It may be hard to see a great deal of environmental advantage in racecars screaming around a track, but that’s just what the backers of a new project are hoping to achieve. The European energy giant E.ON, the automaker Vokswagen and LRF, the Federation of Swedish Farmers have joined forces to enter a stable in the 2009 Swedish Touring Car Championship (STCC).

The venture will extend for three years using Volkswagen Scirocco cars in a version modified for the STCC version to run on biogas. “The aim of our investment is to demonstrate the potential of biogas – Sweden’s most climate-smart fuel,” says Håkan Buskhe, CEO of E.ON.

Unlike petrol and diesel, biogas is a renewable fuel made from manure or sewage, municipal waste, agricultural waste and energy crops. Biogas not only releases far less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, but it also produces smaller quantities of other pollutants such as heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen and particulates.

Methane: a powerful greenhouse gas

One of the gases produced by the decomposition of manure is methane gas, which is estimated to trap 20 to 30 times as much atmospheric heat as carbon dioxide, and reducing methane releases into the air is a crucial element of the fight to limit global warming. The relatively simple digestion process that produces biogas converts a foul-smelling manure pile from a methane-emitting climate villain to high-quality vehicle fuel. And digestion doesn’t reduce the value of manure as an agricultural fertilizer. The important substance for plant growth is nitrogen, which remains in place after extraction of biogas.

This leads to further environmental advantages. By reducing the weight and volume of fertilizer, biogas extraction cuts down on transportation pollution. And increasing the amount of fertilizer available from composted waste reduces the need for artificial fertilizers, which release the extremely powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Racing proves biogas performance

“We’re in the gas business,” says Håkan Buskhe, CEO of E.ON Nordic AB. “We see a future where natural gas is successively replaced by biogas, an energy source that will never run out and that also helps address the problem of methane leakage from agriculture.”

Håkan Buskhe in E.ON's STCC car.

Håkan Buskhe in E.ON's STCC car.

The racing platform is mainly a means to help E.ON with communication, Buskhe says: “People often believe that the best environmental choice means sacrificing quality or performance compared with traditional fuels. The racecourse is the best place for us to show that clean fuels are every bit as good as the older products.”

Toward climate targets

The Swedish government has set a target of a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Several regulations are intended to help society reach that goal. Various taxes on carbon dioxide releases are central to the Swedish approach, but planners also aim to implement an electricity certification scheme that will re-distribute resources away from non-renewable power sources. This will benefit biogas development.

Some advocates call for a double certificate credit for biogas since it offers double benefits. Legislators have yet to embrace that idea, but its merit is apparent.

Other renewable energy resources exist, but most of these lay claim to large areas of arable land—which would otherwise be available for food production. Critics note that this will likely lead to higher food process, especially in developing countries.

Because biogas is primarily produced from agricultural residues, sewage and other waste products, it doesn’t have the same effect, but on the contrary results in inexpensive, high-quality fertilizer that can actually lower food prices.

Article published in August, 2009