Petrol and the alternatives

There are ways you can lighten the cost of fuel for both you and the environment.
 
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  • Updated:9 Dec 2008
 

02.Other fuel options

Fuels made from plant and animal matter – biofuels – can reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by vehicles because burning them releases only the carbon that was absorbed when growing. Biofuels aren’t new – Henry Ford’s first car ran on alcohol and Rudolf Diesel’s engine first fired with peanut oil. Two biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel, can be used in most existing motor vehicles and are relatively easy to handle and use

Can alternative fuels affect my warranty?

Don’t let the fear that switching fuels might invalidate your warranty put you off. Warranties cover workmanship rather than damage caused by fuel – that’s the responsibility of the fuel supplier and fuels have to meet Australian standards to be sold at a service station. Ensure that the fuel type will suit your vehicle – but don’t just assume it won’t – visit www.fcai.com.au to check or ask your manufacturer directly.

What are the sources of biofuels?

Each of the alternative liquid fuels most commonly available in Australia has good and bad points, see below. The broader environmental impacts of ethanol and biodiesel depend very much on how they’re produced. Australia uses mostly residues from food, sugar and fibre crops to produce bioenergy, but there are some canola and cottonseed crops dedicated to biofuel. It would be useful to have independent certification of the environmental performance of the fuels.

In New Zealand, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority is developing a sustainability mark for biofuels so consumers can identify those that are produced sustainably.No single fuel type can provide enough to cover our current demand, so we probably need a combination of solutions, as well as reduced fuel dependence.

Palm oil

Some critics attack biodiesel because it can be sourced from palm oil. Increased production of palm oil is causing deforestation in places such as Indonesia. But independent sustainability analysts Worldwatch Institute says less than 1% of palm oil goes towards biodiesel, and the real demand for palm oil is from food, cosmetics and industrial uses.

Are the alternatives any good?

Ethanol (E10)

An alcohol usually produced by fermenting sugars from plants such as sugar cane, wheat and corn.

Good points

  • Made from many sources of renewable materials, including waste products such as sorghum stems, spent grain or sugar cane.
  • Reduces reliance on non-renewable oil.
  • Lower CO2 emissions than petrol, when production and use are considered.
  • Generally produces less local air pollution than petrol.
  • Safe to use in most new cars at concentrations in petrol of up to 10%. Many new cars have an “e10 suitable” sticker near the fuel filler.
  • Fuel excise on the ethanol component of the product negated by a government subsidy until 2011.

Bad points

  • Pure ethanol has lower energy content than petrol (67%), which means you travel a shorter distance on the same size tank of fuel.
  • Can compete with other crops for land use and therefore raise food prices, which harms poorer consumers in developing countries for whom food is a higher proportion of their expenditure.
  • Can damage the quality and biodiversity of the local environment through clearing of native vegetation, monoculture production and introducing invasive species.
  • Shouldn’t be used on some older vehicles; check the list of suitable cars at www.fcai.com.au.
  • If produced with artificial fertilisers and transported a long way, energy return and greenhouse benefits can be low or negative.
  • Minor modifications required to run a vehicle on pure ethanol – only E10 is sold in Australia.
  • Limited availability: only a few hundred outlets.

Biodiesel (B20)

Produced from vegetable and/or animal oil. B20 is more commonly sold than pure biodiesel – it’s a blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% mineral diesel.

Good points

  • Made from many sources of renewable materials, including used cooking oil.
  • Reduces reliance on non-renewable oil.
  • Significantly lower CO2 emissions than diesel, when production and use are considered.
  • Biodegradable and non-toxic.
  • Generally produces much less local air pollution than diesel.
  • Pure biodiesel can be used in unmodified diesel engines or it can be mixed with regular diesel.
  • If made from agricultural or cooking residues it’s cheaper than if made from specially grown sources, uses less land and water and has better CO2 performance.
  • Fuel excise on the biodiesel component of the product fully negated by a government grant until 2011.

Bad points

  • Pure biodiesel has lower energy content than diesel (86%), which means you travel a shorter distance on the same size fuel tank.
  • Can compete with other crops for land use and raise food prices, which harms poorer consumers in developing countries for whom food is a higher proportion of their expenditure.
  • Can damage the quality and biodiversity of the local environment via clearing of native vegetation, monoculture production and introducing invasive species.
  • If produced with artificial fertilisers and transported a long way, energy return and greenhouse benefits can be low or negative.
  • Emits higher quantities of nitrogen oxides than diesel.
  • Becomes less fluid in cold climates, so vehicle modification is required if using pure or high-proportion biodiesel blends.
  • Very limited consumer availability – only a few dozen outlets, mostly in SA, WA and some in NSW.

Liquid petroleum gas (LPG)

Extracted from natural gas or derived as a by-product of the petroleum industry. Car LPG is a blend of mainly propane and butane, and is not interchangeable with LPG for barbecues.

Good points

  • Less local air pollution than petrol.
  • Some reduction in CO2 emissions compared with petrol for a given trip.
  • Petrol and diesel vehicles can be converted for LPG use. A government grant of $2000 is available for conversion of an existing private vehicle, or $1000 for the purchase of a vehicle manufactured with an LPG unit. (See www.ausindustry.gov.au or phone 132846 for more information).
  • Most conversions enable dual-fuel use; for example, petrol and LPG.
  • More than 3200 outlets – more than other alternative fuels.
  • Substantially cheaper per litre than regular petrol, because it requires minimal processing and is not subject to excise until 2011.

Bad points

  • Made from non-renewable resources.
  • Still emits considerable CO2.
  • Lower energy content than petrol, which means you travel a shorter distance on the same size tank of fuel. You need about 30% more LPG to go the same distance as petrol.
  • Requires expensive car conversion with an initial outlay of $2000-$4000, so it’s more attractive for higher-mileage vehicles. (See www.ausindustry.gov.au for accredited installers.)
  • Some new cars are built to use LPG only.
  • Some vehicles can’t be converted due to space limitations.
  • Need to consider not only the current price of LPG, but what it might cost in future.
 

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