When we talk about sustainable mobility, the conversation tends to revolve around electric vehicles. And e-mobility is currently experiencing a huge upsurge in interest and sales. But there are other alternatives to petrol and diesel vehicles, besides electric motors. How likely is it that they’ll catch on, and what are their potentials and possible pitfalls?
RESET talked to Michael Müller-Görnert about exactly that. He’s responsible for transport policy at the VCD, with a focus on air pollution control and climate protection, a member of the executive board of Transport & Environment (T&E) – the European umbrella organization of environment and transport associations – and also the leader of various projects in the field of propulsion systems and fleet management.
When it comes to alternative fuels and sustainable mobility, electric vehicles are at the forefront. What’s your view of the situation?
Germany has set itself the goal of having a million electric vehicles on the roads by 2020. But with currently only about 50,000 electrically powered cars, we’re miles away from reaching that goal. That’s why the German government set up a new support programm for electric vehicles last year. While some of the motives for the government’s target setting undeniably have to do with industry, promoting e-mobility is starting the necessary shift towards carbon-neutral transportation. One thing is clear: in order to reach national and international climate targets and the subsequent greenhouse gas neutrality by the middle of the 21st century in the field of transportation, essential forms of transportation must be powered using methods that are practically emissions-free. That’s where we need electric motors powered by renewable energies.
What sustainable alternatives exist outside electric and what is their potential?
As more ecological alternatives to petrol and diesel and in order to diversify the range of drives on offer, the German government has been promoting vehicles with natural gas and liquid gas engines with a lower fuel tax that will last until the end of 2018. That’s why gas is so much cheaper when you go to fill up. Particularly when compared to diesel, natural and liquid gas have distinct ecological advantages: the vehicles produce only very low levels of pollutant emissions (nitrogen oxides and particulates). That’s around the same level of pollutants as petrol. But they have better credentials than petrol when it comes to CO2 emissions. Natural gas vehicles emit 25 per cent less CO2, liquid gas 10-15 per cent. And natural gas vehicles can also run on regeneratively produced methane – biomethane created from the fermentation of residual and waste materials, or synthetic methane created from water using electrolysis. Depending on the pre-production processes, the CO2 advantage can rise to between 60 and 90 per cent.
Despite the fact they’re more environmentally-friendly and the fuels are cheaper, gas vehicles still remain a niche product. Germany has approximately 500,000 liquid gas cars and 100,000 natural gas cars in comparison to 45 million petrol and diesel vehicles. Current plans are for the tax break for natural gas to be carried on until 2026, as they are of greater benefit to the climate, and the tax break for liquid gas to end in 2018. In the opinion of the VCD, in climate protection terms it makes sense to continue the tax break for natural gas, but there should also be a limit on it. Because if we are to decarbonise then – as I already described – we require a rapid switchover to emissions-free drives. Given the limited potential of renewable natural gas, that alone can’t provide a solution.
What do you see as the future potentials for fuel cells and the like? What are possibilites and risks do they pose?
Due to the reasons I already mentioned, electric cars, whether they’re powered by batteries or fuel cells (Note: which use hydrogen gas – rather than electricity – to power an electric motor), play a key role in the shift to green transportation. All other drive technologies have too small a potential for reducing CO2 or there aren’t enough resources to provide the operating power that is needed. But electric vehicles need clean energy. That’s why a switch to clean energies is critical for the future of e-mobility. The most efficient method is the direct use of renewable energy in battery-powered vehicles or, like with trains, via overhead lines.
With fuel cells, almost half of the energy used is lost during the production of the hydrogen that is needed. But they have a bigger range than battery-powered electric vehicles. The technology is currently still expensive, however, and right now there areonly two fuel cell cars that are in mainstream production. We also have no fuelling infrastructure for hydrogen.
Electric vehicles don’t just have a larger range of models, they’ll also be getting more affordable in the future, and it’s expected that by 2025 they’ll be able to compete with conventional cars in terms of price. At the same time currently – not only in Germany – the charging infrastructure is being expanded massively. We have to look at the possibilities for hydrogen cells within that context. Risks for e-mobility are a continued lack of acceptance amongst consumers, low fuel prices, and the as-yet-still-unclear negative social and ecological affects of rare minerals (including lithium) for the production of the batteries.