, though.

* No-one’s advocating E85 as THE solution to emissions reduction or climate change. It’s one piece of a bigger puzzle, and a legitimate one at that.

* The thing about ethanol and fuel consumption: What recently showed with the BioPower100 concept was that you could extract 150hp per litre of displacement. This means that you could build small cars with smaller engines and retain a level of output closer to what people are used to driving now. Smaller engines mean better mileage and reduced emissions for the amount of horsepower attained. This is what Kjell Bergstrom recently referred to as “right-sizing” of the engine.

* Neil claims that Saab have hidden the reduced mileage figure in the fine print. As you can see from the bit I quoted above, it’s right there amongst the Q&A and anyone that’s done their due diligence on the subject would be hit in the face with it pretty quickly.

* I’d be willing to bet my 6 month old puppy that for every ‘scientific’ study Neil’s found that criticises ethanol, I can find one to promote it. Producing ethanol from corn definitely isn’t the most efficient solution. But ethanol’s a long-term issue and the production of the fuel is getting more efficient as time passes. There’s numerous institutions that are already using other forms of biomass and it’s only a matter of time and investment before these alternatives go online on a commercial basis.

* Neil goes so far as to publish some opinion that ethanol most likely leads to higher emissions than gasoline. Like I said, you can find a ‘scientific’ opinion for anything if you try hard enough.


For a country like the US where the infrastructure is going to be hard to establish due to size, and where the base crop is less than ideal for the purpose, it may well be that E85 is not as ideal an idea as it is elsewhere.

In spite of this, I found this article to be written with a fair amount of bias and preconception. I wouldn’t call it irresponsible journalism, but it calls for some considerable examination.

There’s a number of governments around the world that are promoting ethanol as a fuel for both emissions and dependancy reasons. As the fuel gets easier to produce it’ll become more common, and Saab are well placed to take advantage of this due to their turbocharging expertise, which extracts the best performance out of the fuel.

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  1. Swade – I would call it downright stupid for lack of a better word. Neil should have known better. If you write that kind of report on something with so much to prove both on the scientific and the environment field, then you should first check your facts. I am forwarding you via your email address the UN-Energy Report released on May 08, 2007 titled: “Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers.” Please forward to Neil. Thank you.

  2. There are a lot of highly qualified claims made about E85. When I read stuff from Europe about E85, I often see the claim that it virtually eliminates “fossil fuel CO2” emissions.

    Of course, all that means is the CO2 produced by the car is coming from some source other than fossil fuels.

    The premise behind this line of argument is the plants suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere before the E85 car puts it back in. Whereas fossil fuels put carbon into the atmosphere which otherwise would not have happened.

    I’m not entirely sure that this is fair argument to make. It assumes that all the biomatter used to make the E85 would not exist but for the existence of ethanol-based fuels.

    It seems to me that the agricultural capacity used for E85 would likely be used in some other capacity if E85 did not exist (or at least a great deal of that capacity would be reused). And that alternate use of the biomatter probably does not result in direct CO2 emissions, as use of E85 in cars does.

    So E85 fuel likely results in taking carbon which plants have removed from the atmosphere, and which otherwise would have remained out of the atmosphere, and putting it back in. Which ultimately is little different than fossil fuel consumption, which also takes carbon which has been permanently removed from the atmosphere and sends it out the tailpipe.

    Plus the E85 production cycle obviously produces its own separate fossil fuel emissions (use of diesel trucks to harvest and transport raw material and the final product, for example).

    So the potential for overclaiming the benefits of E85 is there, as well as a backlash when the consuming public realizes this.

    But the virtue of E85 is that it is here, now. No matter how debatable its impact on overall CO2 emissions, there really isn’t a viable short-term alternative. (Diesel has better mileage, but comes from fossil fuels).

    That’s the problem with the global warming debate. The short-term options are merely bandaids, and options that might have a real impact on the problem are many years away from development, or are terribly expensive, or both.

    To me the primary benefit of E85 is the higher octane rating, and the resulting 150 hp per liter of performance.

    To the extent that such performance is available without using a 6 liter V-8, I would agree there is an environmental benefit.

  3. Good writing Swade, once again. I really enjoy reading your thoughts about Saab, and how things are going around.

    About E85 and Saab. There was one test on a Finnish car magazine where they put 9-5 BioPower to a somekind of “real life” emission test in Finnish climate. They had some doubt´s about it being more green than regular petrol engines. For example cold start on a very cold (-20C deg) condition there was more pollutions than on petrol engine. Pity that I cannot remember any facts from the test, but one claim was that this engine did not pass Euro 4 emission limits. There was some toxicant stuff coming out of the exhaust before engine got warmed totally. Something worse and more harmfull than from petrol.

    So, that article was very sceptic about the future of E85 and Saab´s new engines.

    And by the way, few months ago there was research going on to build few ethanol-fuel factories in Finland. Now the result is that these factories will not be built, and quite likely we´ll not see Saab Bio Power in Finland.

