Biomethane has a critical role to play in the decarbonisation of transport, particularly long-distance trucks and ships, where electrification is more difficult and expensive. Angela Sainz Arnau at the European Biogas Association explains that biomethane represents one of the lowest greenhouse gas intensive pathways when the whole emissions lifecycle is measured. However, when nations implement bans on internal combustion engines to cut the use of fossil fuels they are also blocking the way for biomethane in transport. Instead, legislation should stimulate the deployment and availability of renewable fuels. And CO2 emission performance standards should consider the whole lifecycle, not just what comes out of the vehicle’s tailpipe. Arnau points at Sweden where a combination of national, municipal and private investments support the development and consumption of biomethane, as well as the related technologies and infrastructure. As a result, Sweden has around 70 biomethane plants which produced 1.4 TWh in 2020, mostly used for road transport. It’s a model that can and should be replicated across Europe, says Arnau.
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Transport is today the most polluting sector of the EU economy. Despite the efforts to revert this trend, GHG emissions from that sector continue to rise. Transport alone releases today 30% of our emissions. The EU is already working to put in place new measures to help decarbonise the sector.
This requires a balanced deployment of low-carbon and renewable technologies available today and ready to be scaled up quickly, including green electricity and renewable gases. Biomethane is one of the available options. The rapid deployment of this green gas in Sweden has already proved a successful solution towards clean mobility.
At the European level, the statistical office of the European Union (Eurostat) announced recently that the EU has met the target of 10% deployment of renewable energy in transport by 2020 with a mix of biomethane, liquid biofuels and renewable electricity.
Biomethane has a critical role to play in the decarbonisation of long-distance trucks and ships, where electrification is more difficult and expensive. Also in other segments (e.g. passenger cars, vans and buses), where more than one technology will be required to meet climate ambitions of the framework of the European Green Deal.
One of the most performant fuels
Scientific findings are clear: biomethane represents one of the absolute lowest greenhouse gas intensive options applicable to decarbonisation of road transport, considering also green electricity. According to a recent report published with the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, from all combinations of fuel/energy carriers and powertrains explored, biomethane represents one of the absolute lowest greenhouse gas intensive routes.
The study argues that greenhouse gas emissions are associated with both fuel production and vehicle use. Hence, it is only by considering the whole pathway of emissions of the vehicle that its overall environmental impact can be seen. The climate benefits of using biomethane are, according to the study, similar to the use of renewable electricity and synthetic diesel (e-fuels). Biomethane can, depending on the feedstock used, lead to negative emissions, which means that CO2 is actually being removed from the atmosphere.
Lack of legislative support
Despite the existing scientific evidence, the contribution of biomethane to clean mobility does not find the same support in the political sphere at the EU level. One of the legislative proposals under discussion includes a ban on the use of internal combustion engines (ICE’s) by 2035. These technologies are now mostly used in diesel or gasoline vehicles, but are also compatible with biomethane.
The focus on the technology used, in this case ICEs, is discouraging vehicle manufacturers to invest in a mature technology that could run with renewable fuels. If we look at other alternatives, such as electricity, electric vehicles today are at present mostly powered by fossil electricity. However, the technology- the battery – is not penalised while the share of renewable electricity keeps growing.
Rather than banning a specific technology, legislation should stimulate the deployment and availability of renewable fuels. ICE’s, hybrids, battery electric and hydrogen vehicles will all need to play a role in this transition considering that today, almost 60% of the vehicles run on conventional fuels.
It is also the case with the CO2 emission performance standards, aimed at incentivising the uptake of zero- and low-emission vehicles. These standards consider the emissions released while a vehicle is running, but a lifecycle analysis would provide more accurate information on its real environmental impact. This is especially true with the entry of full electric and fuel cell vehicles into the market, which have almost zero tailpipe emissions, but are less efficient if we look at the lifecycle emissions of the vehicle. The overall environmental performance of electric vehicles depends on factors such as the production and decommissioning of batteries or the use of renewable power instead of fossil electricity.
The Swedish example
In Sweden, as well as in the rest of the Nordic countries, politicians have identified biomethane as a unique and valuable resource to society. A combination of national, municipal and private investments support the development and consumption of this fuel, as well as the related technologies and infrastructure. The Swedish state provides investment subsidies and a premium for sustainable biomethane production and the development of refuelling infrastructure is subject to investment support.
On the demand side, policymakers also provide incentives to end users, encouraging the purchase of gas driven vehicles. The incentives are created through a climate premium for trucks, a purchase bonus for cars and vans, as well as the possibility to introduce strict environmental zones in cities, allowing only circulation of electric and gas driven vehicles.
By applying a long-term tax exemption on biomethane consumption they encourage the use of sustainable biomethane in the transport sector. Additionally, alongside the ambitious overall national GHG emission targets for 2030 and 2045 that are set in Swedish climate law, a production goal of 10 TWh of biomethane by 2030 has been proposed in the governmental biogas market inquiry.
As a consequence of this, Sweden was home to approximately 70 biomethane plants, which produced a total of 1.4 TWh of biomethane in 2020. Most of it was used for road transport. Concerning the infrastructure, by the end of 2020 Sweden had 265 Bio-CNG (compressed biomethane) filling stations and 23 Bio-LNG filling stations (liquified biomethane) .
Statistics from Sweden also show that the proportion of biomethane in the liquefied gas vehicles has increased from approximately 50% in 2020 to 65% in 2021. During the same period, use has doubled. When it comes to vehicles using compressed gas, which is used for cars, trucks and buses, the proportion is 96%.
Production is scaling up in Europe
Sweden, together with the rest of Nordic countries, is a world leader in biomethane production and use for transport. This solution can be replicated across Europe. There is enough sustainable feedstock available for the production of biomethane, considering growing organic waste inputs, use of sequential crops and unlocked potential of industrial wastewaters.
The production of biomethane is based on mature technologies and is ready for scale-up. According to the EBA Statistical Report 2021, Europe could be producing 35 bcm of biomethane by 2030, covering 10% of the EU gas demand, and 100 bcm by 2050, which represents 30-40% of the EU gas demand. Part of this production can be used to decarbonise the transport sector.
The Nordic success story is not based on any particularly favourable conditions applying only to the Nordic region, but rather on a clear political will to develop biomethane at local, regional, and national level.
Angela Sainz Arnau is the Communications Manager at the European Biogas Association
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