E-car or E-Fuels: We need both!

More and more voices are being raised in the current debate on the transport revolution, pointing out that the climate targets for the transport sector cannot be achieved with e-mobility alone. As a supplement, e-fuels are being brought into play, which will also give conventional combustion engines a CO2-neutral perspective. We have discussed this in an interview with an expert in vehicle development: Dr. Norbert W. Alt, Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Executive Vice President, FEV Group.

Mr. Alt, what role do you think e-fuels can play in climate protection?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "To achieve the climate protection targets, we need electric mobility. This is a very important component. But we have created simulations here and calculated everything: Even if every second newly registered car from today on were an electric car, we would not achieve the climate protection targets of 2050. We need e-fuels to complement that."

What about the conventional fuels we use today?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "We have to move away from fossil fuels completely by 2040 if we want to achieve the Paris climate protection targets for 2030 and 2050. We say: We simply leave the oil in the ground. e-fuels must play an important complementary role to electric mobility. We certainly see e-fuels in cars as well. There will never be an large airplane flying with a battery, but in the automotive sector, electromobility is now the increasingly popular drive solution, but it should be supplemented by e-fuels.".

What do you think are the advantages of e-fuels?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "Many e-fuels are backwards compatible and can be mixed with conventional fuels. This is a huge advantage for motorists: even people who drive an old vehicle and not yet a modern electric or hybrid car can drive a CO2-free car. The production and use of e-fuels is virtually greenhouse gas neutral. However, effective nationwide deployment of e-fuels can only be achieved if the political course is set accordingly."

And the disadvantages?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "Critics of e-fuels often mention the efficiency. They say that a car with an internal combustion engine and e-fuels – from fuel production to the wheel – would use five to six times more energy than an e-car. However, it must be remembered that even an electric car does not always drive under ideal conditions, and the efficiency factor must be calculated more realistically: If I drive an electric car in winter with the seat heating on, the range is quickly reduced. In order to compare the efficiencies fairly, you should keep that in mind. With a modern electric car, the difference between the efficiencies is still 2 to 2.5 – on really cold and dark days, this factor quickly drops well below 2."

Also the price is often cited by critics...

Dr. Norbert Alt: "At present, e-fuels would still be more expensive than conventional fossil fuels, but we need to get away from them. However, the price at the fuel pump is something that is primarily determined politically: Taxes account for the largest share of the final price for the consumer. It is a set screw that you can turn."

How does Germany compare internationally in research on e-fuels?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "Research on CO2-neutral fuels has been conducted at RWTH Aachen University for more than 20 years. It's all about questions such as: What properties must a fuel have so that I can blend it? What does this mean for the engine? The Aachen location is a central research centre in Europe for these questions. In terms of research, we are already very far ahead – and one of the leaders worldwide, among those who are particularly involved with e-fuels."

In which other countries is interest high?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "I'm talking to a lot of people and see a change in thinking. Saudi Arabia has also understood that its future no longer lies in fossil fuels, but in renewable energy and future technologies such as e-fuels."

Why can't we fill up with e-fuels yet?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "Every time I pass a gas station in Germany, I am saddened by the fact that it is not yet possible to fill up with e-fuels. Research is ready, demonstration plants already exist. The ball is in the politicians' court here: in order for e-fuels to be available to normal consumers, billions would have to be invested in production plants, but this would be worthwhile in view of Germany's climate targets. Politics would have to, for example, make the quotas of e-fuels mandatory or create financial incentives."

Where could the plants be located in the future and where could e-fuels be produced?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "There is enough sunshine in the MENA region, for example (the region from the Middle East to North Africa), to supply the entire world with solar energy. This would be an ideal location for e-fuels production facilities."

So, electric mobility plus e-fuels?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "I drive an electric car myself and know the fear of every driver that the range is not sufficient. This fear fades away with growing experience and driving an electric car is great fun! But when it comes to long journeys, hybrid solutions come into play. For longer distances, liquid fuels with their enormous energy density are particularly suitable. The ideal solution is to combine the electric car with e-fuels for the long-distance motorway journey, i.e. to equip electric cars with a so-called 'serial-parallel hybrid' with e-fuel instead of very large batteries, which are expensive and heavy. But from fossil fuels we need to get away completely."

Final question: How do you evaluate the current proposals of the EU Commission on EU7?

Dr. Norbert Alt: "Unfortunately, these proposals did not take sufficient account of the assessments of the technical experts. The current proposal cannot be implemented, especially not the requirement of extremely low emission values under all boundary conditions, such as short distance and cold operation. It remains to be hoped that the EU will develop a new proposal with the involvement of experts, which is also technically feasible. In addition, experts question whether this next step from EU6d to EU7 will have a significant effect on real air quality. Laws for e-fuel quotas for CO2 reduction would be much more effective for climate and environment."

Thank you very much for talking to us.