Study shows: Electric cars are worlds cleaner than cars with e-fuel


A new study calculates that petrol engines that run on synthetic fuel only achieve minimal CO2 savings over their entire service life. At the same time, combustion cars with e-fuel require far more energy than e-cars.


Combustion cars could be almost climate-neutral with e-fuel in the future, but synthetic gasoline is inefficient and expensive. Graphic: Volker Quaschning via @HolzheuStefan
Gasoline and diesel are threatened with extinction in Europe by 2035. The EU Parliament wants to effectively ban the sale of new cars with combustion engines from 2035. A compromise has yet to be found with the EU states, but the ban will come.
Some car manufacturers and the mineral oil industry hope that at least synthetic fuels (e-fuels), which can be produced from water and carbon dioxide using green electricity, can continue to be used. Since their combustion only releases the CO2 that was removed from the atmosphere during production, e-fuels are largely climate-neutral. The EU Parliament still wants to ban them on the road – probably for good reason, as a new study shows.

The key statements are summarized below:

Cars running on synthetic fuels provide minimal savings in CO2 emissions over their lifetime compared to traditional petrol or diesel vehicles. This is the result of a life cycle analysis (PDF) published by the Transport and Environment (T&E) panel of experts this week.
The study calculated the emissions of a complete life cycle of cars bought in 2030, including manufacture, operation and disposal.

E-car worlds cleaner

According to the study, e-cars have a far better climate balance over the entire life cycle than combustion engines or combustion engines with e-fuel admixture. graphic: transportenvironment
A petrol or diesel powered by a mixture of e-fuels and petrol in the future would only reduce its emissions by 5 percent compared to conventional fuels.
An electric vehicle, on the other hand, produced and charged with the average EU electricity mix expected for 2030 would cause 78 percent fewer emissions over its life cycle than a combustion engine.
A study by the ICCT (International Council on Clean Transportation) came to similar conclusions last year. The ICCT experts wrote that the inferiority of the combustion engine was only slightly altered by the addition of biofuels. Researchers at the Swiss Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) calculated a year ago that the carbon footprint of e-fuels would be modest even if the necessary hydrogen was produced with the current, climate-friendly Swiss electricity mix.

Combustion car exclusively with e-fuel vs. e-car

A car that runs on 100 percent e-fuels from renewable electricity in 2030 would emit more over its life cycle than a comparable electric car.Graphic: transportenvironment
Even a combustion car that runs entirely on pure e-fuel produced with renewable electricity in 2030 would emit more greenhouse gases over its life cycle than an electric car of the same size, the analysis shows.
A mid-range electric car would be 53 percent cleaner than a comparable combustion engine with synthetic fuels. This is mainly due to losses in e-fuel production and the inefficient combustion engine. The following graphic illustrates the inefficiency of e-fuels.
A wind turbine with 3 megawatts of power supplies…
In an electric car, 70 to 80 percent of the output energy arrives at the wheel. With synthetic fuels (e-fuels) it is only 10 to 15 percent. graphic: adac
According to T&E, "the study's findings undermine industry claims that e-fuel vehicles should be exempted from the 2035 ban on internal combustion engines." The EU environment ministers will discuss this proposal next week.

E-fuel has a lousy energy balance

E-fuels are chemically similar to petrol and diesel, "but their production and use is far more energy-intensive than driving electric vehicles," says the study.
VW Golf with internal combustion engine.Image: EPA

VW ID.3 with electric motor.Image: vw

According to the analysis, a battery-electric Volkswagen ID.3 gets five times further with the same amount of renewable energy than a comparable VW Golf that runs on e-fuel. An electric BMW i4 could drive six times further than an e-fuel BMW 4 Series with a combustion engine.

The graphic below illustrates this.

Electric cars like the VW ID.3 or BMW i4 are five to six times more efficient than e-fuelled combustion cars of a similar size. graphic: transportenvironment

E-fuels too late for climate protection

Renewable electricity is scarce and at the same time essential for the production of e-fuels. First, hydrogen is produced using large amounts of (renewable) energy. When CO2 is added to the hydrogen, synthetic hydrocarbons, so-called e-fuels, are created. The synthetic gasoline is then used in an internal combustion engine. Each of these steps results in losses, so that when using e-fuels, only 10 to 15 percent of the energy expended is used for locomotion.
E-fuel refers to synthetic fuels that are produced from water and carbon dioxide (CO2) using a lot of energy.
E-fuels produced in an almost climate-neutral manner could contribute to decarbonization in other sectors in the future, such as aviation. However, they are currently hardly available and little will change that quickly: A study commissioned by the fuel industry assumes that the amount of e-fuels produced in 2035 can only cover 3 percent of the fuel requirements of road traffic in Europe, by 2050 it should it be 50 percent (PDF).
The problem: If global warming is to be curbed quickly, solutions that are available now are needed.
“Synthetic fuels are not a solution for decarbonizing cars. Battery electric vehicles are ready now, less expensive, more efficient and offer significantly greater CO2 savings, even when looking at the entire production life cycle.”

Stef Cornelis, Director of T&E Germany

E-fuels make sense in the niche

In the next few years, e-fuels will be in short supply and too expensive to make a significant contribution to the climate in road traffic. Although e-fuels will become cheaper, the climate crisis that has been rolling in for a long time is not waiting. Scientists therefore advocate restricting scarce and expensive e-fuels to those applications that can hardly be electrified. Useful areas of application are long-haul flights, shipping and energy-intensive industries such as steel and chemicals.
Critics of e-fuels also point out that a car burning synthetic gasoline pumps as many toxic nitrogen oxide emissions into the air as fossil fuels. In addition, running a car with e-fuel is much more expensive for the owner than running an electric vehicle.
With the published study (PDF), T&E opposes the advocates of artificially produced e-fuels, who are fighting against the complete phasing out of the combustion engine. They see the use of e-fuels as a viable alternative, especially for regions without enough green electricity to operate them and without enough income to buy new e-cars.
With its decision against e-fuels, the EU Parliament made a “decision against the citizens, against the market, against innovations and against modern technologies”, according to the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). Large car manufacturers such as Audi, Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes and Ford, on the other hand, generally welcome the decision because they have opted for the electric car. They hope that the EU Parliament's vote against e-fuels will stimulate the expansion of the charging infrastructure. A not insignificant hurdle for electromobility is still the lack of home charging stations for tenants, condominium owners and zone parkers.
T&E is the umbrella organization of 53 non-governmental European organizations committed to sustainable transport. Switzerland is also a member of this organization.

What was considered in the study?

The non-governmental organization "Transport and Environment" (T&E) explains the study: "The life cycle analysis takes into account the emissions from material extraction, the manufacture of components (including batteries), vehicle assembly and disposal. In the utilization phase, the direct emissions at the tailpipe and the "upstream" emissions of the fuel are taken into account for vehicles with internal combustion engines. For electric cars, the direct emissions from electricity generation and the manufacture of electricity infrastructure (e.g. from the manufacture of solar cells and wind turbines) have been taken into account.”

With material from the news agencies SDA and DPA.

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