The positive signals coming from EV sales and charge points contrast with the lack of progress in finding alternative fuels for aviation, shipping and trucks. Cornelius Claeys runs through the prospects for biofuels and hydrogen to power long-haul transport. Biofuels are already used as a substitute for fossil fuels, and EV uptake will usefully free them for fuelling heavy transport. But as decarbonisation ambitions rise the pressure on scarce biofuel feedstocks will only increase, limiting its supply, while the search for more sustainable feedstocks is proving elusive. Meanwhile the hydrogen economy is only now being created. Though this year saw it win substantial backing, it still needs costs to come down and the infrastructure to be built. Policy makers in the EU and around the world will have to bear all this in mind when setting emission reduction targets for long-haul travel.
The transport sector is the largest climate laggard in Europe. While emissions from EU industry, electricity, buildings and agriculture all decreased by 20-40% the past thirty years, transport emissions went up by a third.
Electric vehicles (EVs) have long been hailed as the holy grail for decarbonising the sector. They emit less carbon than most alternatives, and the gap will widen as countries phase out coal while increasing the share of renewable electricity.
The issue has been that actual EV uptake remained a marginal phenomenon. Less than 0.5% of European cars was electrically chargeable in 2019 and most of these were concentrated in a handful of small Northwestern countries. This is changing. Europe-wide EVs sales are estimated at 12% in October, up from 10% between July-September 2020, 7% the preceding three months and just 2% a year before that.
EV cost are dropping, charge points rising
Although 9 out of 10 cars sold in Europe still depend on internal combustion engines, the exponential increase in EV market shares is a true game changer. Two historical barriers for large scale road electrification – a price disadvantage and lack of charging infrastructure – now seem largely out of the way. Aided by benefits of scale and COVID-subsidies, the cost of ownership in many EU countries is now lower for EVs than diesels.
Charging stations are mushrooming across the continent, growing by a yearly average of 40% in the past eight years. The most rapid growth is witnessed in the fast charging segment, some of which can add 350 km driving range in under 20 minutes. Already there are more EV recharging points than gasoline stations.
The Commission targets another five-fold increase over the next five years. EU legislation will oblige carmakers to half average fleet emissions between 2021-2030. Many cities have announced all-out diesel bans in the shorter term. With such strong incentives on multiple fronts, it seems a largely electric passenger car fleet may not be a pipedream after all.
…but poor prospects for batteries in aviation, shipping, trucks
Electrification is not nearly within sight in other transport segments. Batteries will remain too heavy for commercial flights for at least the next 20 years. Considering the average lifespan for planes is 30 years, most will still depend on current engine design by 2050. Long-haul shipping faces similar challenges, and it is unlikely any battery will have enough storage capacity to carry 200,000 tonnes across an ocean without recharging. Heavy-duty trucks also need much power for too long to be competitive with diesel at current battery technologies. Despite hopes of some that behavioral trends will be maintained after the current pandemic confinements, each of these three segments is forecast to see significant growth over the coming decades.
Biofuel’s problems: land use, emissions
Biofuels are not without controversy, and aspects of them have proven deeply problematic. Policies focused overly on volumetric blending resulted in a dependence on monoculture feedstocks, some of them charged with displacing food production or linked to deforestation. When indirect land use change is considered, palm oil biodiesel in particular can have a higher carbon-intensity than the diesel it displaces. Add a number of high-profile fraud scandals and it is no surprise some wonder whether the cure is worse than the disease.
Despite legitimate concerns, most forecast models that keep global warming within 1.5-2 °C count on significant biofuel uptake. Any litre of biofuel burned keeps an equal amount of fossil fuel in the ground. Carbon is also released when burning biofuels, but it was absorbed from the atmosphere recently and so the process can repeat itself without the cumulative damage fossil burning entails.
This does not make biofuels carbon neutral – energy is needed to convert the feedstocks into fuel. When using waste materials, up to 90% emission savings can be achieved. European crops like rapeseed oil generally score closer to 50%.
For all biofuels’ flaws, these savings explain why environmentally progressive jurisdictions like Sweden and California consume some of the highest shares of biofuels globally. Rolling out the infrastructure for electrification takes time. Biofuels can reduce emissions immediately where it is most needed.
