Opinion: the EU’s exemption on e-fuels from 2035 isn’t as big a story as it first seems | Top Gear
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Opinion: the EU’s exemption on e-fuels from 2035 isn’t as big a story as it first seems

Paul has some thoughts on what's powering our cars and the future of e-fuels

Published: 28 Aug 2023

What are we to make of the EU’s exemption from its 2035 ban on new petrol cars, to allow those that run “only on e-fuels”? See, a litre of e-fuel is – even at the molecular level – identical to a litre of the petrol that began down an oil well. That’s its entire point. So if a car can run on e-fuel, it can also run on the old stuff.

How will they police this? Each litre could have its own blockchain to ensure traceability. But the computing energy behind blockchain is itself carbon intensive. Or maybe they could use the same method as farmers’ diesel. Diesel dyed red, on which there’s low tax, is for tractors. Road diesel has more tax. If a farmer’s Land Rover has a red stained fuel filter, he’s up before the beak, big time.

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But e-fuel is a pretty silly way to decarbonise most people’s new cars, even if it works in the high cost world of supercars. More important is it could be a good way to avoid having to chuck away all our perfectly good nearly new ICE cars. Today’s most high profile e-fuel manufacture involves two main ingredients got via green electricity: hydrogen electrolysed from water and carbon captured from the air or industrial chimneys. But it’s horribly inefficient compared with driving the cars directly on electricity. Hydrogen very much has its place in cutting CO2, but mostly in industry, powering furnaces and processes. 

This is a car website so we talk a lot about CO2 from cars. It’s also big in the general public conversation. But guess what. Not that much of the world’s manmade CO2 comes from cars. Road transport is about 12 per cent. Remove goods transport from that, and what’s left is just seven per cent of the global CO2 emission coming from cars, buses and two-wheelers.

So let’s get some perspective. A much bigger proportion, 17 per cent, comes from the production of iron, steel, aluminium, chemicals and cement. We don’t see those as much as we see cars, because we don’t want to live next door to a steel mill or cement works. But those sectors are big, and aren’t known as ‘hard to abate’ for nothing. They’ll need investment in hydrogen power and carbon capture from the chimneys, because limestone emits CO2 in its transformation to cement. The heat, light and power in buildings is another one to watch, as it accounts for 18 per cent of CO2. Again, that’ll come down with insulation, plus switching away from gas and greening the grid.

Green electricity is easy and cheap. Some of the cheapest solar electricity in the world, at about a penny per kWh and falling, comes from a giant 3GW array in the UAE desert. It’s part-owned by local oil company ADNOC, which sees which way the figurative wind is blowing. The wind in the UK is giving us 5p/kWh power, nine times cheaper than UK gas-fired electricity.

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So here’s the TL;DR. For most new cars, the European e-fuel exemption is largely a distraction. We should use the green energy for other things first.

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