The European Commission, ooh, way back, decided that Biofuels were just what was needed to start the de-carbonisation of transportation. The original plan looked rather yellow and green – farm after farm of oilseed rape – what the Americans term “canola”. Suddenly schoolchildrens’ crayon renditions of the landscape were not as primary in colour as the actual fields.
The first target was for 5.75% of all transport fuel to be biologically sourced – from plants. What the European legislation didn’t figure was that some very dodgy dealers would take the long haul to Indonesia and Malaysia and start selling up the idea of marketing palm oil to Europe to make BioDiesel to meet the Biofuels Directive obligation. So goodbye rainforest and goodbye orangutans out in Asia. And goodbye good carbon intentions – replacing the rainforest with oil palms created net carbon emissions – so Biofuels failed to take the carbon out of motoring.
Some very bad ideas have followed on after. Several companies are still struggling with the idea that algae could turn out, could, I emphasise, be the thing that starts a genuine BioOil market. We’ll see – but most of the designs need an input of carbon dioxide – which would probably come from a fossil fuel-burning power station – so not very renewable, then.
BioEthanol, mostly made from corn (maize) in the United States of Ameria, requires a huge amount of land, and BioEthanol made in Brazil from sugarcane requires slave labour of the landless serfs. Really not a sustainable solution.
American President Barack Obama has perhaps lost his mind if he allows this particular bill to be passed into law – Coal-to-Liquids, a process as old as the trade-constrained German Third Reich, is a completely insane idea – even if it is CCD “clean coal derived”. There’s nothing “clean” about coal in this case – the carbon dioxide that would have been released into the atmosphere is captured, then fed into a chemical process to produce fuel, which is then burned, and the carbon dioxide that is emitted from burning the fuel goes up into the atmosphere. So, nothing permanently captured, then. And the process is highly energy-inefficient – more coal fuel is needed to capture and process the carbon dioxide. They’d do better to have coal-burners or gasifiers built onto wagons trailing behind the cars and run the cars on steam or coal gas. Seriously.
So, what to do about cars ?
The ultimate answer is probably electricity-powered “line cars” – private vehicle cars like mini-trolley buses, trams, streetcars, or dodgems, somewhat smaller than railcars or light rail, running down laid out routes following live electricity rails – unless battery technology can be vastly improved. There is a future for BEV – battery electric vehicles – but if future batteries still use “rare earth element” scarce metals, there won’t be a whole world of BEVs. The biggest problem currently is the speed at which electric vehicles can be rolled out into the “fleet” – the annual turnover in cars, although large, is not large in comparison with the total number of cars on the roads, which will mean slow conversion. Plus there’s the economic crunch to think of – as people become relatively less well-off, they buy less cars.
There are many, many ways in which renewable electricity can be generated, so using green and truly clean electricity for transport must be the final goal, after all the ground-sourced oil and gas and coal is gone, and after all the renewable stocks of oil and gas are promised to other purposes.
But what of today ? Is there something so close at hand that we’ve missed its potential ?
There is “wonderfuel” development going on in Renewable Gas – which is a wide range of chemicals, produced from a wide range of chemical processes, from a wide range of feedstocks – many of them plant and animal waste. Many people have heard of BioGas or BioMethane, but Renewable Gas can be much more than simply methane derived from Anaerobic Digestion. The potential for Renewable Gas to displace Natural Gas in the National Grid in the UK (and the USA) is significant. Plus, it could be used for electricity generation at quick-to-build large power stations – and the growth in Renewable Gas could mean that before any new nuclear or coal power stations get to be commissioned, they would be redundant.
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), some of it from Bio origins, is used in vehicles throughout the world, but you don’t necessarily need to buy a new car to run on CNG – conversion of a diesel engine vehicle will do. And you could fill it from home if you are connected to the gas grid. With plans to start feeding more Bio sources of gas into the grid, this could mean that you can drive on Renewable Gas, and your home gas tap becomes your filling station – with a bit of special kit provided.
Combustion engines are bad for our health, but, while we still have combustion engines, BioMethane and Bio Synthetic Natural Gas (BioSNG) and mixes of other Bio gases can provide a truly green “bridging technology” to de-carbonise transportation.
A note of caution : some BioSNG processes are not entirely carbon neutral – for example, the newly-announced Audi e-gas, using spare electricity from wind generation to produce hydrogen from water by electrolysis, Renewable Hydrogen, which is then methanated. Like the algae biodiesel projects, this needs a source of carbon dioxide – which would presumably come from a power station burning fossil fuels.
However, there are sufficient ways to produce truly Renewable Gas, and Renewable Gas cars could be an almost immediate win.