Working on Infrastructure, Common Standards

By Robert Vierhout | January 16, 2013

Without the proper logistical infrastructure and standards, getting alternative fuels into the market is a hard sell—something the European Commission has well understood. After almost three years of public and nonpublic discussions the Commission is about to issue a draft law on the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure and standards.

The main alternative fuel options are electricity, hydrogen, biofuels, natural gas (in the forms of compressed natural gas,  liquefied natural gas or gas-to-liquid) and liquefied petroleum gas. Fueling points and standards are often poorly developed or nonexistent for most of these alternative fuels and thus the need for regulatory attention.

Biofuels are, of course, a special breed among alternative fuels because most are blended with fossil fuels, and do not require an entirely new distribution infrastructure, contrary to other alternatives. The exception is E85, and unfortunately, the draft bill is rather disappointing for its promotion. Where there is full recognition of the need to roll out recharging points for electric vehicles and refueling points for hydrogen, there is no mention of an E85 network. For some bizarre reason, the Commission believes that E85 use will be limited to captive fleets—as though the relatively large noncaptive fleets of E85 cars already found in Sweden, France and Germany are nonexistent.

We still need to do some work to correct this view, but at least the ethanol industry was successful in getting recognition of the need for clear labels and consumer information. Originally, the Commission wanted market forces to sort out labels and consumer information, but that exercise became a total failure. The oil and auto industries, especially the latter, had no intention of designing a simple sticker for both car and pump that would tell every fuel customer immediately what fuel would go into the car and if the fuel would be compatible with the engine or not. One possible scheme, for example, would be black for diesel, yellow for regular (with up to 5 percent ethanol), green for E10 and blue for E85—very simple, colored stickers, perhaps in different shapes. Not truly rocket science, one would dare say.

One would also expect that the oil industry would support such a measure, knowing that they already use something similar for branding their premium fuels. In many cases, it’s far more than just a simple sticker, but rather, big and colorful, hard-to-miss ads at fuel stations. “Difficult, difficult,” said oil. “Not cost-effective,” said the auto industry. “And what about liability: who is going to pay for engine damage if the wrong sticker were put on a car?” In short: like a failed soufflé, the whole voluntary approach collapsed almost overnight, leaving the Commission no other option but to regulate. Oil and auto lost the poker game.

If the bill is adopted in its present form, member states will be required to ensure that clear and simple information on the compatibility between fuels and vehicles is available at all refueling points, car dealerships and technical control facilities. The identical information needs to be glued on the fuel dispenser and cars. Older cars will get stickers during a technical check. Such regulations would prevent a repeat of the saga that happened in Germany, where oil and auto deliberately misinformed consumers on E10.

But we are not there yet. For sure, oil and auto will use all their lobbying tools to say that such measures are too costly and unnecessary, as already enough information for the consumer is available.

The challenge for the European ethanol industry is to create a strong alliance with consumer organizations to convince both Parliament and member states that such a standard is absolutely needed. If we fail to get this legislation adopted, we will miss a crucial instrument in moving beyond E10.

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Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePURE
Vierhout@epure.org