Image: volkerhoffmann11, YouTube excerpt
Germans rate respect for having a national identity as eco-conscious people. Should it therefore come as a surprise that Germans are not embracing the advent of E10, a 10% ethanol-gasoline mixture, which has replaced normal gas at the pumps on a mandated deadline? It certainly surprised government ministers, who apparently did not foresee the chaos: people lining up to pay even more at the super pump while the E10 is neglected, boycotts spreading rampantly, and a media circus of accusations and explanations. The reasons for the unexpected reactions offer salient lessons in both biofuels and governing. First a little history: the German government discussed requiring E10 as early as 2008, but dropped the idea, partly due to the fact that 3 million automobiles on the roads could not safely use the more corrosive ethanol mixture. In April of 2009, the EU passed a directive requiring that EU Member States must achieve 10% renewable fuel usage in the transport sector by 2020, leaving open how that should be achieved. Late in 2010, the German government implemented a new tactic: they required the petroleum companies to meet minimum ethanol quotas in their overall fuel sales, or face penalties.
The cause of the uproar, which has dominated German headlines this week, stems mainly from two issues. The main cause for tanking super instead of E10 lies in the fact that German car owners are uninformed and scared: will E10 use damage their car and/or invalidate their warranties? Warranties in Germany are almost sacred. People maintain meticulous maintenance records and are extremely sensitive to anything that might blotch their car's perfect history. While experts estimate that less than 3% of the cars on the road today could be damaged by E10, nearly 100% of car owners remain insecure.
The second issue, which definitely contributes to the massive outpouring of media fuel on the boycott fire, rests with the backdoor implementation of the E10 goals. By putting the oil companies on the hook for achieving the goals, the government neglected their responsibility to gain public acceptance and support for the ethanol initiative. Hastily called "summits," reacting to the vehement public and media response to E10, have done more to shift blame than to address consumer concerns.
Those who follow the boycotts in detail will see a multitude of additional issues. These includes concerns that the E10 does not contribute much to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, that dedicating ethanol to fuel use encourages an industrial-agricultural complex, that food costs (never mind beer costs) rise when foodstuffs are diverted to fuels, and even that the German government secretly covets greater tax intake due to the sale of greater volumes of a fuel that gives less kilometers per liter.
So where will it all end up? The German government is unlikely to back down on renewable targets. Educational campaigns to improve acceptance, coupled with the high price of super, will lead to the public becoming comfortable with and adopting the new fuel mixture. As refineries reach the limits of their capability to supply high-octane, ethanol-free fuel, consumers will be forced to choose E10 or stay home. That may make this a tempest in a tea pot, but it certainly leaves behind a lesson on how not to bring biofuels into the consumer marketplace.