“A small number of analysts forecast that oil production will start to fall by 2020 – not because we are running out, but because we just won’t need it. They argue that the world will wean itself off oil voluntarily, through major advances in vehicle technology. Peak oil will not be a supply-side phenomenon brought about by shrinking reserves, but by motorists buying electric cars and conventional cars with highly efficient engines.”
Excellent analysis of the state of play of electric cars and their potential to wean the world off oil by top energy journalist David Strahan.
Just like hydrogen a few years ago, algae –to-biodiesel is the new hype launched by venture capitalists who want to make quick and big bucks (see today’s EurActiv story and the interesting – although a bit unbalanced – dossier). EU policymakers should keep a good dose of realism and try to understand the technology and its cost and sustainability implications better before falling for the “algae is good for the environment and energy security” trap.
The fact that fossil fuel giants like Shell and Exxon are jumping on the bandwagon does not change that. They have enough money to make some mistakes if the big promises of the next miracle solution for future oil production would not deliver. It only shows these companies are starting to acknowledge that the end of the (traditional) oil era is upon us and it is time to look into alternatives (mostly forgetting renewables like solar and wind).
I do believe algae might play a role in future sustainable energy policies but a lot more research is needed before policymakers should get over-enthusiastic about this next silver bullet.
Here are a few of the sceptical voices in the algae hype:
- Geoffrey Stiles has some answers to the question: why does Exxon invest in algae on his Energy Outlook blog.
- Robert Rapier’s “Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction” dates from 2007 but is still valuable and has good references to other sceptics.
- The Oil Drum ran an excellent piece on “Cost viability and algae” in May 2009.
- And, last but not least, there is the new (27 July) LCA study published by a team of researchers in France in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The conclusions of this last study deserve some highlighting as they prove my previous point:
“Biodiesel production from microalgae is an emerging technology considered by many as a very promising source of energy, mainly because of its reduced competition for land. However the impact assessment and the energy balance show that algal biodiesel suffers from several drawbacks at the current level of maturity of the technology. In comparison to conventional energetic crops, high photosynthetic yields of microalgae significantly reduce land and pesticide use but not fertilizer needs. Moreover, production, harvesting, and oil extraction induce high energy consumption, which can jeopardize the overall energetic balance. It appears that even if the algal biodiesel is not really environmentally competitive under current feasibility assumptions, there are several improvement tracks which could contribute to reduce most of its impacts.”
I am absolutely not impressed by the CO2 policy for cars proposal presented by the European Commission and I do not think it shows European climate change leadership at all.
First, for all the heavy lobbying and media attention surrounding this issue, today’s Commission proposal to oblige car manufacturers to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of new cars from 2012 will do little to limit the climate impact of road transport. It is indeed the driving of the car (the kilometers driven) which are responsible for the emissions, not the car in itself (except for the emissions produced in the manufacturing process – who has any figures on this, BTW?). Even if all producers would meet the 130gr/km requirements by 2012, more cars on the road and more mobility needs will mean that by 2020 the growth of emissions from road transport are likely to increase. As long as politicians shy away from tackling the volumes of transport, they will just raise expectations on which they cannot deliver. Technological innovations are badly needed and lots more money needs to be invested in the research and development of these innovations but where are the lifestyle changing policies that we need? It seems easier to find industry scapegoats (cars, aviation) than to take courageous actions that would hurt voters I suspect.
Second, the legislative proposal will still face a hard struggle within the Council where countries like Germany will continue pushing for less pressure on their national car champions. The “national interest reflex” of our governments (not only in this dossier) is one of the reasons I am pessimistic about EU energy policy.
Third, the proposal itself is a monster of complexity which reflects the number of technocratic compromises that had to be made to achieve a result. As such it might have a lot of perverse long-term effects which have not been foreseen in the impact assessment, just like this other technical complexity monster which is called the European Emissions Trading Scheme.
Fourth, because of this complexity and the flexibility clauses foreseen (the “curve”, the “pooling”) I guess the industry will not have a very difficult time to find ways around the “hard” measures and prevent fines (which BTW only become serious from the third year – so from 2015).
