Independent, Expert EV Reviews & Advice Since 2006

Focus on the Saab BioPower and Bioethanol

Saab BioPower vehicle which uses bioethanol fuel

The Saab 9-5 2.0t BioPower arrived in the UK just a few months ago, and now the 2.3 litre version is here. When running on bioethanol E85 fuel, this car will reduce your CO2 emissions by up to 70 per cent. And it will also deliver 14 per cent more power and 11 per cent more torque compared to when running on petrol.

Available as a saloon or estate, with manual or automatic transmission, the 9-5 2.3t BioPower is also for sale in Ireland and Nordic markets (the 2.0t BioPower model is Sweden’s best selling environmentally-friendly vehicle), with other European countries to follow later this year.

BioPower technology allows these cars to combine the benefits of ‘going green’ through cutting fossil CO2 emissions, with more power than the petrol versions. The BioPower cars allow customers to run on petrol and/or bioethanol E85 fuel in any proportions without any adjustment needed by the driver.

Running on bioethanol E85 the new Saab 9-5 2.3t BioPower engine delivers its maximum power of 210 bhp compared to 185 bhp when using unleaded petrol, and the manual saloon accelerates from zero to 62 mph in 7.9 seconds, compared to 8.5 seconds when running only on petrol. Saab’s engine management system monitors fuel quality and automatically makes any adjustments necessary for running on bioethanol E85 and/or petrol in any combination.

Bioethanol E85 has a much higher octane rating (107 RON in the UK) than standard unleaded petrol (95 RON), and turbocharging allows the use of a higher boost pressure and more advanced ignition timing – giving more engine power than is possible on petrol without risk of harmful ‘knocking’ or pre-detonation. The only hardware modifications necessary are more durable valves and valve seats and the use of bioethanol-compatible materials in the fuel system, including the tank, pump, lines and connectors.

Bioethanol fuel is produced commercially from agricultural crops, such as corn, grain, sugar beet and sugar cane. Unlike petrol, its consumption does not significantly raise atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which scientific research suggests is a major contributor to global warming. This is because emissions during driving are balanced by the amount of CO2 that is removed from the atmosphere when crops are grown.

Prices of the 2.3 litre BioPower start at £23,270.

UK availability of Bioethanol

Bioethanol has been the classic ‘chicken and egg’ scenario: without bioethanol E85 commercially available on petrol forecourts, manufacturers are obviously reluctant to develop flex-fuel cars. And with no flex-fuel cars on the road, no-one will sell bioethanol E85. However Saab and Morrisons are in the process of breaking this cycle in the UK.

Earlier this year, Morrisons, the UK’s fourth-largest supermarket chain, which has 276 petrol forecourts nationwide, and some nine million customers through the doors of its 360 stores every week, took the brave step of opening the UK’s first ten bioethanol E85 pumps at its sites in the counties of Norfolk and Somerset. This was on the same day that Saab Great Britain delivered the first batch of Saab 9-5 BioPowers to UK customers. Both the East, and South West of England have local economies that are heavily dependent on agriculture, whilst there is also a higher-than-average public awareness about bioethanol as an emerging transport fuel in those regions. It is no surprise, therefore, that the majority of UK Saab BioPower drivers currently live in or around those two regions.

Since then, Morrisons, which was already the UK’s largest forecourt retailer of alternative fuels even before its foray into bioethanol, has committed itself further to the expansion of E85 refuelling points across the country. Phil Maud, Petrol Director at Morrisons explains: “Morrisons has been bowled over by the positive public reaction to the introduction of Harvest Bioethanol E85 pumps at some of our sites. So much so, in fact, that we have now pledged to install at least one bioethanol E85 pump at every new store we open in the UK.” So far in 2006, in addition to the first ten pumps in Norfolk and Somerset, Morrisons has already opened brand new stores with Harvest BioEthanol E85 pumps in Swadlingcote (Derbyshire) and Wellingborough (Northamptonshire). Before the end of 2006, Morrisons will be selling the fuel at several more of its stores in Great Britain, whilst the supermarket has even signalled that an entire national roll-out of the fuel could be in its plans for next year.

Harvest Energy Limited supplies the fuel, branded as ‘Harvest BioEthanol E85’, to Morrisons, which it retails typically at two pence per litre less than unleaded petrol. Simon Davis, Head of Sales at Harvest Energy, remarks: “We are delighted to be working with Morrisons and Saab to provide Harvest BioEthanol, the first E85 available to the UK public. This launch reinforces Harvest Energy’s position as the leading supplier of renewable motor fuels to British motorists.”

