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Alternative Fuels: Moving Transport Forward

Cory Rogers Renewable Energy & Infrastructure, Net Zero & Sustainability, EVs...

Alternative Fuels: Moving Transport Forward

As climate change becomes more urgent every year, Europe has come under increasing pressure to decarbonise its transport sector. With COP26 there is an opportunity for major economies to tackle emissions from Transport which typically contribute 26%-30% of their carbon emissions. Much attention has been given to electric vehicles (EV) and batteries, but it's becoming increasingly clear that relying solely on these options won't be viable, in fact it is beneficial to try and diversify our approaches to transport for a mixed technology solution to transport emissions. Faced with this reality, Europe needs to focus on innovation in the alternative fuels space. By combining alternative fuels with EVs and batteries, Europe stands to decarbonise faster and usher in a greener future for the continent.

What Are the Alternative Fuels?

Hydrogen: Hydrogen is a clean fuel that produces water as a waste product. It can be produced from various sources, including natural gas, biomass, renewable power (solar and wind), and nuclear power. It's also very versatile, and is viewed as an attractive alternative fuel in transportation and electricity generation.

Ammonia: Ammonia fuel has a high energy density, is carbon-free, already has an established distribution network, and solves some of the problems associated with hydrogen fuels, like storage and distribution.

e-kerosene: e-kerosene is produced by combining H2 and CO2. For the fuel to zero greenhouse gas emissions, the hydrogen needs to be produced from renewable sources, and the CO2 needs to be captured from the atmosphere. e-kerosene would substantially reduce CO2 emissions in the aviation industry, one of the most carbon intensive industries. Pre-COVID-19, the aviation industry was one of the fastest growing sources of CO2 emissions in Europe, experiencing 26% growth between 2013 and 2018.

The Importance of Innovating Alternative Fuels

With concerns over global warming coming to a breaking point, European governments have been putting forward plans to phase out fossil fuel cars. For example, the UK first committed to ending the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2035 but has since brought this forward to 2030. Alarmingly, according to data from the European Environment Agency, CO2 emissions from new passenger cars rose again in 2019, for the third consecutive year. The message is clear; zero and low-emission vehicles need to be deployed much faster than the current rate to achieve CO2 targets. And, of course, passenger vehicles are only one slice of the problem.

More transparency will be needed as we move towards a decarbonised future, and we already see progress in this area. Recently published independently audited emissions disclosure from Airbus marks the first time the company allowed this information into the public sphere. This information is critical because it gives us a picture of where carbon emissions are today in the air travel industry, an industry that has traditionally been resistant to change. With aviation currently accounting for 1.9% of global greenhouse gases (and this figure is expected to rise in coming years), urgent action is needed. The European Commission, the European Union's executive branch, wants planes and ships to start using alternative fuels by 2030.

Decarbonisation in the aviation sector is critical because it has the unique potential to impact progress in other sectors. In February 2021, it was announced that researchers at PSI and Empa have started a joint initiative called SynFuels. This initiative aims to develop a process of developing kerosene from CO2 and green hydrogen (e-kerosene). This is significant because kerosene is an exact mixture of hydrocarbons that must be strictly controlled to uphold air travel safety standards. In other words, kerosene is one of the highest quality fuels out there, so if researchers can produce it from renewable resources, then there's hope for other fuel types too.

Shipping and agriculture also present challenges for decarbonisation due to being high fossil-fuel dependent industries. However, we see advancements in using green ammonia to combat emissions. Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP) recently unveiled plans to build Europe's largest power-to-x facility, converting offshore wind energy to green ammonia. AP Moller-Maersk, a shipping company working with CIP, said that ammonia appears to be a promising option for marine fuels and that they hope to have the first carbon-neutral vessel in operation by 2023.

The Risks of Over Focusing on E-fuels

In a heavily fossil fuel-based economy, alternative fuels provide the most viable and painless transition to lower CO2 emissions. While electric vehicles and batteries are likely to dominate some parts of the sector, they are unlikely to be a good option for many industries for the foreseeable future. For example, in aviation, kerosene is incredibly energy-dense, while battery alternatives are not. However, that doesn't mean there aren't real issues to consider with e-fuels. One concern is that some companies are migrating to biofuels for energy security reasons rather than to lower CO2 emissions. If this is true, we have to ensure that alternative fuels successfully lower emissions.  Additionally, concerns have been raised over the environmental impact of land use in biofuel production. This controversy has largely shifted the focus to other e-fuels.