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A woman fills her tank with E10 gasoline in Berlin on March 4. Delivery of the fuel, which is a blend of gasoline and 10 percent ethanol, has stopped because consumers are not buying enough of it.
A woman fills her tank with E10 gasoline in Berlin on March 4. Delivery of the fuel, which is a blend of gasoline and 10 percent ethanol, has stopped because consumers are not buying enough of it. Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The Germans have a famous passion for automobiles, but it has run smack into European Union directives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. So rather than ask German drivers to give up those highly tuned Mercedes or BMWs, the government is offering them "E10" — gas mixed with 10 percent ethanol, produced from corn and wheat.
But there are two problems: German car lovers are refusing to buy it, and environmentalists say it's no greener than regular gas.
At a gas station in Berlin, Franziska Muller fills up her Volkswagen Polo on her way home from work. Its shiny, waxed finish mirrors her immaculately put-together business attire. And even though it's cheaper, the new 10 percent ethanol gas is not something she'd risk putting into her car, the 32-year-old says.
"You bet I'm worried about my car — most of all about the motor," Muller says. "Nobody can guarantee that it won't get damaged. Of course, it means I pay a bit more for gas, but for now there's no way I'm touching the stuff."
Muller is hardly alone. The German Automobile Association says that some 85 percent of Germans are refusing to buy the biofuel, despite the fact that it is about 8 percent cheaper by the gallon than ordinary super unleaded gasoline.
"Anybody who wants to introduce a new fuel in Germany will always have a problem, because Germans are car crazy," says Frank Bruhning of the German Biofuels Association.
Bruhning insists that the public's extreme lack of enthusiasm has mainly been a problem of marketing and that the biofuel is, in fact, compatible with finely tuned German engines.
John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images
Greenpeace activists display a banner reading: "Stop E10! Fuel-efficient cars instead of harmful biofuel!" outside the economy ministry in Berlin on March 8. The ministry was holding an E10 biofuel summit that day.
Greenpeace activists display a banner reading: "Stop E10! Fuel-efficient cars instead of harmful biofuel!" outside the economy ministry in Berlin on March 8. The ministry was holding an E10 biofuel summit that day. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images
"There is no problem whatsoever with using E10 in your car," he says. "It's safe to use biofuels. It's good for the environment because it reduces CO2 emissions, and it replaces fossil fuels, of which we have less and less in the world."
Concerns About E10
But German consumers are not convinced. They say there are no guarantees the gas won't harm engines. Germany's attempt to up the amount of ethanol in fuel from 5 percent to 10 percent has proven such a tremendous commercial flop that gas companies in Germany have already drastically reduced production and distribution of E10.
The fuel was introduced as a measure to meet the EU's energy directive — which stipulates that 10 percent of transport fuel must come from renewable sources by the year 2020 as part of the bid to reduce overall energy consumption.
Meanwhile, environmental groups say ecological damage is another reason to steer clear of E10. They say the energy used to make and transport the fuel — as well as the pesticides and water used in the production of crops for ethanol — are just as damaging to the environment as filling up with regular.
Werner Reh, a traffic expert with Friends of the Earth Germany, charges that crop-derived fuels are also boosting global food prices.
"Why should we invest in biomass to grow for the tank instead of the plate?" Reh asks. "If people are hungry, we can't really afford — and we don't think it's ethical — to do that."
But Germany still needs to find a way to meet the EU's clean-energy directive. The German Green Party is calling for the wider introduction of wind farms and electric cars, but as the biofuel industry's Bruhning points out, the alternatives are not yet available in sufficient numbers.
"Right now, the only alternative that's existing is biofuels," he says. "And the German government hopes that [by] 2020 we'll have 1 million electric cars. But in total we have 50 million cars, so it's just one-fiftieth."
In the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis, more and more Germans have joined the long-active chorus of citizens calling for the country to phase out its nuclear power plants by at least 2021. So with more Germans saying "no thanks" both to nuclear power and biofuels, carbon dioxide emissions are likely to increase in Europe's largest economy before they decrease.
In fact, German companies are now building several new coal-fired power plants to help meet energy demand.