UK Government Support for Biofuels

Jonathan Nash, Managing Director of Saab Great Britain Limited, says he has been encouraged by the developments he has seen with regards to the UK’s emerging bioethanol industry during the course of the last year, and comments: “In 2006, we have started to see all of the pieces of the jigsaw come together; flex-fuel cars are appearing on UK roads, bioethanol E85 pumps are being installed at a growing number of supermarket petrol forecourts, factories which produce the ethanol are starting to be built, and UK farmers are looking forward to being paid to grow crops, instead of not to grow them!”

However, he feels that there is still much to be done and puts the responsibility for this squarely at the feet of the UK Government: “What we need now is some meaningful Government intervention. So far, the UK Government has done little to encourage the public into driving cars that can run on eco-friendly fuel sources such as bioethanol E85, whose overall carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have been independently shown to be between 50 and 70 per cent lower than emissions from petrol. A mere £10 reduction in Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and a 20 pence per litre tax reduction on biofuels is not enough to stimulate this new market,” says Nash.

He continues: “Upon publication of the Stern Review last week, the British Government claimed to be leading the global debate on Climate Change. Well I don’t see much evidence of that. What I see is the Swedish Government taking progressive measures, such as tax relief at the pump and for company car drivers, and free parking in major Swedish cities to encourage drivers into environmentally-friendly cars, instead of penalising them. I see the French Government making positive steps towards encouraging the use of flex-fuel cars by proposing to tax bioethanol E85 at the lowest rate permitted by EU legislation and the introduction of incentives to encourage large companies to buy flex-fuel cars. I see the Irish government offering a 50 per cent refund on Vehicle Registration Tax for flex-fuel cars, equating to a saving of several thousand euro, and the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture promising to subsidise the construction and operating costs of new biofuel plants using budget money in order to kickstart a domestic biofuels industry. In summary, I see many other governments, both inside and out of Europe, taking far more radical steps than the UK to combat climate change. Those are the nations who are really leading this debate.”

Mr Nash was a co-signatory of a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer from a cross-industry group, consisting of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Saab Great Britain (under parent company General Motors), Ford Motor Company and Morrisons supermarket. In this letter, the Chancellor was urged to introduce financial incentives to develop the UK biofuel industry in his 2007 budget. These include:

• Increase and prolong the fuel duty rebate applied to bioethanol E85
• Discount company car tax for high blend biofuel cars
• Revise vehicle excise duty to reflect more accurately substantial benefits of these cars

Mr Nash explains that much of his frustration stems from seeing what can be achieved when national government is forward-thinking and joined-up in its approach. In Saab’s home market of Sweden, environmentally-friendly cars now make up 13 per cent of the new car market, with flex-fuel cars accounting for the bulk of those. “Saab will sell some 10,000 9-5 BioPower cars in Sweden in 2006, due to the fact that one flex-fuel engine has accounted for over 80 per cent of Saab 9-5 sales during the course of the year,” he points out. “The Swedish government has been extremely progressive in its policies, giving both private and company car drivers a reason to get in to alternative-fuelled cars, and incentivising fuel suppliers to provide the environmentally-friendly fuel. All of these policies form part of Sweden’s recently-stated its aim of being completely fossil fuel free by 2020 – now that’s what I call leading the debate on climate change,” says Nash.

Bioethanol Fuel

Bioethanol is the world’s fastest-growing alternative fuel and is now beginning to appear in mainland Europe.

In the past 12 months alone, bioethanol E85 fuel has become commercially available for sale in the UK, Germany and France, with Switzerland and Holland expected to follow later this year. The Belgian and Hungarian governments have also declared their intent to join the list, responding to an EU directive that requires member states to draw up plans to achieve a 5.75 per cent energy market share for biofuels by the end of 2010.

Anna Petre, Saab Automobile’s Government Relations Manager remarks: “In Europe as a whole, I believe we are approaching a critical mass situation, when suitable products and fuel both start to become available. To facilitate this process, it is essential for governments and the automotive industry to work together. I can foresee a time in the not too distant future when the majority of car manufacturers will be offering flex-fuel vehicles.”

Bioethanol’s credibility as a viable fuel has been further underlined this year by the launch of an EU-funded, pan-European test drive initiative, Bioethanol for Sustainable Transport (BEST). And in addition to the EU’s energy directive, member states are also being asked to apply reduced taxation or a complete exemption for biofuels in pure or low blends.

The emergence of bioethanol E85 as a market leader in renewable fuels follows its expansion in the United States and Brazil. Bioethanol is derived from various sources of biomass – for example, it is commercially produced from corn in the US and sugar cane in Brazil.

Currently, nearly all of the bioethanol used in Europe today is shipped from Brazil, where it is produced at less cost than petrol. The other main commercial producer of bioethanol is the United States, where it is produced in the mid-west region from corn and blended with petrol, either to produce bioethanol E85 or to produce E10 (ten per cent bioethanol, 90 per cent petrol). As world oil prices continue to rise, US output of bioethanol has more than doubled in the last four years.

