Will biofuels be blended into gasoline at the pump?
The fuels sold in Switzerland at the pump (petrol, diesel and natural gas) already contain a small proportion of biofuels. This proportion is set to increase, in line with the target values of environmental legislation in Switzerland and Europe in the transport sector, to which liquid biofuels are often the only realistic short-term answer.
In general, Switzerland does not support so-called “first-generation” biofuels, which are produced from food crops such as rapeseed, maize, beet, or sugar cane and palm oil in tropical countries. In this sense, only biofuels that meet very strict social and environmental performance requirements are exempt from mineral oil tax.
In 2018, petrol and diesel at the pump contained less than 5% biofuels. Moreover, of around 3,500 filling stations in Switzerland, only around 100 were offering the most common E5 blend (5% bioethanol, 95% petrol) at the end of 2014. Around 40 stations were selling E85 (85% bioethanol, 15% petrol) and only around ten were selling B5 (5% biodiesel, 95% diesel). It should be noted that all bioethanol is imported, and that a negligible fraction (less than 10%) of biodiesel is produced locally.
Nevertheless, new legislation that came into force in 2013 obliges importers of fossil fuels to compensate, in Switzerland and by 2020, for 10% of the CO2 emissions resulting from the use of these fuels. Biofuels are an economical and easy-to-use option for the oil industry in this respect, which explains the observed growth in their imports, which increased from 9 million litres in 2012 to some 19 million litres in 2014, and to over 230 million litres in 2018, corresponding to 3.5% of fuel sales.
The European Union (EU) goes even further. It has decided to cover 10% of its mobility needs with renewable energy sources by 2020. Biofuels are the only realistic solution to achieve this ambitious target in such a short time. Indeed, the use of biofuels does not require changing the vehicle fleet or the fuel distribution infrastructure (unlike electric, gas or hydrogen vehicles, which will still be in limited use in 2020). With this in mind, the European Commission is authorising the marketing of E5 and B7 blends to replace pure petrol and diesel. These blends are compatible with all vehicles in circulation in Europe.
The availability of E5 and B7 fuels is not yet widespread throughout Europe. Traditional pure fuels (petrol, diesel, kerosene) remain widely distributed, and Switzerland currently has no problems importing them. But this situation could change in the near future. By 2020, the EU member states will probably no longer sell pure fuels at the pump, but only E5 and B7 blends - if they intend to fulfil their obligations under the EU Renewable Energy Directive. There is therefore no guarantee that European refineries will retain distribution channels for pure fuels solely to supply the Swiss market. Especially since, with the expected introduction of higher blends of biofuels in Europe before 2020, such as E10 (10% bioethanol and 90% petrol, already distributed in France and Germany) in addition to the E5 blend, distribution capacities will be widely used. It could therefore be difficult and very costly to maintain specific channels only for Switzerland.
In addition, vehicles placed on the market in Europe will be optimised to run on these future biofuel blends. In this context, it will be difficult for Switzerland to continue to go it alone, as it can only import what is still available on the market. From this point of view, it is somewhat at the mercy of the decisions of the European Union [→ Q89]. It is therefore conceivable that in the long term Switzerland will be forced to import far more liquid biofuels. In the meantime, we can hope that second-generation biofuels, which are far less controversial than first-generation biofuels, will become available [→ Q55].
As for biogas produced in Switzerland, it is mainly used to generate electricity and heat. However, a small amount is injected into the natural gas grid, which also supplies the filling stations. It is then used as fuel for cars running on natural gas [→ Q33], which are expected to continue to gain market share in the future. In addition, there is still significant potential for biogas production from biogenic and animal waste.
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