As the world continues to grow hotter due to fossil fuel emissions, momentum is building to address the greatest challenge of our time: man-made climate change.
In the wake of new pledges made in Glasgow, urgent collective action is needed in sectors such as transport, where emissions are expected to see a rebound after a drastic decrease in transport activity during the Covid-19 pandemic, reports the European Environmental Agency.
But which is the wisest path to carbon neutrality in transportation: electrification, hydrogen, biofuels, or synthetic fuels?
“These should not be seen as competing technologies, but as supplementary ones. The climate crisis is such an acute problem that we need every available solution as quickly as possible. Each one offers different advantages,” states Dr Tobias Block, strategic head of the eFuel Alliance, a platform with more than 150 member companies driving the market ramp-up of hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels.
What are e-fuels?
Electrofuels, or e-fuels, are an emerging category of drop-in fuels made from renewable energy. To produce e-fuels, renewable electricity is harnessed to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then combined with carbon dioxide – either captured from industrial emissions or directly from the air – to produce hydrocarbons such as petrol, diesel, methane, or aviation fuel.
“There is undoubtedly going to be a huge market and multiple applications for e-fuels, as they can be used everywhere fossil fuels are used today, from transport to the chemical industry,” states Dr Block.
He adds that the greatest potential for e-fuels exists in aviation and marine transport, where payloads are large and electric propulsion is more difficult to achieve.
But also in the road sector – which the European Environmental Agency reports as accounting for 72% of all EU transport emissions – e-fuels are the perfect supplement for electrification, opines Block.
“Electric mobility makes a lot of sense with low payloads, but there are also road transport customers with long ranges and high payloads that need a climate-neutral solution.”
There is no silver bullet to reduce transport emissions in short-term and therefore all sustainable means must be taken to use. In addition to advanced biofuels, eFuels will provide options to reduce emissions of the existing fleet and provide most sustainable options to the hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as trucking, maritime and aviation
Sudden goodbye to 1.4 billion cars?
Being a drop-in solution, e-fuels offer an incontestable advantage: compatibility with existing infrastructure and fleet. Given as there are more than 1.4 billion vehicles around the world currently powered by internal combustion engines, the ability to address existing fleet stock is a compelling argument in favour of wide-scale adoption of e-fuels.
“With e-fuels, you don’t have to build new filling stations or invent a whole new system like you do for electric cars. It’s a solution that suits existing fleet, and not only cars, but also ships,” Block describes.
The main disadvantage of e-fuels is their comparatively low overall efficiency rate due to the many energy conversions required.
“But this issue is offset by the fact that e-fuel is easy to store and transport in existing infrastructure. We can go to the best production sites – a wind farm in Patagonia produces four times as much power as one in Germany – and we can easily transport e-fuel by pipeline or vessel. This flexibility compensates for energy losses,” explains Block.
The urgency of the climate crisis begs the question: Why aren’t e-fuels already being embraced on a wide scale? What is delaying their breakthrough?
Dr Block explains that there are many pilots in progress, but larger industrial solutions are still years away. “The main problem is that we lack a business case because political frameworks provide no incentives for large-scale investment,” he laments.
He and the eFuel Alliance are lobbying actively to bring various legislative discrepancies to the attention of decision-makers in Brussels.
“For starters, e-fuels are currently taxed like fossil fuels, which is ridiculous. If the EU wants to support climate-neutral technology, e-fuels need fairer taxation treatment,” he asserts.
Another problem is the EU’s excessively narrow focus on “zero-emission” vehicles, notes Block: “Only GHGs from the tailpipe are considered, whereas emissions occurring at earlier stages are being ignored.”
Let fossils rest in peace
The first large volumes of e-fuels are expected to surface over the coming decade, with sports car manufacturer Porsche and Siemens Energy having joined forces to build an e-fuel plant in Patagonia, which is expected to produce 550 million litres by 2026.
But, while it is accepted that e-fuels will be indispensable for long-term energy storage in the maritime and chemical industries, an ideological debate is still raging concerning the future of road transport.
The EU Commission has proposed that all new passenger cars must be electric from 2035 onward, and if this policy is adopted, e-fuels will have a limited presence on Europe’s roads.
“We’ll have to wait and see what is decided, but it would be risky and unnecessary for Europe to stick with just one technology.”
The main message Dr Block wishes to convey is one of urgency. “Europe has a unique opportunity to develop a new business model for the fuel industry, but it all depends on whether we can create a convincing business case,” he observes.
“The only solution to climate neutrality is to let fossils rest in peace, and we shouldn’t waste time discussing when, where, and whether we should invest in hydrogen, electricity, or other solutions. Every investment is needed without delay – the money will not be wasted.”