In Europe, Spain is currently the largest producer, supplying small quantities from grain for use as an additive to petrol. There are also small production facilities in France, using by-products from wine making, and the UK, with other plants planned in Holland, Italy, Ireland, Germany and Portugal.

However, the most efficient feedstock for producing bioethanol is none of the above, but so-called ‘ligno-cellulosic’ material, which can take the form of straw, organic waste or wood clippings and forestry residue. Here, bioethanol is produced from cellulose, instead of starch, and yields are higher as well as being less energy intensive. In Sweden, an industrial process for producing bioethanol from wood and forestry waste is being developed for large-scale commercial application. Developing such alternative sources should help to reduce accusations that Brazil is cutting down rain forest to produce bioethanol.

In a comprehensive 2004 study, the International Energy Agency, which is an OECD member organisation, (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is an international organisation helping governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalised economy) estimates that there is enough global resource of biomass to enable biofuels, such as bioethanol, to meet two-thirds of the world’s current transport energy needs. And in the United States, research by General Motors indicates that 66-107 billion gallons of bioethanol could be produced annually from biomass, including dedicated energy crops such as switch grass, willows, poplars and sorghum. This would be sufficient to support a national E60/70 petrol blend or directly replace about half the current 140 billion gallons of petrol consumed annually in the United States.

Bioethanol Case Study – Sweden

Since the launch of Saab BioPower flex-fuel technology one year ago in its domestic market of Sweden, the 9-5 BioPower has gone to the top of the country’s environmentally-friendly sales charts, with over 10,000 9-5 BioPowers expected to be sold in 2006. That means that Sweden is leading Europe in encouraging the use of bioethanol as an eco-friendly renewable fuel, behind which is a bold government strategy to free the country of its dependency on oil for road transport by 2020.

There’s nothing new about the use of bioethanol as a road transport fuel. Some of the world’s first cars, developed 100 years ago, were actually designed to run on bioethanol, and it’s been used as an emergency back-up fuel during times of war. However, once the world’s reserves of cheap oil began to flow freely, alcohol-based fuels – whether ethanol or methanol – quickly became a curiosity, confined almost exclusively for use in high-powered, competition engines.

Now, as the world begins to come to terms with the need to reduce CO2 emissions and the prospect of diminishing oil supplies, bioethanol – a renewable and potentially carbon-neutral fuel – is back on the agenda. And in Sweden that means it is widely available at filling station pumps.

The Swedish government has already taken the decision to begin the process of switching road transport away from oil and has targeted 2020 as the year when the country can contemplate ending its dependency on fossil fuels altogether. The wide-scale production and use of bioethanol as a substitute will be one of its main weapons in helping the country to ‘kick the oil habit’.

There are two driving forces behind the adoption of a renewable and sustainable fuel such as bioethanol: the environmental need to reduce CO2 emissions and the strategic need to overcome dependency on oil, a finite resource for which global demand will eventually exceed supply. As a nation, Sweden has a long tradition of environmental care and it is hardly surprising that it is one of the first countries in the industrialised world to begin to seriously address such issues.

A major attraction of bioethanol as a renewable fuel is that it leverages current automotive technology and the existing fuel supply infrastructure. While bioethanol E85 (85 per cent bioethanol/15 per cent petrol) pumps are only now beginning to appear elsewhere in Europe, the first filling station with E85 was established in Sweden in 1995. However, development was slow in view of the very small number of ‘flex-fuel’ cars on the road at that time. Steady expansion began in 2002 and today, the number of filling stations with E85 pumps stands is approaching 550, with an average of 5 – 10 new bioethanol E85 pumps opening each day. This sudden growth has been further stimulated by the sales success of the Saab 9-5 BioPower. By 2008, the government has announced that 25 per cent of the entire national network must offer renewable fuels.

There is currently only small scale, commercial production of bioethanol from wheat and barley in one region of Sweden which is mostly used for low-blend E5 (five per cent bioethanol, 95 per cent petrol), meaning that most of the bioethanol required is imported from Brazil, the world’s biggest supplier. A large proportion of Brazil’s domestic road transport needs are already met by bioethanol, which is produced locally from sugar cane, without any subsidy, at a lower cost than the world market price of petrol.

However, the most efficient feedstock for the production of bioethanol is neither corn nor sugar, but ‘biomass’, in the form of straw, organic waste or wood clippings and forestry residue. Here bioethanol is produced from cellulose, instead of starch, and yields are higher as well as less energy intensive. Sweden has a vast forestry resource and an industrial process for producing bioethanol from wood and forestry waste is being developed for large-scale commercial application.

