© Eni
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Since last February, Eni – a multinational energy company – started distributing in over fifty of its Italian diesel retail stations HVOlution, its petroleum-free diesel. HVO stays for hydrotreated vegetable oil. This biofuel can be produced from waste, residue oils, and animal fats. 

Germany and Italy – where the automotive industry represents respectively five and six percent of the gross domestic product – are opposing the EU’s ban on the sale of combustion engines from 2035. The bill proposes that all new cars and vans sold in the EU should have a 100 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. Berlin and Rome are asking to revise the proposal to include electricity-based fuels (e-fuels) and biofuels.

German transport minister Volker Wissing officially called on the European Commission to enable the use of alternative fuels to achieve climate goals. His Italian homolog Gilberto Pichetto Fratin echoed him, stating that “electric cars cannot be the only solution’’ and that “renewable fuels should be considered as an equally clean option.”

What are biofuels and e-fuels?

Biofuels are biomass, cooking oil, or animal fats-derived fuels. HVO, ethanol, and biogas are all combustibles from biomass revalorization. E-fuels – also known as synthetic fuels – are made using renewable electricity to split hydrogen from water and then using carbon dioxide.

In the case of Eni’s HVO, the company reports emissions to be reduced by 70-90 percent compared to regular diesel. Most importantly, it is a drop-in fuel that can be used with the current infrastructure and the latest diesel engines.

Pichetto Fratin also made this argument to support the regulation change. “These fuels will reduce emissions without asking citizens to spend too much,” he underlined. Yet, the production of both biofuels and e-fuels is still limited. HVOlution costs about €1.90 per liter, and it will be available in over 150 gas stations in Italy by March.

Scalability issues

According to Laura Buffet, director of the energy team at Transport & Environment (T&E) – the leading European mobility NGO – there are more aspects to consider. “We need to distinguish between the different origins of HVO, produced from vegetable oils like rapeseed and palm oil – or waste-based feedstocks like used cooking oils,” she clarifies.

“Producing crop biofuels triggers indirect deforestation and causes negative environmental and social impacts in countries like Brazil and Indonesia. For us, these are not sustainable and should not be supported. Whereas used cooking oil does not represent a problem when it’s not already used for something else, Europe’s pool of used cooking oil is small. We are already importing around 75 percent of it to produce biofuels”, Buffet explains.

In her and T&E’s vision, biofuels are not a scalable option. Furthermore, if the European pool does not accommodate the demand, importing from non-EU countries limits the ability of these countries to decarbonize their economies. “There is room to increase the collection of used cooking oil in Europe, but only at the margin, and the quantities would not satisfy the demand. Investment plans in HVO by oil companies will result in a total capacity that is four times higher than the amount of used cooking oil and animal fats that can be sustainably sourced in the EU”, Buffet adds.

© T&E

Laura Buffet

Analyst at Transport & Environment

She focuses on making European fuel policy more sustainable.

Sourcing feedstock

Eni reconverted two of its Italian oil plants – in Venice and in Gela – into biorefineries to accommodate HVO production. The company claims the two have been palm oil free since last year.  Last December, the EU Parliament struck a deal to ban imports of deforestation-related goods – such as coffee, soy, and beef. The law requires companies to produce a due diligence statement to show that their supply chains are not contributing to forest destruction before they sell goods into the EU. Since January, Italy has banned producing biofuels and electricity using palm and soy oil.

Eni started agri-hubs in Kenya and Congo to supply its production factories to grow crops to produce oil for the fuels. Castor beans, croton, and brassica are among the cultivated crops, as the plantations are intended not to compete with the food chain. Eni also said it chose abandoned or degraded areas to locate the agri-hubs. The energy firm aims to cover 35 percent of its biorefinery supply with this agri-feedstock by 2025.

A new study by T&E shows that Europe currently uses land the size of Ireland on crops for biofuels. The research demonstrates that this land could feed 120 million people or,  if given back to nature, absorb twice as much CO2 as is supposedly saved by powering cars with biofuels. According to their analysis, using an area equivalent to just 2.5 percent of this land for solar panels would produce the same amount of energy. 


E-fuels come with downsides. Producing a liter of synthetic fuel requires up to 27 kWh of electricity – five times more than using electricity directly. E-fuels can be produced using renewable sources, yet coal and fossil fuels are still burnt to synthesize them. Electric cars reach 80 percent efficiency, while e-fuels achieve 10-15 percent. In other words, batteries make better use of energy. 

Among the companies betting on synthetic fuels, there is Porsche. The German high-end car manufacturer announced the opening of an e-fuel pilot plant in Chile. “Porsche is committed to a double-e path: e-mobility and eFuels as complementary technologies,” stated Barbara Frenkel, a member of the company’s executive board for procurement.

Porsche’s e-fuels pilot plant in Chile – © Porsche

T&E defined e-fuels as a “bluff” based on a survey conducted by Concawe – which carries research on environmental problems related to the oil industry. Synthetic fuels will be able to power as little as five million European passenger cars in 2035, which are esteemed to be 287 million by that time. Further research by the NGO underlined how e-fuels powered cars provide minimal CO2 savings compared to battery electric ones over their lifecycle.

Discussions to follow

Overall, biofuels do not convince Buffet. “In our view, it is much better to focus on renewable electricity for direct use in electric vehicles or to produce hydrogen-based fuels for sectors harder to decarbonize, like aviation and shipping,” she adds. The NGO will ask the Commission to phase out all crop-based fuels and recognize the competing uses of waste streams with other industries. 

Following Germany and Italy’s opposition – joined by Bulgaria and Poland – the final vote on the combustion engine ban has been postponed. More discussion will follow, and it remains to be seen whether or not alternative fuels will be included in the directive.