Green Cars, Motorsports, E85 and COP15
By Charles Oladeji.
COP 15, The United Nations Climate Change Conference currently taking places in Copenhagen (7-18 December) will use some 40 flex-fuel V70 and S80 Volvos amongst other diesel low carbon emission cars to shuttle officials around. Flex-fuel refers to an engine power-train that can use both high octane and bio-fuels like Ethanol (CH3CH2OH), thus, allowing a choice between good and (necessary) evil where the environment is concerned.
I’m fascinated by the science, research and opportunities of Biofuels in both mobility and motorsports. I’m also a fan of Drayson Racing, not so much for its racing accomplishments, but rather, the spirit in which it participates in motorsport.
In the TV Series ‘Licence to Le Mans’ I observed (Lord) Paul Drayson embrace a passion of motorsports beyond being a simple “petrol-head”. It’s a passion I fully comprehend. To my utter disappointment, it’s more than I can say for Tiff Needell.
Although I still consider him the “thinking man’s Jeremy Clarkson” I’m disappointed in Tiff. While on assignment last November, I covered the MPH/ Top Gear Live Show at Earls Court London. With Fifth Gear having lost out to Top Gear and being subsequently dropped from Channel 5, I found dear Tiff in the middle of a small group of on lookers at the MPH auto hall about to begin a consumer warm up show.
To my chagrin, Tiff launched into a coy pseudo-right-winged-populist rant against Al Gore and Climate Change science of the type Rush Limbaugh would have applauded. I assumed his being surrounded by Ferraris, Spykers and Zondas must have gone to head.
I wouldn’t have minded if I hadn’t seen him sometime earlier in “Licence to Le Mans” enthusiastically talking up Cellulosic E85 and its green credentials. I thought to myself “dude, I just saw you waxing lyrical with Paul Drayson, even your brother was on the show, what the hell happened to you?” I left while he was still speaking.
I, on the hand, moved by Paul Drayson’s determination to drive at Le Mans with only one good eye, wrote to Drayson Racings’ PR Officer requesting a job. In my application I wrote something to the effect of “my greatest reward would be the sensory delight of Sebring, Leguna Seca, Lime Rock or St Petersburg (Florida)”. I was gracious turned down, but I remain a true believer in Lord Draysons’ mission, even more so since Drayson Racing moved up to the LMP1 class in the ALMS.
But despite my support for Drayson Racing, I’m nervy about the proliferation of Ethanol while it’s being touted as a panacea to the planets fuel problems. E85 is the most popular form of commercial Ethanol combining 85% Biofuel with 15% fossil fuel.
The Indycar Racing League prides itself on being run on 100% Ethanol. E85 is either being adopted or seriously discussed at the top level of European and American motorsports. However, I have some subjective reasons to be weary Biofuels, especially E85. In fact, I consider the unregulated expansion of E85 beyond motorsports quite ominous.
Unlike Cellulosic Biomass Ethanol which uses organic waste from trees and leaves or US Ethanol produced from Maze fermentation, Brazilian Ethanol is a product of sugarcane, and is therefore cheaper to produce on mass.
I love refined sugar, but absolute loath sugarcane. In Africa you’d see sugarcane being sold in its long thin bamboo shaped form along the golden dusty roadside. You’d order some sticks, cut off the bamboo skin and chew the insides, supposedly enjoying the juicy sucrose before spitting out the remains. I hated it.
Furthermore, I’m uncomfortable with the role of sugarcane plantations in history. As a youngster, one particular image always stuck with me. It was an old drawing of Nubian slaves, chained at the waist, with two long poles on either side of their heads in a single file. What struck me most was the terrified look on the slaves eyes who had holes drilled through their upper and lower lips and padlock inserted through. I was informed by someone that the lips had been padlocked to prevent the slaves from eating the sugarcane on the plantations.
Whether this image was a caricature or not I still rank sugarcane plantations amongst some of the worst excesses of mankind. I fear those excesses, involving slave labour and the flagrant abuse of human rights will re-emerge through a modern day South American ‘sugar-rush’.
In 2007 Bloomberg TV aired a programme called “Deadly Brew- The Human Toll of Ethanol”. Unfortunately the programme seemed like blatant propaganda by an unscrupulous American business network in the pay of the Oil Companies. As such, some of the more salient points involving the human cost of South American Ethanol were lost in translation. The entire focus of the documentary was on Brazil’s Ethanol industry.
Brazil is at the forefront of sugarcane Ethanol production. It has the land, raw material and expertise. Its delegates at COP 15 are on the hard sell, and claim ‘Biofuels are the only real alternative to fossil fuels’. Brazil is reputed to have reduced CO2 emissions by some 800 tons over 30 years. Furthermore practically all cars in Brazil run on Biofuel.
Brazilian former Grand Prix and IndyCar favourite Emerson Fittipaldi is a great proponent of Ethanol; he’s also heavily invested in the industry. People such as Steve Case, Co founder of AOL and Vinod Khosla founder of Sun Microsystems have invested in Brazils’ Ethanol industry (Brenco) since 2006.
Lula da Silva is an Ethanol evangelist claiming “Biofuels are the effective weapon in the fight against global warming”. Yet, things are never that simple when one is trying to combine the needs of the climate lobby with the expressed needs capitalism.
If the current amount of land in Brazil dedicated to Ethanol is about 4%, should it double or triple in future, it will also require fertilizers to grow more sugarcane for production. Unless the Nitrogen needed in the fertilizer is also produced in carbon free industries the whole purpose is of Carbon reduction will itself be reduced to profit making.
If singular profit motives override the plural purpose of CO2 reduction, then we are all back we started. The harsh realities of Ethanol production will be kept as secret from the public as the location of your local Chinese sweat-shop.
So, despite a clamour for Biofuels, I would welcome a sporadic and limited introduction of Ethanol in motorsports, before gradually moving onto mobility at large. If COP 15 gets involved, it should impose regulatory safe guards, and not simply give in to Brazilian interests. Otherwise, we could all end up directly or indirectly on a sugarcane plantation.