To remove fossil CO2 completely from the environmental loop, emissions during the commercial production of bioethanol must be minimised and modern processes are already moving towards a zero-emission status. Success in achieving this will depend on the type of biomass used as a raw material and the precise production process that is required.

The EU’s latest directive on energy taxation, effective from 1 January 2004, calls on member states to apply reduced taxation, or a complete exemption, for biofuels in pure or low blends. It follows a parallel directive requiring member states to introduce measures that will ensure biofuels account for an increasing proportion of total energy consumption in the transport sector, reaching 5.75 per cent by the end of 2010.

In Sweden, E85 already accounts for 2.5 per cent of fuel for road transport, by far the highest proportion in any European market. Supportive government measures include favourable taxation for E85, both at the pump and for company car drivers, free parking for users of flex-fuel cars, as well as a requirement for government agencies to source at least 50 per cent of car fleets as eco-friendly vehicles, and the introduction of city buses running on pure bioethanol.

Bearing all of the above in mind, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Saab has delivered more than 11,500 BioPower cars to Swedish customers since sales began in July 2005, with the Saab 9-5 BioPower clearly established as the country’s top selling environmentally-friendly vehicle, taking almost 30 per cent of sales in a fast-growing segment that already accounts for 13 per cent of the total car market.

For the first nine months of 2006, Saab BioPower sales total 7,700 units and, in response to such strong demand, Saab is raising its full-year BioPower sales forecast to 10,000 units, twice its original estimate. This includes a 700-strong order bank that has already built up for the new 9-5 2.3t BioPower model.

The current 2.0t BioPower model accounts for over 80 per cent of all Swedish 9-5 sales and is enjoying a similar level of popularity in neighbouring Norway, where 300 cars have been ordered since July as a result of E85 fuel becoming more widely available.

Demand in Sweden is also strong in the corporate and fleet sector, as indicated by a recent order for a total of 400 cars from rental operator Avis. The adoption of Saab BioPower helps many companies and public authorities meet their ISO 14001 environmental standards.

The future for Saab

In addition to the 2.0t and 2.3t BioPower engines that are available on the Saab 9-5 range, Saab has already developed BioPower engines that can run on pure bioethanol (E100) fuel, and mated them with electric motors. In both applications it eliminates fossil fuel emissions altogether, highlighting the enormous potential that BioPower technology holds for the future.

The 15% of fossil fuel in E85 is to assist cold starting performance in low temperatures, although Saab has already developed an engine modification that will allow the use of E100 fuel (pure bioethanol) in all operating conditions.

Shown this year at the Stockholm, London and Paris motor shows, the Saab 9-3 Convertible BioPower Hybrid Concept Car demonstrates how pure bioethanol and electric power can be combined to yield fuel and energy savings, as well as greater performance. It is the world’s first hybrid vehicle capable of delivering zero fossil fuel emissions at all times.

The Saab 9-3 Convertible show car’s powertrain features a BioPower evolution of the current all-aluminium, 16-valve 2.0-litre turbo engine from the Saab 9-3 range and General Motors’ innovative two-mode hybrid transmission. E100 has an even higher octane rating (106 RON) than E85 (104 RON), allowing this engine to develop 260 bhp and an impressive 375 Nm maximum torque, 24 per cent and 25 per cent more, respectively, than its petrol-only equivalent. And, of course, it still retains a full ‘flex-fuel’ capability.

Saab’s unique Spark Ignited Direct Injection (SIDI) system provides optimum combustion with E100, ensuring the same cold starting performance as a petrol engine. Apart from variable inlet and exhaust cam phasing for improved breathing, it shares the same hardware modifications as Saab’s production BioPower engines.

“Hybrids are certainly interesting for Saab in the future and this project allows us to evaluate and explore the potential of hybrid technology in combination with our existing and already-proven BioPower technology,” says Jan Ĺke Jonsson, Saab Automobile’s Managing Director. “Although the exact hybrid application shown in this concept does not currently figure in our production plans, the project has been extremely valuable in helping us further our expertise. It shows how we could develop the sporty performance associated with Saab while using only renewable resources and saving energy overall.”

However, the ultimate performance expression of Saab BioPower is to be found in the exciting Aero X concept car. Running on E100 and incorporating the SIDI system, its twin-turbo 2.8-litre V6 engine delivers 400 bhp maximum power at 5,000 rpm and massive torque of 500 Nm between 2,000 and 5,000 rpm. Computer simulations for this high performance, all-wheel-drive coupé suggest zero to 62 mph acceleration in just 4.9 seconds.

Unfortunately Saab say they have no plans to put the Aero X concept into production. We say that they should, as it would have the same transformational effect on their brand image as the TT had for Audi when their design icon first appeared.