„eFuels are a Key Pillar of the Transformation“

Dr. Monika Griefahn expects synthetic fuels to play a major role both in existing vehicles and for new vehicles in the future

Many experts agree that the CO2 targets in the transport sector can only be achieved in the foreseeable future if existing fleets are also taken into account. So-called eFuels - starting as an admixture - could lead to a gradual reduction in CO2 emissions. "No combustion engine, no climate protection" is the title of a panel discussion at the International Engine Congress (February 27 and 28, 2024, Baden-Baden). Among the participants is Dr. Monika Griefahn, Chairwoman of the eFuel Alliance e. V. In the interview, she explains the prospects that fuels based on renewable energies open up for climate protection and describes the obstacles and challenges facing the pioneers in this field.

Dr. Griefahn, with eFuels, are you focusing in particular on existing fleets in order to reduce their CO2 emissions, or are you also thinking about future, new generations of vehicles?

Dr. Griefahn: We think of eFuels in road transport in its entirety. Certainly, eFuels are the only solution for climate-neutral operation, especially for the global fleet of around 1.3 billion vehicles, and this is where they have the greatest potential. Especially in regions where the energy transition is slower than necessary due to political, social or topographical circumstances, renewable electricity remains scarce and e-vehicles are too expensive, eFuels are a key pillar of the transformation. Thanks to their chemically identical structure to fossil fuels and their drop-in capability, i.e. the possibility of blending them with conventional fuels, climate protection can be achieved gradually and affordably.
But we will also see new generations of vehicles in Europe and elsewhere that run purely on eFuels. Although car manufacturers in Europe are concentrating on electrifying their fleets, the combustion engine will be with us for a long time to come worldwide.

What conditions – whether political or economic – still need to be created so that eFuels can be offered on the market on a larger scale?

Dr. Griefahn: The decisions taken so far at European level are not consistent enough and are more likely to delay a rapid market ramp-up of eFuels. To make matters worse, restrictive approaches, for example in the Renewable Energy Directive, are also preventing eFuel producers from bringing certain climate-neutral fuels produced in non-European countries onto the European market because they use CO2 from point sources – for example a cement plant – that are not integrated into a pricing system similar to the European emissions trading system. There is an urgent need for improvement here and for the global approach to climate protection to be enshrined in law.
Investment in research and development remains important. In particular, technologies such as carbon capture, storage and utilization (CCUS) or direct air capture (DAC) are directly linked to the ramp-up of climate-friendly fuels and need an appropriate breeding ground for rapid implementation and scaling. However, investments in large, industrialized production facilities are now crucial in order to make the necessary quantities available and to enable competitive prices through economies of scale.

Wouldn't Euro7 have given us the chance to send out a clear signal in favor of eFuels?

Dr. Griefahn: The Euro7 type regulation was a lever to make eFuels usable for road traffic. With Euro7, there was an opportunity to define a type approval class for vehicles that run exclusively on renewable fuels. This opportunity was missed. A positive decision would certainly have been a helpful sign.
Nonetheless, the CO2 fleet regulations for passenger cars and light commercial vehicles as well as those for heavy commercial vehicles set the climate targets for new vehicles. By focusing solely on the vehicle's exhaust, combustion vehicles are de facto banned because even a combustion engine running on 100% eFuels always has local CO2 emissions. Only with an overall view that includes the energy source can we arrive at a fair consideration of different technologies. The EU Commission is still awaiting a decision on the approval of combustion engines powered exclusively by eFuels from 2035.

In your view, which production processes will primarily play a role? Where will these eFuels be mainly produced?

Dr. Griefahn: The starting point for eFuels, as for all other climate technologies, is renewable energy. Renewable electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by means of electrolysis. The extracted hydrogen is enriched with CO2 from the ambient air to produce hydrocarbons. Various synthesis routes, such as the Fischer-Tropsch or methanol route, are then used to produce liquid or gaseous fuels for road, sea or air transportation.
As the starting point for all further steps, electrolysis technology is the core and pillar of eFuel production. The downstream synthesis routes have proven themselves in many areas and have been used successfully for decades. Further investment in research and development will increase the efficiency of electrolysers in the long term.

Critics often dismiss eFuels as "not economical", "not suitable for large-scale production" or "not yet tried and tested"? What do you think about these opinions?

Dr. Griefahn: At the beginning of 2023, almost 30,000 wind turbines supplied 25% of the German electricity market. Around 40 years ago, wind power was anything but economical, suitable for series production or tried and tested in practice. With the so-called "Growian", a wind power pilot plant in Brunsbüttel in 1980, one kilowatt hour cost five German marks. Today, the cost per kilowatt hour is just a few cents. Such a far-reaching transformation requires trust, courage and investment in new technologies. Without a political leap of faith in electromobility, this market would also still be in the start-up phase.
Ultimately, however, what counts is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the transportation system of the future. eFuels are needed in numerous areas, especially for existing vehicles, heavy-duty commercial vehicles and in aviation and shipping. If we prevent the emergence of a mass market for eFuels due to ideological concerns, net zero will never be achieved.

How do you expect prices to develop in the eFuels sector?

Dr. Griefahn: eFuels will be added gradually for the time being, regardless of the transport sector. This is provided for by law, particularly in the aviation and shipping sectors. While pure refueling with eFuels still appears uneconomical until 2030 due to high production costs, an admixture of, for example, 5% in the respective end product will only have a noticeable effect of a cent amount and would save 60 million tons of CO2 per year in road transport, for example. However, the additional costs for the respective fuel can be kept low during the market ramp-up.

Market development and therefore also future production costs depend on many factors, but are largely dependent on legislation. The very strict European regulations on the production of green hydrogen as the basis for eFuels have so far made it difficult to scale up quickly and reduce production prices. However, numerous studies show that with sufficient political ambition, technological progress and falling costs for renewable energy, production prices of e-fuels for road, air and sea transport can be achieved below 2 euros per liter.

In your opinion, how much of a future does the combustion engine still have in cars and commercial vehicles?

Dr. Griefahn: The combustion engine is no longer wanted in some political camps, which has led to clear electric strategies on the part of car manufacturers. However, in many cases they are by no means saying goodbye to the combustion engine. According to the current regulatory status in Europe, the market for combustion engines is only shifting to non-European countries, where production and sales will continue. The combustion engine will therefore be with us for many decades to come. In the form of a massive stock of combustion vehicles until 2050 and new registrations worldwide even after 2035.

We are also awaiting a decision from the EU Commission as to whether and to what extent new vehicles with combustion engines may be registered after 2035 if they are powered exclusively by eFuels. Last but not least, the market ramp-up and market penetration of e-vehicles by 2030 will also play a decisive role in assessing whether eFuels may be given a greater role in road traffic. According to media reports and experts, doubts are growing as to whether the respective targets will be achieved. The final hour has not yet struck.

Further information, the full program and the opportunity to register

About the person:

Dr. Monika Griefahn, Chairwoman of the eFuel Alliance, e.V., will give a keynote speech on "eFuels and their contribution to climate-neutral mobility" at the 11th International Motor Congress and take part in the panel discussion "No combustion engine, no climate protection".