Europe’s green drive and the battery fallacy [NGW Magazine]
Electric passenger vehicles (EVs) have grabbed the headlines in Europe, despite the present drawbacks in terms of cost and convenience. Most recently, the UK government announced seemingly arbitrary plans to ban the sale of all new internal combustion engine cars from 2035, five years earlier than planned (see box).
On the continent, sales of EVs in Germany exceeded those in Norway last year, even though Norway’s population is about 6% of Germany’s. But coal is still a big part of the German power mix, while Norway is almost entirely powered by hydroelectricity, so there is no comparison in terms of the colour of the electrons. Further, the Norwegian government is able to subsidise EVs from its colossal sovereign wealth fund amassed from oil and gas sales, rather than from taxes.
Where subsidies do not exist, electric vehicles (EVs) are mostly playthings for the wealthy, who will have a conventional car as back-up; or they are leased by companies.
Against this backdrop, the Natural Gas Vehicle Association Europe (NGVAE), a broad-based lobby group which includes makers also of all-electric and hybrid vehicles, says that European policy-makers should make more of the role that gas can play in decarbonising transport. Further, gas itself is decarbonising, with biogas already being used for heavy-duty transport in the UK and elsewhere; and this opportunity for developing the circular economy also needs to be exploited.
There has been too much emphasis on electric mobility without any concrete timeline, the NGVAE secretary-general Andrea Gerini told NGW. “We believe batteries can penetrate the market but that it also faces bottlenecks: these include the high purchase price – there is nobody making the electric equivalent of the affordable, €8,000 petrol car – and the availability of charging-points. Also the transmission system operators will have to deliver the power that will be needed. And the raw materials that are used in the batteries are expensive as they come from Asia. These problems will take time to overcome.
“We have to play with all the cards in the deck if we are to meet the 2050 targets, and filling stations that sell natural gas – compressed or liquefied – can also deliver biomethane, as chemically it is the same. This is a very good way to go carbon neutral and will require no change to the physical supply infrastructure,” he said.
While there is no overall EU scheme to promote NGVs, member governments can use the incentives they want to encourage lower emissions from transport, he says. France and Sweden for example have a direct audit trail from the source of biogas to the pump, and it can be guaranteed 100% biomethane. In the UK, by contrast, the biogas injector is issued certificates which fleet owners can buy. But this needs a subsidy as the cost of biogas is roughly double the price of natural gas.
There are five EU policy instruments that implicitly support gas mobility: the Green Deal; the CO2 emissions standard; the renewable energy directive; the energy taxation directive; and the alternative fuels infrastructure directive. And the review of the carbon emissions of cars has been brought forward from 2023 to the summer of 2021, which is promising, Gerini tells NGW.
As the number of CNG and LNG stations grows, Europe’s fuelling network has to be expanded to cover the whole EU territory. Gas fuelling stations require little additional infrastructure and can be implemented in multi-fuel stations, operating in self-service mode fuels. By maintaining a technology neutral approach in the scope, the alternative fuels infrastructure directive will be in line with the EU’s decarbonisation goal, says Gerini.
Despite its acronym, NGVAE says that all forms of lower-carbon energy will be needed in the transport sector. Gas at the moment accounts for only 1% of the passenger car fleet across the European Union: even in the best case, Italy, it has just 2.1%. The percentage could be much higher with the right incentives, it says, and thus transport could reduce the carbon and other emissions.
Different approaches to the problem
By 2030, Europe’s gas mobility market has a growth potential 10 times higher than today, reaching a fleet of 13mn units, a study finds. A third of new urban buses and coaches could be fuelled by natural gas. Freight transport, relying both on CNG and LNG, is projected to account for a quarter of new registrations in 2030, which will make a big difference on long journeys.
Price is one advantage gas has: one industry observer told NGW that savings of €700/yr on passenger car fuel costs are possible when running on gas, even in a country with a high wholesale gas price such as Italy. But there does need to be a favourable fiscal regime: if taxes on gas go up, that can destroy the economics. One of the tasks facing the gas mobility lobby is the revision of fiscal duties on fuel, so that drivers do not find themselves suddenly disadvantaged as they cross a national border in Europe. The UK has frozen the difference between diesel and gas for over a decade (see Iveco interview).
Better data is needed
Part of the problem impeding the higher take-up of NGVs is the different measurements for calculating emissions: tail-pipe, or life-cycle. This creates space for the all-electric lobby groups to make claims that are hard to falsify on the spot and easy for politicians to adopt if they think they can capitalise on the public’s dislike of fossil fuels.
