E85 Fuel & Energy Vulnerability

Holden’s imminent release of the so-called ‘flex-fuel’ VE Series 2 Commodore, which can run on 100 per cent petrol or petrol-ethanol belends up to E85, has – near enough – coincided with Caltex’s roll out of its tongue-twisting take on E85. Called Bio E-Flex, the high-proportion ethanol fuel will be available in 32 city servos initially, and is set to expand to more than 100 stations within a year or so.
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At the very least this confluence of events has managed to answer the perennial ‘chicken/egg’ question – they both occurred contemporaneously. A real-life, literal, example of autogenesis…

The spin-doctoring has started, too. They’re already calling it ‘bio-ethanol’ – as if there’s another non-bio kind of ethanol on offer. (Over-used terms of the early 21st Century: ‘bio’, ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘enviro’… the list goes on.) Ethanol’s purported green credentials are being widely touted – and, frankly, the jury’s still out on that. And, as you’ll see below, the whole green fuel debate is really a sideshow – albeit a high-profile one.

Most of the ethanol in Australia is produced from wheat. Some comes from sugar as well. Proponents of the stuff – usually the companies that manufacture it – say it’s very green, being based on a renewable (or at least re-grown) resource as opposed to a fossil fuel. Critics, on the other hand, say the ‘net energy balance’ of ethanol – the energy you get out of it minus the energy you have to put in to produce it (from growing the crop to milling and distilling it) is tantamount to a waste of time.

The truth, or otherwise, of these positions, is probably geography-dependant. And it’s certainly feedstock-dependent. In Brazil, where ethanol production is steeped in sugar cane, the stuff is probably a better deal. But in the absence of a PhD in bio-science, however, how is the ordinary person to know if the new E85-capable Commodore is really a good idea, or just an example of the once-mighty GM trying to reclaim some moral high ground after losing its way meteorically in the lead-up to the recent global financial collapse – merely by latching on to a convenient-to-implement option?

It could be either – GM is committed, either way – to moving half of its total production to flex-fuel capability in the near term.

The fact is, ethanol probably won’t be a truly ethical, viable and green option until a feedstock-flexible process utilizing mainly waste is productionised and widely implemented. That’s where bespoke bugs turn waste products (agri-waste, industro-waste and domestic garbage) into ethanol after it’s rendered down to gas in a furnace and the waste heat is employed elsewhere. That’s probably a decade off, or more.

This whole ‘green/not green’ debate is beside the point anyway. There’s a great reason to get behind the rise of bio-fuels, and it boils down, simply, to this: we can make the stuff here. Unlike crude oil.

Most people don’t get this, but our way of life in Australia is intrinsically joined at the hip to liquid fuels – we burn 30 billion litres of the stuff annually. That’s about 75 million litres a day, or 1000 litres every second – and most of it, overwhelmingly, is imported.

In general, oil-rich nations are geopolitically unstable. Some aren’t, but most are. The biggest arm of the US military – the US Central Command – is located in the Middle East for a reason. And one guess what its mission is – to ensure America’s supply of oil is uninterrupted, despite political hiccups like the one in Iraq spanning two bad Bush presidencies.

Often, the world’s oil is located smack-bang in the middle of despotic regimes that hate the west fundamentally (but don’t mind receiving its money in exchange for their oil).

It’s not altogether a pleasant realization when you join the dots on this and figure that our way of life is basically wedded to the ongoing imperative to continue to trade with crackpot countries that really don’t like the US – or its limpet-like partners in the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’.

There are elephants in the room, too – elephants called China and India, which are only just developing a prodigious thirst for ‘black gold’ at a time when they’re effectively coming to a party late, only to find the keg half empty. The consensus view on ‘peak oil’ is that it’s happening around about now. Inconveniently, as Al Gore would say, there is no more significant crude oil reserve left on earth to find. The whole planet has been comprehensively searched and scrutinized for oil, both on the ground and from space via remote sensing.

Evidence of this? Investment gurus Goldman Sachs has noted there’s no investment globally in additional oil refining capacity, nor oil tanker capacity – probably because we’re already ripping it out of the ground as fast as it can be produced.

Economics 101: demand is rising, and supply is apparently fixed – so have a guess which way prices are headed in the medium term.

How invested is our way of life in oil? Well, the short answer is: very. There is probably nothing in your home or office that does not owe its existence in that place to petrochemicals. Every kilojoule of food on your table at dinnertime owes its existence on the plate, on average, to the 10 kilojoules of hydrocarbon energy that got it there.

The groceries you buy are fertilized with hydrocarbons, harvested by hydrocarbons, transported to Woolies by hydrocarbons, wrapped in plastic made from hydrocarbons, transported home by hydrocarbons and – you guessed it – often cooked by hydrocarbons. We don’t really rely on food any more; we eat ‘petrofood’. We wear ‘petro-clothes’.

Economists and organisations like the CSIRO use the term ‘energy security’ to describe our national exposure to, and reliance on, foreign oil, but I prefer the term ‘energy vulnerability’. Because if that tap gets turned off, our way of life stops. It’s that simple. Cue Stephen King and Quentin Tarrantino…

Forget the environment – or at least, put it in its place – that’s a less certain argument with E85. The simple fact is that Australia has to get far more self-sufficient on the fuel front, just to protect society and the economy as we move into the future with oil being increasingly expensive, and its supply less certain.

E85 is part of that solution – but so is much more focus on our existing hydrocarbon reserves, like our wealth of gas resources. Compressed natural gas (CNG) is a viable heavy transport fuel right now, and LPG is already a goer on cars and light commercials. Both options are perversely proportionately unpopular ones. They’re currently statistically insignificant – and they need to be far more popular future fuels. This is simply the case because Australia is awash in both natural gas and LPG.

The bottom line is that the move to E85 for Australia’s most popular car is a very positive one – but selling it to the population on the basis of its intrinsic ‘green-ness’ is tantamount to selling our society a pup. It’s at least beside the point, and at worst indefensible. Mainstream Australia needs to stop sticking its head in the sand and wrap its consciousness around our energy vulnerability today – and then we need a politician right at the top of the heap with sufficient long-term vision to nudge the nation into a more energy-secure future. And, you know, finding a politician willing to see further than the end of the next electoral term is going to be harder than putting our national addiction to oil into long-term rehab. I mean, today – right now – there’s not a single federal MP who can see past the speculation about which team of unpopular, short-sighted losers enjoys the biggest parliamentary minority.