Biofuel’s supply squeeze
The issue with biofuels is opposite to the challenge electrification faces. While additional EV uptake gets easier the more are already on the road, biofuel feedstock constraints mean supply gets tighter the more is consumed.
The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) mandates 10% renewable energy in the European road sector this year. Lacking scaled alternatives, the vast majority of this is met by biofuels, many of which can be counted twice towards the target because they are waste based. Even at this low share, the supply of waste feedstocks is already reaching its limits.
With palm oil being phased out, crop-feedstocks capped and the obligation for advanced material increasing, the pressure on scarce feedstocks will only increase. It is likely someday we will tap into a whole additional pool of sustainable feedstocks like plant stems, stalks and leaves, but to date these cellulosic volumes remain marginal and cost reductions have been much less impressive than for other renewable energy forms.
Biofuels for aviation, shipping, trucks
There is currently no RED II obligation for aviation or shipping to add biofuels to the mix, but any product consumed in these sectors can generate 20% more credits than in road use. Aviation may soon follow the road sector driven by national biofuel blending obligations. Norway became the first country globally to introduce a SAF obligation this year. Germany and Sweden most recently started legislative procedures for mandating yearly emission reductions to aviation fuel suppliers. Finland, the Netherlands, France and Spain are each in different legislative stages of introducing similar quota.
The Commission may announce an EU-wide SAF by early 2021. No such policies are in the pipeline for shipping, but the planned inclusion of the sector in the EU ETS would be a boon for marine biofuels. The trucking segment already has to comply with existing biofuel blending obligations and emission reduction obligations, both of which will further tighten the coming decade.
European policymakers have high hopes for green hydrogen. While currently this market is non-existent, the ambition is to increase it to 10 million tonnes by 2030. The basic reasoning makes sense. Supply and demand do not overlap for renewable electricity, so overcapacity will be built to serve the moments of peak demand. On a windy night or sunny Sunday, excess electricity could be stored through electrolysis in the form of green hydrogen. Electric energy can thus effectively be stored without discharge or the need for heavy batteries.
Hydrogen’s high energy density and low weight make it the prime candidate for decarbonising long-haul transport. Considering that new solar and wind additions are often cheaper already than non-renewable alternatives and prices will continue to fall, there is more reason for optimism than during previous hydrogen hypes.
Footnotes apply to hydrogen’s theoretical potential. Its green variant is still about 3 times more expensive than the equivalent from natural gas or coal. Conversion losses mean much more electricity is needed than the actual energy hydrogen can provide. High pressure storage comes with a long list of safety considerations. Planes and ships meant to run on it are yet to be designed, and the infrastructure is faced with a chicken and egg problem. Each of these disadvantages is expected to improve with time, but time is scarce.
Policies around the world
Europe is no longer alone in its climate ambitions. Policymakers in the US, Japan, South Korea and China have all announced climate neutrality goals in the past few months. Most of these governments will remain in place for the next few years and will have COVID-recovery funds and low interest rates at their disposal. The Green Deal has far-reaching implications for almost every policy domain, from energy to taxation and trade. All major directives related to transport will be revised in 2021. Delicate balances will need to be found between policy certainty and healthy competition in incentivising alternative fuels.
To reduce transport emissions by 90% within thirty years as the Green Deal sets out to do, all low-carbon pathways will be needed. Passenger cars are the low-hanging fruit. Fleet electrification, train revamps and smart urban planning can cut down their impact significantly. Aviation, shipping and trucking are thornier. Biofuels will need to turn over a new leaf and branch out to these new sectors. The seed is sown for green hydrogen, but policymakers cannot beat around the bush if it is to really take root. Some green momentum does not mean we are out of the woods, but a forest seems to emerge despite all the trees.
