So far, 2022 has been marked by EU sanctions against Russia following the ongoing war in Ukraine. The war has impacted the Fit for 55 legislative package, playing an important role in the European effort to increase the share of renewable energy, as well as the EU’s proposed plan for new investments in renewable energy: REPowerEU. The REPowerEU plan has put forward a 35bcm target for biomethane. To put that target in perspective, the European production of biogas and biomethane in 2020 amounted to 18bcm (15bcm of biogas and 3bcm of biomethane). Unfortunately, REPowerEU focuses on buildings and industry and does not take notice of the potential of biomethane, which can help de-fossilize trucks in the EU road transport sector.
Biomethane, when used as a transport fuel, can provide both a short and long-term solution and help the EU achieve its emission reduction goals. However, EU policymakers opted for a very singular approach, merely focusing on a shift to full electrification and hydrogen powered vehicles, when voting on the CO2 EPS file for cars and vans earlier this year. Moreover, due to the different characteristics of the passenger (light-duty) and cargo (heavy-duty) transport sectors, not all assumptions carry over from the proposal on the CO2 emission standards for cars and vans towards those for heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs). The electrification of transport is a frequently discussed solution for the de-fossilizing of the sector. To achieve the ambitious climate goals of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, an investigation of sustainable drivetrains for heavy-duty trucks in long-haul transportation is needed.
Revising regulation that supports zero- and low-emission trucks
The market share of electric passenger cars (EVs) is expanding, especially in urban areas, but electric heavy-duty trucks must still overcome several bottlenecks associated with the transportation of heavy goods over long distances, including the low energy density of batteries and consequent range limitations. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects that in 2030, 230 million cars will be equipped with e-engines. This would account for around 12% of the global vehicle fleet. In line with the IEA’s expectation, a significant amount of the transport sector will still rely on internal combustion engine technology by 2030.
Another bottleneck is that the electrification of heavy goods transport is proven to be more difficult than that of light-duty vehicles. Sales of zero emission trucks have “stalled at a very low level” due to a scarcity of vehicle options, particularly for long-haul operations, according to a position paper released by the European Clean Trucking Alliance. Although the production of EVs is increasing, options for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles remain scarce and expensive since they require specific battery technology and charging capabilities. Large trucks have different requirements for power and charging. This means that charging stations would need to reach a higher megawatt-scale to charge multiple large trucks simultaneously on long-haul routes. In this sector, the use of biofuels, ultimately based on waste, would be the most sustainable (transitional) solution. Trucks can take a significant amount of the bio-CNG and LNG supply currently designated to cars and vans as they will take much longer to shift to zero-emission alternatives.
The existing emission standards legislation takes a “tank-to-wheel” (TtW) approach that only counts transport fuels’ emissions from the moment of refueling. This methodology excludes the emissions generated by the production and distribution chain of the energy carriers, which ignores the environmental impact of the energy used. The Coalition therefore supports a “well-to-wheel” (WtW) calculation method instead. A WtW calculation assesses the “life-cycle approach” (LCA) of fuels, including all phases of their life cycle – from the extraction of raw materials to their use. For this reason, the Coalition encourages any notions in the review of the HDV file that foresee a role for renewable fuels such as biomethane based on a complete lifecycle approach.
How can biomethane help de-fossilize trucks in the EU?
It is unlikely that one single solution for delivering zero-carbon heavy transport will be appropriate, therefore multiple options need to be examined, including carbon free gaseous fuel solutions. Particularly in the European context, biomethane has an untapped technical potential and several raw material streams available for its production. Furthermore, whether electric trucks are more efficient and cleaner than their counterparts fully depends on the source of electricity used. Fossil based electricity, is not a green solution. Besides, electric trucks do not have the societal advantages as biogas trucks have, for instance as regards waste and wastewater management and sustainable farming.
Biomethane can be either pressurized (200 bar) or liquefied. Contrary to hydrogen (H2), which is currently still limited due to its production costs, availability of vehicles and lacking transport and storage infrastructure, biomethane can be used in existing systems where natural gas methane (CH4) is utilized. The expanding infrastructure and growing supplies of biomethane gas make the use of bio-LNG and CNG a viable solution. Combined with the existing gas infrastructure, renewable and low-carbon gases can help to achieve the transition to a net-zero energy system at the lowest societal costs.
The way forward for de-fossilizing trucks in the EU
Biomethane can bridge the EU’s de-fossilizing ambitions in line with the realities of the EU road transport sector: the available volume of biomethane to be used as bio-CNG and bio-LNG as transport fuel for trucks is steadily growing and the European gas refueling infrastructure is already available. To stimulate green solutions, sustainable mobility should be measured by the actual greenhouse gas savings over the entire life cycle. Such a measurement will show that biomethane is one of the most sustainable fuels currently available. Only a technology neutral approach, considering all technologies’ costs and benefits, will realize a rapid and just de-fossilization of the road transport sector.
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 Driving on bio-CNG provides CO2 savings of up to 97% compared to gasoline vehicles. In some cases, when slurry is used as waste to create bio-CNG, driving on bio-CNG even results in negative CO2 emissions.