In the meantime, let’s keep driving
In a joint press conference on 10 October, EU Commission Vice-President Verheugen and research commissioner Potocnik presented two new initiatives to accelerate research and development of hydrogen cars. A uniform EU-wide market approval system and a new public-private partnership (the “Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative“) with a financial EU contribution of 470 million euros is supposed to bring hydrogen cars to the European market by 2015-20.
What was remarkable in the press conference was the caution of Günther Verheugen saying openly that he was not sure that hydrogen would be the future of cars and stating in response to one of my own questions that he sees a lot of potential for electric cars. But, “the car of the future will not run on fossil fuels”, Verheugen said. The Vice-President also underlined at least twice that the hydrogen for cars will have to come from non-fossil fuel sources. On the other hand, when asked if it could be produced by nuclear, the commissioner evaded a direct response stating that he “personally” opposes nuclear power but that the Commission has no anti-nuclear policy and therefore would accept hydrogen produced from that source.
More importantly, Verheugen made it absolutely clear that the EU in the future should not finance the hydrogen infrastructure (“the hydrogen producers have the responsibility to take care of their distribution system”). It is questionable whether car makers will want to develop hydrogen cars when there will not be any governmental subsidies for the very expensive distribution networks that will need to be built.
Swedish truck and bus manufacturer Volvo presented no less than 7 biomass-driven (“CO2-free”) trucks during the 2007 European Transport Forum in Brussels yesterday. With its high-level campaign the company wants to demonstrate that it can provide the car engine technologies needed for the alternative fuels to take off. Although there is a lot of vocal support from industries and policymakers for the new fuels, traditional fuel producers seem to be reluctant to start producing them in large quantities. Volvo itself admitted that it had a hard time finding the necessary fuels to show off the trucks outside of the conference venue. When representatives of the fuel sector present in the conference were challenged to respond to this issue, no one apparently dared to take up the challenge.
One remarkable element of the debate was that Volvo CEO Leif Johansson explicitly refered to “peak oil” as one of the drivers (together with climate change) for his company’s resolve to build the new bio-diesel and bio-gas trucks. “We are approaching the peak of oil production”, Johansson said. Quite a surprising statement from a commercial vehicle manufacturer but then again his home country Sweden has some time ago already taken the lead in Europe on trying to become the first non-fossil fuel country. I hope the Brussels EU policy makers were listening.
During the debate which I had the pleasure to moderate I felt that Mr Johanssen evaded a bit my questions on the predictable struggle for biomass material from the transport, the food and the wood and paper sector. Several NGOs as well as a recent OECD report have warned that the “rush to energy crops threatens to cause food shortages and damage to biodiversity with limited benefits”.
Mr. Johansson admitted that it would be a good idea to bring the leaders of the different sectors together to find a constructive cooperation for biomass raw material but also warned against a system of central political planning to deal with this issue. I personally think it could be one of the tasks for the EU to provide this kind of permanent collaboration forum between different sectors (including NGOs) on future uses of biomass.
The presentations of Leif Johansson and two of his colleagues can be found on the European Transport Forum website:
More extensive news coverage of the event at eTrucker.com.
- Are hybrid cars fueled by electricity the future? Yes, according to a new study published in the US by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council which examined the greenhouse gas emissions and air quality impacts of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). Read also the good Technology Primer on plug-in hyrbid electric vehicles. Google recently committed itself to stimulate research and development of these cars with a budget of 10 million dollars.
- The Guardian has an interesting story on efforts to make the popular Formula 1 racing less energy-intensive and more climate-change-friendly.
The plans of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to introduce a London-like congestion charge in the Big Apple was dealt a severe blow on Monday when state lawmakers failed to the find the necessary majority to adopt the plans. Mayor Bloomberg vowed to continue his battle and hit out at the state policymakers.
The news illustrates that leading US politicians (be they Republicans or Democrats) will still have a hard time convincing their parties of the need to revolutionise their thinking on energy and transport.
- New York Times: Bloomberg Lashes Out at Lawmakers on Congestion Plan
- The Guardian: NYC Congestion Pricing Takes Spotlight
- Wikipedia: London congestion charge