Can E-fuels save traditional mobility?

Readers of this blog know of my scepticism towards EV’s, not as a concept but as a solution to climate-related issues. I wrote about this in a recent post you can find here, so I won’t repeat myself. To be fair, things are moving in the right direction at least with regards to some of the issues raised, as I also highlighted in my recent post about Mercedes’s new EQS (see here). It does however remain the case that even if EV manufacturers become climate-neutral in their production, as long as the country they produce in is not 100% based on green energy, what they achieve is basically nothing put pushing the dirty energy consumption on to the next guy.

Even the steel is said to be climate neutral in a few years in the production of the EQS and other MB EV’s

There is however another BIG issue around EV’s that no one seems really keen to talk about, namely what on earth we’re supposed to do with the millions of fully functional cars we currently have on our streets, if the plan is to roll out EV’s for all? Don’t laugh, the question risks becoming very real as various European governments start fixing end dates for the sale of new combustion engines. A logical next step is then to start discussing bans on existing cars. But what is the plan for millions of existing and fully functional cars, and even more, what is the carbon footprint of destroying millions of existing cars and building new EV’s? Funnily, this is an aspect that is completely absent from the discussion.

I’m of an optimistic nature so I’d like to think that realism will prevail in the end – a realism that for me needs to be based on a future for traditional mobility – especially (and I’m finally getting to the topic of this week’s post), since traditional mobility doesn’t necessarily mean traditional fuels going forward. The development of so called e-fuels is progressing rapidly, and this week we’ll look at whether they are the solution that will allow for a more reasonable solution to the issue of traditional, personal mobility.

A new 12-cylinder will never be built, but it would be nice if we could still save the old ones!

Electrofuels, also called e-fuels or synthetic fuels, are produced exclusively from renewable energy. Without going into the technical details, in the case of car fuel it means producing hydrogen from clean energy, to which CO2, extracted from other sources, is added. The result is emission-free hydrocarbon, and the resulting synthetic fuels are no technically different to conventional fuels. They can thus power the same cars without modifications and also use the existing fueling infrastructure. A further big advantage is that e-fuels don’t compete with food production, a big problem for example with ethanol production that isn’t very compatible with the world’s need to feed another 3bn people until 2050, using less resources. Disadvantages? Unfortunately, there are a few, and they’re rather big.

Firstly, e-fuels don’t solve the issue of clean energy going to its use as long as the full economy doesn’t use clean energy, as you’re basically just pushing the emission onto someone else. As we’ll see below the clean energy used for e-fuels is produced very far away and thus not cannibalizing on anything else, but this is not a viable, long-term concep. Secondly, e-fuels offer far less efficiency than electricity, as long as electricity production is local. This is however an important point given that, as noted, most countries are still not 100% green in their energy production. So either you push the emission problem onto the next user as noted above, or, and this is not unrealistic, we’ll start importing for example solar energy from a sunny place such as the Middle East. If that becomes the case, then hydrogen all of a sudden becomes very competitive in terms of efficiency as it can be transported much more easily. Thirdly and lastly, as you will have guessed, the production process for e-fuels is far from cheap, and it will still take time and probably also some further technological innovations to solve both the cost and thereby also the required scale issue.

Wind turbines of Project Haru Oni off Chile’s coast

A number of automakers are looking into e-fuels as an alternative or complement to EV’s, none more than Porsche which currently runs a project called Haru Oni off the coast of Chile (where it’s very windy). They do so together with notably Siemens, and the logic for Porsche is that because of the points above and others, conventional electricity alone will not be enough to move to a clean car fleet fast enough, in view of other – rising – electricity needs in the world. The project is still in its early days but by removing CO2 out of the air through wind power and combining it with hydrogen, it aims to produced 130.000 litres of fuel next year, and 550 million litres in 2026. As a reference, around 23bn litres of fuel were consumed in Germany last year so although a lot, it would take many more such installations to get anywhere near the volume required to make this a viable alternative on a larger scale. The cost so far remains a mystery, but it’s clear that it’s nowhere near being a reasonable consumer alternative at this stage.

So at least for now, it remains at best unclear whether e-fuels will give a future to combustion engines. It’s however good to see that some thinking around fuel alternatives is going on and who knows, as so often before, maybe there will be other innovations along the way that allow for even better solutions in the end. It would however be high time for some realism to enter the discussion around EV’s and our future mobility. It would also be desirable with some political willingness to engage in discussions on where the electricity is supposed to come from in the emission-free world, when many countries in parallel wish to phase out nuclear? This can’t possibly be something only a few engineers at Porsche have thought about? And finally, perhaps someone can tell us what the plan is for the many millions of fully-functioning cars in the world? Reality is slightly more complex than what the current debate would have you believe and the sooner we’re mature enough to engage in a difficult but highly necessary discssion on it, the better.

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