The idea that electrons are inherently greener than methane is a big myth that needs to be dispelled. There is generally less wind in Europe at night, which is when is some people might want to charge their cars. So the grid might be carrying mostly high carbon electricity then, hence the battery will not be green: it is a case of EE – “emissions elsewhere” – vehicles.
And that is without considering the energy and materials that go into building non-recyclable wind turbines. So a key result for the NGVAE will be demonstrating the total carbon costs of the different forms of transport fuel.
The present target is to reach 95 g of CO2/km for passenger cars but at present the EU is about 20 g over that on average – and worsening: transport emissions are actually rising by about 1.4%/yr, he says, partly owing to the surge in sales of sports utility vehicles which, being heavier, have a more generous allowance. And even plug-in hybrids are effective but not for certain jobs: once they go beyond the 50-km range that the battery lasts, their tail-pipe emissions are equivalent to those of a conventional car.
The appropriate measurement of emissions for comparing the different sources of energy and their use at the moment is based on the well to wheel approach. The EC has also started to look into the life-cycle emissions. A study, by global engineering and strategic, technical and environmental consultancy business Ricardo, provides the first overview about the impact on climate change that different transport solutions have and this study will be developed further.
Current tailpipe emissions measurement approach is adequate when fossil fuels are used, but when including renewable fuels, the well-to-wheel approach is a must, Gerini says.
Natural gas leads to an immediate reduction of CO2 emissions at the exhaust; and blending natural gas with biomethane comes with a significant potential of further reductions. On a well-to-wheel basis, using biomethane means reducing greenhouse gas emissions by anything from 80% to 95% compared with natural gas.
And when using biomethane made from liquid manure – a growing business – the overall emission balance is even negative (-69.9 g CO2/MJ) according to one study by JEC –a transport research agency run by European Commission's Joint Research Centre, Eucar and Concawe – that looks at the well-to-wheel emissions.
The production of renewable gas will increase drastically: for 2030, a conservative estimate shows a production potential close to 45bn m³/yr, which is more than the entire gas fuel demand of about 30bn m³/yr that will be used by the projected 13mn-strong NGV fleet. Full carbon neutrality in 2050 means that alternative fuels such as gas can play an important role.
And a 30% share of renewable gas will provide a GHG emissions reduction of more than 45% compared to conventional fuels on a well-to-wheel basis. Moreover, not only new registered vehicles, but also the current CNG/LNG fleet will benefit from a wider use of renewable fuels.
Battery power? No thanks!
The UK government’s decision on internal combustion vehicles might not happen, as it is the brainchild of a government that is three elections away from that date; but its February 4 announcement has stimulated plenty of debate.
At the moment four-fifths of the UK’s primary energy comes from fossil fuels and only 0.3% of passenger vehicles on UK roads are all-electric. A switch from hydrocarbons to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) therefore implies a big investment for little impact on emissions at a global scale.
The picture is a little brighter in terms of take-up on the continent but the growing attraction of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and their makers’ more generous emissions allowances, provides stiff opposition.
According to Gautam Kalghatgi, who has researched engines and fuels professionally at Shell and at Imperial College, the job ahead is impossible and major emissions cuts could be achieved by using existing technology to make cars smaller and lighter and working on other efficiency gains, but Europe’s wealthy car-buying public is wedded to the heavy end of the market for now, as the surge in sales of sport utility vehicles shows.
He told a meeting hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London – coincidentally also February 4 – that the power grid will not be able to handle the extra load that it will need, without massive investment. In a presentation rich in statistics and data, he covered alternative fuels to diesel and petrol, such as electricity, ethanol, hydrogen and natural gas, but all were found wanting on cost or practical grounds. Gas he conceded might make 5% of the global transport fuel mix by 2040, thanks to low prices relative to diesel, and its use in marine transport; but as with other new entrants the initial cost is high.
If ICEs are to be eliminated from light duty vehicles globally by 2040, battery capacity needs to increase by 1,000 times. And this still addresses only 45% of transport energy demand. Such a massive increase in BEVs will have unsustainable environmental and economic impacts, he said.
And the electricity used to charge the battery may itself be dirty. Building the 21mn necessary charging points would cost between £30bn and £80bn, he said, and it would take 8 GW to service 9mn EVs, 30% of the total. Meanwhile the government would lose £35bn/yr in fuel taxes.