Cornelius Claeys is an Alternative Fuels Analyst at Stratas Advisors
Daniel Buschgert says
Dear Sir, thanks a lot for your article and the thereto related working hours. There are some minor comments to be made. You say “Supply and demand do not overlap for renewable electricity, so overcapacity will be built to serve the moments of peak demand. On a windy night or sunny Sunday, excess electricity could be stored through electrolysis in the form of green hydrogen. Electric energy can thus effectively be stored without discharge or the need for heavy batteries.” In order to produce hydrogen at reasonable affordable cost you need full load working hours >> 4000 hours per year. Otherwise the cost of capital have to be alloted to a low number cost units. At the same importance, interruption of production means to start the devices very often which subsequently leads to thermal stress of the materials. Such thermal stress usually ruins the equipment in a short time , hence woul require a lot more often investment in electrolyzers etc. Therefore one should produce hydrogen on places where the full work load hours are high – for example in Patagonia for wind or Saudi Arabia for PV. One should not expect that all competing companies will follow the idea of EC and produce – at hight costs – hydrogen in Europe.
You say “Hydrogen’s high energy density and low weight make it the prime candidate for decarbonising long-haul transport.” This statement has to be corrected since high energy density is given on a weight – but not volume – basis. In other words either you say high enery density is given per kilogramme than there is no weight advantage or you say low weight is given in gaseous form but than the energy density is by far lower than natural gas. It also has to be mentioned that hydrogen requires very high pressure levels to be transported in gasous form. Such high pressure levels require high weight for the cylinders in which the hydrogen is transported. The ratio of weight of cylinders in relation to the weight transported by these cylinders is still very high.
One more remark. Taking the feedstocks depictured in the graph as a basis one can easily figure out that the production cost of biofuels will be high on the other hand if such a mixture of feedstock will not be used there will be the question “tank or plate” or as previously used “eat or heat” regarding feedstocks. Remark: I am very much in favour of hydrogen and I am convinced that it is a good solution on contrast to batteries for EVs where the disposal of batteries at reasonable cost has not been solved yet. Best regards Daniel Buschgert
Phil Mortimer says
No mention of rail in all of this. Wiring up much more the of the various national systems on a low cost/fast installation basis would radically change modal shift and emissions positions. Traditional electrification is costly, slow and all loaded at the front end. lowering the through life cost linked to rapid installation, commissioning and use breaks this position. The US is a real laggard in relation to the use of this technology set and seems set on retaining diesel traction as the preferred option
Alternatives such as hydrogen for transport are as yet largely unproven and rely on electrolysis and this needs to be steady state and not intermittent when the wind blows or the sun shines. The delivered cost of the hydrogen needs to be calculated. Hydrogen from methane comes with other items on the charge sheet. It all demands new production, transport, storage and distribution. The cost of this needs to be transparent. Ditto all the fuel alternatives being postulated. This all needs to be done independently, objectively and impartially and not peer reviewed by sector interests including academia.
Nathan Wilson says
We must remember that the last time humanity relied on biomass as a large source of energy (i.e. before the discovery of fossil fuel), we nearly depleted the forests of the most developed nations. Biomass is simply too dilute an energy source for our modern lifestyle and large human populations; the environmental footprint is too great.
Biomass is very carbon-rich, so clean hydrogen could be used to boost the yields of biomass-to-fuel plants by 2-3x. This might suffice for a small part of today’s market, but there is another hydrogen-based fuel that is more practical than hydrogen and much more scalable than biofuel – ammonia.
In the long term, green ammonia can be an effective and sustainable energy source for shipping, trucks, buses, and construction equipment (to a lesser extent long-haul aviation, because of the substantial weight penalty). Ammonia (NH3) can be stored as a liquid under moderate pressure (like propane), and has triple the energy density of 5000 psi hydrogen. This makes it more practical to transport by truck, train, ship, or pipeline, whereas hydrogen is very expensive to transport without a pipeline. It can be used with certain types of fuel cells or can be burned at high efficiency in special internal combustion engines. When refrigerated, it requires no pressurization, so it can be stored in warehouse-sized tanks for seasonal use.
In the short term, instead of trying to beat fossil fuel companies in a fight to the death, we should utilize them by accepting blue ammonia (from fossil fuel with CC&S), and using it as a diesel fuel replacement. We’ll be able to transition to making green ammonia (from only clean electricity, water, and air), after we transition our power grid to clean energy.