  4. I often see the “ethanol is only slightly better than fossil fuel” argument being made. Maybe there’s truth to this. But let’s ask the following question:

    Compare burning gasoline to burning ethanol. In terms of net CO2 emissions which is better? I’d say ethanol.

    Ethanol is not the solution to global warming. There is no silver bullet. We’re going to have to diversify our energy sources to do this. Ethanol is just a FIRST STEP. I hope to see the internal combustion engine (regardless of fuel) phased-out entirely eventually in passenger vehicles. I’m hoping for a future where battery technology has advanced enough that most vehicles (except the heaviest commercial vehicles which will probably have to remain IC for a long time, but hopefully converted to B100) will be solely electric-powered.

    We would then have to increase the cleanliness of our powerplants. I really like solar and wind and geothermal and solar-thermal and other “alternative” energy sources, but I’m also a nuclear proponent. Nothing’s perfect, but I’m much more worried about global climate change as an immediate problem rather than radiation poisoning for a potential plant meltdown.

    Fix the more immediate problems first.

    Everything goes in stages. Gasoline to ethanol and diesel to biodiesel is just a first step to hopefully eventually phasing-out IC engines IMHO.

    Sweden is so hot on ethanol because it helps them work toward their stated goal of oil independence by 2020. I would have to think to take a drastic step like that they did A LOT of studies on the subject, yet they’ve chosen to favor ethanol.

  5. Greg, Regarding “And that alternate use of the biomatter probably does not result in direct CO2 emissions, as use of E85 in cars does.”…
    I’ve wondered about that myself. If rye grass was just growing and not being used, would it produce CO2 when it decayed? I wish someone would publish a study of the whole cycle.

    Gripen, I think I agree 100% with your post:-)

  6. Ted Y: then I’m 100% pleased, I think. ;-P

    I just see the process of reacting to global climate change moving SOOOOO slowly. If you believe the majority of climate experts the temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, much faster than we’re able to convert to alternate modes of energy. As I write this the county I live in has two major fires raging, in part due to record low rainfall. It’s bone dry out here in the western U.S. and many of the forests have been ravaged by bark beetles, killing the trees and leaving dead kindling just waiting to burn. It has been claimed that those beetles used to be held in check by predators which are not around anymore due to climate change.

    We know SAAB’s plans for roughly the next five years. And there’s NOTHING drastic in there to help too much environmentally, unless they decide to go all-BioPower or something, which I don’t see them doing as we still can’t even get it as an additional-cost option here in the U.S.

  7. Hey,

    what has to be remembered are a few basic facts.

    First, when producing petrol (gasoline) oil is used (to run the pumps, drills etc. If we take it to the extreem, Statiol (the largest norweigan oil company) bought a Canadian oil sand field. Oilsand = oily sand that is being lifted up and “cleaned” using natural gas to extract the oil. This is BAD for the environment.

    Secondly, with ethanol, yes we use oil to run the trucks etc transporting it and the machines to harvest it. But we have to start somewhere. The trucks can be run on biodiesel etc. Also, note that Brasil, which is a large producer produces enough ethanol not having to import oil. I know that some people argue that they are destroying the rainforest etc. Do not know if it is true, and in some places it is probably, but that can be regulated too.

    In the long run we will make ethanol from forest products, or maybe kitchen waste to be used in small hybrid engines.


  8. cj: when I was in South Dakota (a major corn-growing state) a couple years ago I asked about the use of fossil fuel to run the tractors and I was told that most farms had already converted the tractors to run on ethanol (I guess they have gasoline-powered tractors instead of diesels). So you’re right that eventually even the fossil fuel used in the creation of ethanol can be replaced with biofuels.

    You mention in the long run cellulosic ethanol from wood waste and such. I consider that “medium term” or “2nd-generation” biofuels (along with biobutanol). I would hope “long-term” we will have weaned ourselves off the extremely inefficient internal combustion engine altogether. It’s a relic of the Victorian Era.

  9. Gimme some of that ole time religion….

    I wonder how long it will take the geniuses out there to realise is an issue that must be managed as much as reducing our impact (maybe more so).

    Pouring all resources into one aspect of a problem in a vain attempt to “solve” it isn’t scientific its brain dead.

    Again, for those who still don’t get my point lets reduce/eliminate our pollution not do something which satisfies us that we are doing something about it (ie: expensive token gestures).

    ctm, you haven’t mentioned which field of research you’re in but it can’t be scientific. Science takes all factors into account, not just the immediate surroundings.

    How on Earth anyone can underestimate the effect of the suns variation on our climate is beyond me. Our position relative to it is the very reason we exist in the first place.

    How many people have considered the inevitable problem which will arise from the toxic waste contained in the millions of flouro light globes leaching into the ground. Before you reach the conclusion that i am against these think about the fact that there should have been a simple mgt plan to dispose of these BEFORE issuing them to millions.

    This is an example of managing the problem.

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