Europe powers ahead with drive to develop alternative car fuels

The EU is looking at electricity, biofuels and hydrogen as part of its aim to phase out fossil fuels

Nobody yet knows what the winning automotive fuel of the future will be. By 2050, it could be electricity, compressed natural gas, harmless biofuels, hydrogen cells or a combination of all of these. One sure thing is that it won't be either petrol or diesel. The EU is aiming to "de-carbonise" transport by halving the use of conventionally fuelled cars by 2030 and then phasing them out altogether by 2050, according to Mark Major, the European Commission's enthusiastic point man for "sustainable urban mobility".

At present, Europe’s cars, vans and trucks are almost 94 per cent dependent on oil, of which 84 per cent is imported. That’s one reason to switch. Another is the air pollution caused by traffic, particularly in urban areas, and a third is to cut emissions causing climate change.

The only way to do that is to develop alternative fuels and more energy-efficient vehicles. At first, the EU put its faith in biofuels and then had second thoughts when it turned out they were displacing food crops.

Electric cars are now seen as one of the best options. But as EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas noted, the price of electric cars "remains too high" compared to conventional ones.


Speaking at a conference in Brussels on Moving Europe forward with clean transport fuels, Kallas wouldn't comment on Germany's controversial blocking of lower limits on carbon dioxide emissions for cars, merely saying the EU was a "very diverse organism".

'Vicious circle'

His chef de cabinet Henrik Hololei said Europe "has the leading car industry in the world and will eventually achieve zero-emissions transport". But he stressed the importance of addressing the "vicious circle" that's hampering the take-up of electric cars, in particular.

“We don’t have enough electric vehicles because there are not enough refuelling points,” he told the conference. This means many people will not buy these cars out of fear they couldn’t recharge the battery. Yet most electric cars would be charged at home.

There's also been a problem of different countries opting for different plugs. That's why Olivier Onidi, head of innovative and sustainable mobility at the directorate-general for transport ("DG MOVE", as it's officially known), underlined the need for a common EU standard.

In terms of population, he identified Estonia as the country most geared up for electric cars with 824,000 recharging points, of which 82,000 are publicly accessible. In absolute numbers, Denmark is out in front, with 1.25 million recharging points around the country.

Lars Bording, chief executive of Danish electric mobility company Clever, said they had given electric cars to 1,600 families two years ago. "The kids loved the silent trip and the parents loved it too because they're so cheap to run. But you need the infrastructure."

Electric cars should also be integrated with renewable energy in the context of developing “smart grids”, with drivers charging their cars overnight using electricity generated by wind turbines. “The future is here now. Why wait till 2018 or later to standardise plugs?” he said.

Arijandas Sliupas, vice-minister for transport in Lithuania, was "optimistic we will have a compromise text" on a proposed directive at the December transport council and get it finalised by the European Parliament in mid-2014.

According to Senan McGrath, chief technology officer for ESB e-cars, Ireland now has a "pretty extensive electric vehicle charging infrastructure that's inter-operable on both sides of the Border".

‘Path away from oil’

Rainer Bomba, German state secretary for transport, confidently predicted there would be "at least one million electric vehicles on German's roads by 2020". Other options were also being developed, including bio-methane (derived from gas) and hydrogen fuel cells.

"The path away from oil is there," he said. Already, Germany has more than 1,000 filling stations offering biomethane at the pumps, while the H2 Mobility Industrial Association – which includes Daimler, Shell and Total – is building up a refuelling network for fuel-cell electric vehicles.

Matthew Tipper, Shell's vice-president for alternative energy, said it planned to "roll out 400 retail hydrogen sites by the mid-2020s" in Germany, where there are only about 20 today (of 200 worldwide). He also revealed that Shell now produces more gas than crude oil.

Pierre Etienne Franc, vice-president of industrial gas producer Air Liquide, said hydrogen was "competitive with diesel", at €10 a kilo. But Jos Drings, Dutch director of the Transport & Environment lobby group, cautioned there were "very dirty ways" to make hydrogen.

Big carmakers also rowed in. Akihita Tanke, vice-president of Toyota, said it had sold 5.5 million Prius hybrid electric cars since 1997, while Daniele Troisi, general manager of Nissan Europe, said it had invested €4 billion worldwide in the development of electric cars.

Fuel efficiency

Dr Georg Frank, Daimler's head of fuel-cell research, said he believed cars powered in this way would be "the choice of the future for longer distance travel". In the meantime, he conceded there was "still room for improvement" in the fuel efficiency of petrol and diesel cars.

LPG is also making inroads. According to Samuel Maubanc, general manager of its industry association AEGPL, there are now 78 million vehicles worldwide running on the fuel – an increase of 80 per cent in five years – and €3 billion had been invested in infrastructure.

The European Commission and the European Investment Bank, which lent €90 million for innovation projects last year, are taking a "technology-neutral" approach to the development of alternative fuels – in other words, not specifically favouring one over the other.

But it's clear which direction they're moving – away from fossil fuels.

Port's pollution problem
LA needs to clean up ships
The port of Los Angeles now causes 43 per cent of the city's air pollution, according to Didier Rochas, vice-president of global energy management company Schneider Electric. It used to be cars. Then they cleaned up the car exhausts. Now they'll have to clean up the ships.

As the Washington-based National Resources Defence Council has complained, port pollution is due to “enormous ships with engines running on the dirtiest fuel available, thousands of diesel truck visits per day [and] mile-long diesel locomotives hauling cargo”.

Rochas told an EU conference in Brussels on future transport fuels that one of the best options would be to convert ships to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), which would cut emissions by 80 per cent, and to allow them to plug into the electricity grid while in port.

Sauli Eloranta, chief executive of Rolls Royce in Finland and Norway, said it had evaluated a number of alternative fuels, and LNG was the best because it was "clean, affordable and easy to adapt to engine technologies". Yet only 80 vessels are currently powered by LNG.

He said there was “big interest from Norwegian ship owners” in LNG, not least because it costs $90 (€65.50 ) per tonne compared to $600 (€436.50) for heavy fuel oil. However, it is “critical” that a supply network is installed at European ports to cater for LNG ships.

Ankie Janssen, director of the Port of Rotterdam, said it had installed its first LNG bunker in 2011 and planned another in 2014. "We're situated in a populated area, so air quality is a real concern," she told the conference. Shoreside electricity is also on the port's agenda.

She said Rotterdam was one of the largest ports in the world and dispensed 11 million tonnes of bunker fuel last year. The vast bulk of this was heavy fuel oil, but the port is now offering incentives for clean fuels, including a reduction in port dues for ships that use them.

As for aviation, Henrik Hololei – chef de cabinet of EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas – said biofuels were the "only realistic alternative". In 2008, Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic flew a jumbo jet into Amsterdam, partially powered by biofuel derived from palm oil.

It has yet to catch on, however.

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor