Manufacturing e-fuels for road transport would be a waste of renewable electricity
If we promote the use of green hydrogen or that of e-fuels for road transport, a large amount of additional renewable electricity would need to be generated to produce them, which would require the installation of a significant number of extra renewable energy plants, with the consequent impact on the territory and potentially on biodiversity.
In a study by Transport & Environment (T&E), it was estimated that to power only 10% of cars, vans and small lorries with green hydrogen and another 10% with e-diesel in 2050 would require 41% more renewable energy than if these were battery-electric vehicles. And if half of heavy-duty lorries ran on hydrogen and the other half on e-diesel, they would consume 151% more renewable resources in 2050 than in the case of directly electrified vehicles.
Giving direct electrification priority over e-fuels in road transport has an added advantage. Because battery electric vehicles are in fact "batteries on wheels", the possibility of intelligent charging (e.g. with the V2G, vehicle-to-grid option) for these vehicles will help to reduce the restriction of the high shares of wind and solar energy needed in European grids by 2030, and this will potentially reduce the additional renewable electricity needed by almost 10%. By 2050, this potential could be even greater with an almost 100% electrified vehicle fleet and a very high proportion of renewable energies throughout the EU.
Disadvantages of using e-fuels in road transport
In theory, when burned in an internal combustion engine, e-petrol and e-diesel emit exactly the same amount of CO₂ from the exhaust pipe as their respective conventional fuels, as they have the same chemical composition. However, the only way to make them theoretically CO2 neutral is for them to be produced using green hydrogen, produced from additional renewable electricity, and for the carbon to be obtained by direct capture of CO2 from the air.
However, the use of renewable e-petrol or e-diesel in vehicles is not climate neutral. In tests conducted by T&E, it was found that burning e-petrol in a combustion engine produces two more powerful greenhouse gases: Methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Similarly, it was also discovered that these gases were emitted by e-diesel in test conducted by CONCAWE. Those proposing e-fuels do not take these emissions into account when they claim "climate neutrality". According to the study by T&E, if all new petrol and diesel cars sold in 2020 ran on e-petrol or e-diesel, the additional CO2-eq emissions (from methane and nitrous oxides) would be equivalent to those of about 50,000 more fossil-fuel cars on EU roads in just one year.
Cars powered by e-fuels emit as many nitrogen oxides (NOx) as engines that burn fossil fuels. NOx is a toxic substance responsible for poor air quality in our cities. The use of e-fuels also increases emissions of toxic carbon monoxide, also harmful for our health.
The transport sector is one of the main culprits for the poor quality of the air we breathe. According to the latest AEMA estimates, at least 238,000 people died prematurely in the EU in 2020 due to exposure to PM2.5 pollution above the WHO guidance level of 5 μg/m³. 49,000 premature deaths were caused by nitrogen dioxide pollution in the EU and 24,000 by exposure to ozone.
The production of e-fuels is expensive. That is why they will be sold at a high price. Even with an optimistic approach, a driver with a synthetic petrol car in 2030 would spend €10,000 more than one with a battery-electric car over 5 years. Most Europeans would not be able to afford this.
E-fuels could not power even 2% of the number cars expected to be on the road in 2035. The industry's own analysis shows that the volume of e-fuels expected to be available in 2035 would only power five million cars out of a fleet expected to be 287 million in the EU. Even the industry does not see e-fuels as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
The role of e-fuels in the decarbonisation of the transport sector
The EU can meet the demand of the road transport sector with the direct use of renewable electricity (i.e. through battery electric vehicles), and should therefore concentrate the use of green hydrogen and synthetic electro-fuels derived from it to decarbonise sectors that cannot easily achieve this through direct electrification, as is the case with air transport, a large proportion of maritime transport and certain industrial uses.