EU looks to alternative fuels for ‘green’ cars

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The EU needs a long-term strategy on alternative fuels to decarbonise its transport sector by 2050, according to a draft report from the European Commission, seen by EURACTIV.

A draft report by the European Expert Group on Future Transport Fuels assesses Europe's options for substituting oil in the transport sector.

The group, comprising industry associations, NGOs and Commission officials, was put together by the European Commission to provide advice on developing political strategies for alternative fuels.

The transport sector is currently heavily dependent on oil, but concerns over projected rise in demand and spiralling greenhouse gas emissions have led to the search for viable alternative fuels.

The report identifies electricity via battery or hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels as the main options for substituting oil in transport.

In addition, natural gas and bio-methane could be used as back-ups, while synthetic fuels could bridge the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, it says. Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) could supplement the energy mix with a market share of up to 10% by 2020.

Biofuels and synthetic solutions would technically be able to fuel all transport modes, but feedstock availability and sustainability considerations would in practice put constraints on their availability, the paper argues.

"The expected future energy demand in transport can therefore most likely not be met by one single fuel," it says.

Alternative fuels generally tend to be less energy-efficient than fossil fuels, but they also reduce CO2 emissions from transport. They will be promoted in the European Commission's upcoming White Paper on Transport, expected in December, which is scheduled to launch an EU strategy for transport policy in the next decade.

"All these possible solutions have quite different potentials of application for future mobility, depending on market competition and future requirements of passenger cars and freight vehicles for traffic in urban areas and long distance travel," the report says.

The main options for complementing fossil fuels in road transport, aviation and long-distance freight by 2050 will be energy-dense liquid biofuels that can be distributed in existing infrastructures, it argues. They should be "blendable at high rates and offer high energy density" to decarbonise the fuel mix to the highest potential, it adds.

Electric vehicles, on the other hand, are foreseen mainly for short-distance travel, according to the report. 

Weighing the costs

Alternative fuels are, as yet, more expensive than fossil fuels.

An electric car costs around €10,000-15,000 more than a traditional car and requires the building of a network of charging points, the report argues. The electricity cost before taxes, however, is comparable to the price of fuel for petrol or diesel vehicles, it adds.

A medium-sized hydrogen vehicle, on the other hand, would now cost €150,000-200,000 more than a standard car, as the technology has not been commercialised yet. Building the infrastructure would require an additional investment of €3-5 billion annually until 2020 and then fall to €2.5bn per year until 2050, assuming that there will be 70 million hydrogen fuel cell cars on Europe's roads, the experts estimate.

Methane cars, on the other hand, are in the same price range as diesel cars. But fitting 100,000 fuel stations in Europe with methane outlets will cost €25bn, according to the report's figures.

Considering the various infrastructure requirements of the different alternative fuels, the report concludes that fungible fuels and biofuels, which require only minor infrastructure changes, could have an upper hand over others that require dedicated infrastructure.

Call for policy strategy

In order to provide a consistent investment environment, the experts urge the EU to define a long-term trajectory for shifting to a predominantly alternative fuel transport system.

A long-term fuel strategy should first concentrate on increasing energy efficiency with energy efficiency policies in the end-use sectors, fuel efficiency standards and electric drive technology, the experts recommend.

Another priority would be to ensure that liquid biofuels are fully fungible and therefore allow flexible blending ratios of fossil and biomass-based products, they argue.

Harmonised standards a must

In the grand scheme of things, the experts call for harmonised standards for all fuels used EU-wide to "allow economies of scale for the market roll-out and free movement of all vehicles using these principal alternative fuels".

The wish-list is broadly supported by the EU executive, as a draft White Paper on Transport shows that the Commission is planning to elaborate an alternative fuel strategy so that the EU can fully meet the transport sector's energy demand from carbon-free sources by 2050.

The Commission says it will propose measures for the broad market commercialisation of such fuels as well as for building infrastructure. It would further develop common standards for vehicles running on alternative fuels.

In 2001, the European Commission presented a White Paper proposing 60 measures to overhaul the EU's transport policy by 2010 in order to make it more sustainable and avoid huge economic losses caused by congestion, pollution and accidents.

A 2006 mid-term update of the strategy attempted to re-balance the policy towards economic objectives. 

In June 2009, the Commission presented a communication on a sustainable future for transport, which called for an integrated, technology-led and user-friendly sustainable transport system after 2010. It attempted to identify policy options for the next White Paper in 2010.

  • Dec. 2010: Commission to publish White Paper on transport.

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