There is a host of false economies also that frustrate the objective of carbon emission reductions, he pointed out: a 100-kW battery, such as a Tesla might have, would start off with a 20 metric ton of CO2 deficit. Car manufacturers are not considering the life-cycle costs, he said. And as for heavy-duty transport, the weight of the battery as a proportion of the lorry’s weight, and the time it would take to charge it – 12 hours – would make it impractical without revolutionary changes in battery technology. “It would be technically possible but commercially nonsensical,” he said.
Using an example from computing, he said Moore’s Law – which predicts the simultaneous shrinking of microchips and the expansion of their capacity while costs fall – does not apply as electrons do not take up space, but ions do.
The scaling up required will also mean a vast increase in the mining of raw materials with the implicit security of supply problems and the safety of the miners; and further on, in the cost of disposal, risk to groundwater and so on. “The whole policy is built on a massive lie,” he said.
Iveco proves the case for gas: Interview
Among the gas engine manufacturers for heavy-duty trucks, Iveco has seen sales rise, but more so in mainland Europe than the UK. Its business development manager for alternative fuels, Jorge Asensio Lopez, told NGW that the UK has been a little behind its European colleagues in the adoption of gas technology, thanks in part to the number of refuelling stations available on the mainland.
When fuelled by LNG, the Stralis NP has a range that varies from up to 600 km in 6x2 configuration (which has less space for fuel tank owing to the number of axles) up to 1,600 km for a 4x2.
He said that in Europe the picture is mixed: “in Germany the number of natural gas filling station is steadily increasing thanks to government pressure; and they have also initiated toll road (MAUT) exemptions; Spain, France and Italy are very proactive too; and the Blue Corridor initiative helps but there is no official collaboration between the fleet operators and the infrastructure operators on the transport routes.”
However refuelling is not the frequent chore one might expect of LNG: in 2018 Iveco set a record with its 1,726 km journey on a single fill of LNG when it took a Stralis 460 NP 4x2 from London to Madrid (pictured). This confirms that gas is definitely a viable alternative to diesel for long distance trucking, Asensio said.
“However, with the ever-growing focus on climate change and environmental concerns and the accelerating planning and opening of new stations, interest and trust by operators in the technology is growing significantly,” he said. “LNG and CNG can make a huge contribution towards decarbonisation and we are keen to promote sustainability.”
So Iveco is also promoting the circular economy, including biogas, in addition to natural gas as a vehicle fuel. “Biogas can reduce C02 emissions by up to 95%. Distilleries in Scotland and dairy farms in Ireland for example can inject biogas into the grid thereby making biogas available to all and helping to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. As well as gas an alternative to diesel, Iveco is also involved in electric commercial vehicles and in hydrogen fuel cells.”
Regional initiatives to favour gas
The UK government is also providing a stimulus by freezing the tax differential between gas and diesel until 2032 which is a huge incentive to operators. Diesel is taxed at 58 pence/litre and gas at around 25 p/kg. Also, currently, the cost of the fuel is favourable, around £1.05/l for diesel, and close to £0.60/kg for CNG and 0.80 for LNG, depending on the supplier.
“On top of that there are regional initiatives: the Mayor of London, for example, is looking to offer grants for vehicle purchases; another approach is to offer exemption from congestion charges as the aim is to reduce particulate emissions from cities and reward ultra-low emission zones (Ulez). Iveco’s Stralis NP is also exempt from the Ulez charge that applies in parts of London, where the air is often thick with dangerous particulates.
It is not all good news: for example, an LNG truck requires servicing after 90,000 km compared with 150,000 km for a diesel. And the vehicle itself is more expensive to purchase. However, the benefits to the operator lie in the whole lifetime costs of the product. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) savings can be as high as 20% compared with a diesel vehicle if the operator is covering 150,000 km/yr and they can expect to break even after two or three years, and obviously sooner if the mileage is greater, he says.
Iveco makes vehicles ranging from 3.5mt to 44mt and has been making gas-fuelled vehicles for over 20 years. It has over 35,000 on the road in Europe. Its first CNG vehicles went into service in the mid-1990s and were used for city waste collection. It launched its first LNG vehicle in 4x2 configuration at 400 hp in 2013 and in 2018 became the first manufacturer to offer a 460-hp, 100% LNG/CNG vehicle, the Stralis 460 NP, in 6x2 configuration into the UK, where about 95% of the fleet is 6x2.