Guest essay by Phil Hutchings
Coming back to live in Brisbane after a couple of years away, I was staggered to find the Queensland Government is running TV advertisements to promote the use of E10 (petrol blended with 10% ethanol).
And, to be fair, when your state is one of the world’s biggest coal and gas exporters, it’s hard to present yourself as eco-friendly in today’s GHG-phobic world.
But promoting ethanol in fuel?
Fifteen years ago, I worked on the (then) abortive financing for a sorghum-to-ethanol plant in Queensland’s Darling Downs. That plant was built subsequently. It has struggled, with lack of demand for ethanol. It was close to closure in 2015.
But, hey, the clean green Queensland Government has ridden to the rescue, seeking to burnish its environmental credentials. Hence – a tax-payer advertising campaign. Advertising giant Ogilvy Brisbane got the gig to produce the TV ads and place saturation billboard coverage in every suburb. The campaign cleverly focuses on whether your “car is E10 ok”.
It stays away from directly suggesting E10 is better environmentally.
Just as well. Here are some uncomfortable facts about ethanol, which we don’t talk about:
Ethanol has much lower calorific value than petrol. In fact, a litre of ethanol has only 2/3 the energy value of unleaded petrol.
Hence, with E10 fuel (10% ethanol, 90% petrol), your fuel consumption and running costs will increase by 4%.
Production of ethanol from sugar cane or sorghum (as we do in Queensland) itself produces CO2. During ethanol fermentation, glucose and other sugars are converted into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Simple chemistry:
C6H12O6 → 2 C2H5OH+ 2 CO2
So, CO2 is released both in the use and manufacture of E10.
And our Federal Government helps too, leaving ethanol with significantly reduced excise rates. Currently, ethanol gets a $0.26 litre subsidy from the Feds compared with petrol. For comparison, you can import refined petrol into Australia from Singapore for about $0.55 per litre today (pre-tax and excise).
So, ethanol is getting a close to 50% subsidy.
I can’t find any scholarly articles that truly look at whether ethanol is “environmentally better” than fossil fuels.
But hey, like they say on TV, it’s “a renewable energy sources and produced right here in Queensland”. Must be good, right?