Why e-fuel cars can’t replace EVs

Porsche unveiled a new pilot plant in Patagonia, Chile last month — not a plant that builds cars but, rather, one that makes e-fuel, a synthetic alternative to conventional gasoline from air and water using electricity. The plant, a joint project with ExxonMobil and other energy companies, “is a symbol of hope in the fight against climate change, for a more sustainable future – and one that could also include the music of a Porsche engine,” Porsche tells a February 14 Press Release.

The dream sold by e-fuel car companies like Porsche is that drivers can keep their internal combustion engines and fight climate change at the same time. All they have to do is switch to e-fuel.

When it comes to cleaning up climate pollution from road transport, e-fuel is no small matter

The reality is that when it comes to cleaning up climate pollution from road transport, e-fuels are not a silver bullet. It is too expensive and inefficient to replace electric vehicles. And it still releases planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions when it burns.

Despite these shortcomings, e-fuel managed to derail or at least delay the EU’s plan to effectively ban sales of internal combustion engine cars by 2035. Climate policy was almost done, with final passage of the law pending yesterday. Germany threw a last-minute curveball, withdrawing its support for the policy unless it allows traditional cars to remain on the road as long as they run on e-fuel.

A vehicle’s gas tank can be filled with synthetic e-fuel just like gasoline. Running on e-fuel produces exhaust pollution just like gasoline. But e-fuel can be made with renewable energy, which is the climate argument behind it. And the carbon dioxide emissions it produces can potentially be canceled out during the fuel’s production process, making it nearly carbon neutral.

Electronic fuel can be produced by pulling carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and hydrogen (H2) from water molecules. This CO2 and H2 can then be used to make hydrocarbons, the main component of oil, natural gas and coal. An alternative method, which Porsche relies on at the Patagonia plant, is to use carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce methanol which is then converted into gasoline.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It’s a way to harness air and water to create an alternative to fossil fuels. The challenge is that the process consumes a lot of energy. And the technologies it’s based on — carbon removal plants and electrolytes to break down water molecules — are still prohibitively expensive.

Even if renewable electricity is used (and there still isn’t enough renewable energy on the Internet to meet climate goals), much of it is wasted in the process. Nearly 50 percent of the energy input is lost in the process of converting that electricity into hydrogen and then turning that hydrogen into e-fuel, according to the nonprofit research group International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

Because of this inefficiency, an e-fuel car burns through far more electricity than an EV would use to travel the same distance. Electric vehicles end up being about four times more energy efficient, according to the ICCT.

This inefficiency entails significant costs. No one is producing e-fuel on a commercial scale today, but doing so would likely cost about $7 a liter (more than $25 a gallon), according to Stephanie Searle, director of ICCT’s Fuels Program.

The cost is “ridiculously high”

The cost is “ridiculously high,” he says, and won’t drop low enough to make e-fuel a viable option for cleaning up car pollution. When asked what role e-fuel can play in decarbonising passenger transport, her answer was blunt: “in short, none”.

There is a little more optimism about e-fuel from Roland Dittmeyer, director of the Institute for Micro Process Engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany. Dittmeyer drives an electric vehicle, but believes e-fuel can be a useful alternative for someone who doesn’t have access to charging infrastructure connected to a reliable, clean electricity grid.

KIT produces e-fuel as part of a national initiative. Its small demonstration project is also supported by Volkswagen, Audi, a subsidiary of Ford, Shell and other industrial partners. But cars aren’t really the focus of the research—planes are.

The best use of e-fuel is in aviation, both Dittmeyer and Searle agree. “The priority for passenger cars is the battery, [but] there’s very little chance you’ll ever fly long distances on batteries,” says Dittmeyer The lip.

The best use of e-fuel is in aviation

Batteries are an easy way to make cars run on renewable energy. However, battery technology is still too heavy for planes, which will likely need to rely mostly on alternative fuels to take off in a less polluting way. And Dittmeyer worries that all the drama surrounding e-fuel cars could reduce the research needed to develop the synthetic fuel for aviation.

Meanwhile, the push to create a loophole for e-fuels in EU climate policy is just an attempt to keep gas-guzzling cars on the road, Searle worries. “We’re afraid it’s a stalling technique to try to save the internal combustion engine and create a future for it,” he says. And if they keep internal combustion engines on the road, it would be very difficult for regulators to track whether they’re actually running on e-fuel or plain old gasoline.

As we have seen, policy plays a key role in driving electric vehicle adoption. Global EV sales fell this year as China and many countries in Europe cut subsidies. EV sales were soaring ahead of this shift, growing 60 percent by 2022. For what it’s worth, Porsche is betting on both e-fuels and electric vehicles. It plans for 80% of its sales to be electric vehicles by the end of the decade.

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