According to green group Transport & Environment (T&E), there are only enough e-fuels to power 2% of cars on the road by 2035, the year governments have agreed to terminate sales of polluting cars and vans.
E-fuel production will be still in its infancy by the time the European Parliament is planning to phase-out combustion engine models (ICES). Based on e-fuel industry forecasts, it is estimated that only 2% of the EU car fleet can run fully on e-fuels in 2035 – 5 million of the 287 million cars on European roads. Even if this existing fleet of cars shifted to hybrids, the number would only slightly increase to 3%.
These numbers of e-fuels (synthetic hydrocarbons, made from artificially combining hydrogen and CO2) are not only too little to cope with demand, but cannot be certified as 100% renewable. The number of cars that could run on synthetic fuels would be even less if only carbon neutral fuels were used. For e-fuels to be considered carbon-neutral, the electricity used to generate the hydrogen used in production of fuel and the fuel itself must come from 100% renewable energy sources and the CO2 be taken directly from the air. There is no requirement for e-fuels to be produced from 100% renewable sources and the technologies required to produce the e-fuels sustainably are not yet commercially available, therefore making it likely that the e-fuel plants would rely on carbon emitting energy in some part of the production process. This risk increases as the demand for e-fuels increases.
It is unrealistic for the industry to import climate neutral e-fuels on a high scale, T&E claims, because production plants and global standards do not exist to certify synthetic fuels. Importing e-fuels from other countries could also harm efforts to decarbonise their own transport and power sectors, especially in less developed countries.
A second issue is the additional renewable electricity capacity may not be deployed quickly enough to match demand for e-fuel and hydrogen production. E-fuels have a very low efficiency and require large amounts of renewables to be produced. The amount of e-fuel that could be created economically and, in a carbon, neutral way is likely to be limited, and therefore not meet the demand of the sector. The high demand for e-fuels would also distract from its existing uses. A more sensible option would be to use other sustainable methods to fuel cars (such as electricity) and prioritise the limited supply of e-fuels where there are no better alternatives – such as shipping or aviation.
Yoann Gimbert, e-mobility analyst at T&E, said: “In Europe, e-fuels for cars would suck up renewable electricity needed for the rest of the economy. It is also naïve to assume that developing countries, some of whom lack power for their basic needs, would spare their renewables for e-fuels in Europe’s cars just to suit the vested interests of engine makers. Synthetic fuels that are made in Europe should be prioritised for planes and ships, most of which cannot use batteries to decarbonise.
It is estimated 5 times more renewable energy is required to drive a car fuelled by e-fuel than is needed to charge a battery for an electric car to travel the same distance. T&E also predicts that for 10% of the EU car fleet to run on e-fuel, a wind farm 3 times the size of Luxemburg would be required.
Battery powered electric cars are considered far more environmentally friendly than synthetic fuels. By 2030 an electric car will emit 53% less CO2 over its lifecycle than a car running on e-fuels. The e-fuels burnt in cars also do not reduce toxic emissions of Nitrous Oxide. Tests have shown that as many nitrous oxide emissions are released burning fossil fuels as burning synthetic fuels – one of the largest sources of air pollution. The cost of running a car on e-fuel will also be significantly higher than running a battery electric car (BEVs), €10,000 more over 5 years. Using renewable energy to directly charge electric vehicles is the most efficient way to reduce losses from production to use, combatting the substantial low-efficiency of the intensive processes used to make e-fuels and transportation.
According to T&E, the possibility that e-fuels could be the large-scale answer to Europe’s existing car fleet is not founded on reality and has been described as the ‘trojan horse’ for engine-makers, oil companies, and automotive suppliers to suspend the transition to using net-zero emission. It raises the question of why e-fuels are being advocated over BEVs, when BEVs already exist and are sold in their millions.