How Effective Are Electrofuels for Decarbonisation?

15 February 2019

Electrofuels are increasingly considered as a viable option for decarbonising transport. But what exactly are electrofuels and how effective are they at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in transport?

Electrofuels Explained

Also known as e-fuels, electrofuels are carbon-based fuels produced from carbon dioxide (CO2) and water using renewable electricity as the primary source of energy. They can be gas e.g. methane, or liquid. The most common electrofuels include butanol, iso-octane, octanol, bio-Diesel and bio-jet. Electrofuels are used in internal combustion engines. As pressure mounts to reduce carbon emissions in transport, electrofuels are increasingly being considered as one of the 3 viable roots for decarbonising transport, alongside electric vehicles and hydrogen powered vehicles.

Sustainability

When considering the future sustainability of mass transport, it is important to take a circular economy perspective.  This requires us to look at the whole lifecycle emissions of future vehicles, including the production, use and end-of-life phases of a vehicle’s life.  When looked at from a whole lifecycle perspective, electrofuels compare favourably with pure battery electric propulsion for many passenger car applications.

When it comes to commercial vehicles, aerospace and large marine transport, battery electric technologies need to increase energy density by a factor of approximately 50 over today’s levels before becoming potentially viable.For these heavy duty, long range modes of transport, electrofuels may well provide the most attractive route to decarbonisation.

The Role of the Government

When assessing the viability of electrofuels, the role of the government policy is vital.  Commercialisation of electrofuels in volume will require substantial investment in new production capacity.  With manufacturing costs of electrofuels unlikely to fall to the levels of fossil fuels, investors will require stable, supportive government policies before the risk of such investments could be justified.. If electrofuels are to have a place in creating low-carbon transport across Europe, intervention from the government is crucial.

Currently, electrofuel production costs are high, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever match or beat the costs of fossil fuels this side of 2050. Experts also estimate that electrofuels are unlikely to directly compete against advanced biofuels on a cost basis within the next 10 years. Indeed, renewable energy targets set for 2030 are currently unlikely to be achieved from significant electrofuels contribution, although there’s scope for this situation to change under the Renewable Energy Directive.

Investment

Weighing up the costs and benefits is always a factor when developing performance fuels, and this is certainly the case when it comes to electrofuels. Experts believe that with the right long-term regulatory framework, investment and production incentives, there is no reason why an effective electrofuel industry cannot be developed. However, policymakers will need to take the time to consider how much a role they want electrofuels to play in transport decarbonisation. They will also need to assess how much they are willing to pay for this contribution and when they believe electrofuels can start to make a difference to a low-carbon transport industry. Crucially, decision-makers will need to better understand the optimum blend of battery electric power, electro-fuels and hydrogen power for decarbonisation. All will require multi-billion-euro levels of investment if mass market adoption and transport decarbonisation are to be realised. As of today, experts do not yet observe policy maker actively considering the optimum combination of battery electric power, electro-fuels and hydrogen power for transport, nor how to achieve it.

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