The UK gets its First Bioethanol Plant

British Sugar has opened the first bioethanol factory in the UK this week, making biofuel from locally-grown sugar beet. The £20 million site which is located in Wissington in Norfolk will produce 70 million litres of ethanol a year from 700,000 tonnes of sugar beet.

British Sugar says that its ethanol will be between 60 and 70% cleaner than fossil fuels on a ‘well-to-wheel’ basis. The well-to-wheel method of assessing how clean a fuel is takes in to account the CO2 emissions resulting from the entire lifecycle of the fuel, instead of just considering what happens when it is burnt in the car’s engine and so what comes out of the exhaust.

This factory is particularly important because it means that UK petrol stations and supermarkets will be able to start selling British-made biofuel. Until now, most of the ethanol sold in the UK has been imported from Brazil. The CO2 emissions arising from the transportation of the biofuel from Brazil to the UK obviously increases its well-to-wheel CO2 impact. In contrast, British Sugar’s ethanol is made entirely from sugar beet that is grown in the three counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. One company which will be selling some of the fuel is Morrisons supermarket, which sells bioethanol E85 at five of its stores in East Anglia. This means that the fuel will not only be ‘grown’ and distilled in the East of England, but also sold and consumed locally.

One reason that British Sugar’s bioethanol is so clean is because the factory employs sophisticated combined heat and power (CHP) processes which utilise excess energy from its conventional sugar factory to power the production of the bioethanol, instead of simply wasting that energy. In addition, the site exports 50 m/W of electricity back to the National Grid, which is used to power 200,000 houses in Norfolk. As if that is not impressive enough, excess CO2 gas and hot water is also used from its manufacturing site to cultivate between 70 and 100 million tomatoes each year, making British Sugar one of the biggest tomato growers in the UK!

Lord Rooker, a Minister from the Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was present at the official opening of the site. He told the Green Car Guide that he does not expect the Government to provide any financial support to those companies investing in future UK biofuel production. Even more controversial were his comments that he does not think the Government will provide any financial incentives to low carbon car buyers either.

Jonathan Nash, Managing Director of Saab Great Britain, which offers a ‘BioPower’ flex-fuel variant across its whole range, expresses his frustration at this approach. “I am surprised by Lord Rooker’s response,” he says. “It is already evident that in order for consumers to make the right choice, there should be no cost penalty. In this respect, the government does need to support this emerging environmentally-friendly technology. There are examples from all over the world – not least from Saab’s home market of Sweden – showing that financial encouragement is the key to changing consumer behaviour, especially when the technology is relatively new and when you’re dealing with expensive purchases like new cars.”

Meanwhile, British Sugar’s parent company, Associated British Foods (ABF) is soon to start construction of another bioethanol factory, this one in Hull, north-east England. This £200 million factory will be a joint venture between ABF, oil giant BP and US chemical firm DuPont. Instead of sugar beet, it will use some of the UK’s surplus grain supplies to make 330,000 tonnes of the fuel each year – enough for one third of the cars in the UK to run on 5% biofuel.