Several challenges for electrification and hydrogen still exist in the EU’s road transport sector and the deployment of hydrogen faces significant hurdles. Biomethane, next to being a sustainable solution, can also play a very complementary role in reaching the EU’s climate goals.
Transport is one of the few sectors in the EU where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have gone up for some modalities given the increased mobility of EU citizens. Of all modalities, road transport is the biggest GHG emitter with over 70% of all transport related GHG emissions. The European Commission has voiced its ambition to drastically reduce emissions from road transport through mandatory targets for emission reduction for the entire production of rolling fleet for manufacturers of new cars and vans.
However, the newly proposed legislation as proposed by the Commission has a very singular approach, by focusing on a shift to full electrification and hydrogen powered vehicles. While both are viable long-term solutions, this focus fails to recognize the potential of alternative, renewable and circular fuels for the road transport sector, such as biomethane, and their possible contribution to de-fossilizing the road transport sector in the short to medium term.
Challenges for electrification and hydrogen
1. Availability and deployment of sufficient charging infrastructure
Travel across the EU with electric vehicles remains an issue since there are several challenges for electrification as an alternative to traditional fuels. Namely, the availability of charging stations varies greatly between countries and regions. Additionally, payment systems are not harmonized and there is often not enough information on infrastructure, availability and technical requirements for users. Furthermore, voltages vary greatly (low voltages meaning longer waiting times), and the availability of fast-charging infrastructure is very limited, meaning that recharging EVs can be very time consuming.
Biomethane, as an alternative fuel, can be used in the existing available CNG and LNG infrastructure and in vehicles with proven technologies. Additionally, the energy content of biomethane is similar to that of regular CNG and LNG, giving vehicles a similar range before refueling is needed. Finally, little to no subsidization is needed to create bio-CNG and bio-LNG refueling infrastructure as they are profitable by design.
2. Availability of sustainable raw materials and clean energy
With the ambition to significantly increase the electric rolling fleet in the EU in the next decade, the gap between supply and demand of raw materials needed to produce batteries is expected to increase significantly. Moreover, most raw materials are concentrated in a few countries, while sourcing of materials is known to be unsustainable. Finally, a battery-operated electric vehicle is only considered climate neutral when charged with renewable electricity. This creates a challenge for the full electrification of vehicles.
Considering a full life-cycle assessment through a Well-to-Wheel approach, a passenger vehicle with an internal combustion engine fueled with biomethane has an even lower carbon footprint than an electric vehicle. Furthermore, human activities will always generate waste, meaning that there are sufficient regionally produced energy sources available for the production and use of biomethane.
3. Long-term future of hydrogen deployment
There still exist many challenges to the realization of a hydrogen-based transport sector, as there is a great deal of new or upgraded infrastructure needed. Other barriers include the large-scale hydrogen production costs and the lack of availability and (at this stage) scalability of green hydrogen. While viable in the long term, the matching supply-demand uncertainties make hydrogen a challenging short-medium term alternative to traditional fossil fuels.
In the further development phase of hydrogen, biomethane can provide a better, more affordable and reliable solution to swiftly de-fossilize the road transport sector. The forecasts of the availability of biomethane, in the form of bio-CNG and bio-LNG, in the road transport sector are promising. By 2030, about 30-40% of EU gas-powered vehicles in the EU could run on biomethane. In Germany, there is enough waste available to de-fossilize at least 75% of all heavy goods traffic when using biomethane from waste.
4. Fleet renewal and affordability
While in the longer term, EVs will be affordable to citizens, the current high prices of EVs result in a large share of citizens being excluded from the transition towards more sustainable road transport, especially in Member States where subsidies on EVs are relatively low. Additionally, looking at the average age of a car in the EU (currently 11 years, compared to 8.5 years in 2008), it is clear that European customers are increasingly postponing the purchase of a new car. Considering the fact that most cars will run up to 20 years, or even longer, achieving a considerable percentage of fleet renewal towards more sustainable EVs or hydrogen based cars will be a key challenge and will simply take too long before a meaningful emission reduction impact is made.
In comparison, vehicles running on biomethane are affordable, as the price of a bio-CNG car is comparable to a diesel/gasoline car. A bio-CNG car can be bought by the average EU citizen without the need for subsidization.
5. Lack of a short- to medium-term solution for heavy-duty vehicles
For heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) the case study also creates challenges, as electrification and hydrogen-based solutions are not yet economically nor environmentally viable alternatives. With regards to electrification, due to lack of efficiency and power in the current generation of batteries, as well as the great number of batteries needed to power HDVs, range of electric HDVs is very limited and the climate impact is far greater than any other alternative currently available, such as bio-LNG.
Therefore, where electrification is not a feasible short- to medium-term alternative in the field of HDVs, biomethane, as an alternative fuel, can be used in the existing available CNG and LNG infrastructure. Therefore, the further uptake of bio-CNG and -LNG can support this transition.
Further uptake of biomethane in short- to medium-term as a viable solution
To bring down the GHG emissions of the road transport sector to zero by 2050, the Zürich 5 Coalition advocates for a wider range of technologies to be deployed. Where electric and hydrogen-based mobility are viable long-term solutions, it should be deployed. In some cases, where affordability and charging infrastructure create challenges for electrification and hydrogen deployment, there should be room for renewable fuels such as biomethane.
The use of biomethane, alongside electric – and hydrogen vehicles can speed up de-fossilization in the transport industry, while making sure that the socio-economic benefits of this transition are secured, including safeguarding a resilient – and competitive car industry in the EU.
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