The government made its commitment to electrification of transport clear in its Road to Zero strategy, which it published in July 2018. The document claimed the government remains ’technology neutral’ but then devoted the majority of its pages to highlighting its support for the development of electric vehicles (EVs) and the infrastructure that will be required to keep them charged. It also reiterated an earlier commitment to end sales of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040.

But many stakeholders involved in the industry believe the targets for electrification are unrealistic and that liquid fuels will still have a substantial role to play well into the future. Even the government concedes that electrification is unlikely to be the answer in some larger vehicles such as HGVs, while in the car sector concerns over the cost of new vehicles and their range are generating consumer resistance.

New cleaner liquid fuels are also being developed, with delegates at last month’s APEA conference being informed that fuels that would make petrol and diesel cars CO2 neutral could be commercially available by 2025.

In an address to the conference Stefan Kunter, managing director and CEO of the Elaflex group of companies, said that synthetic fuels could make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions from transport without requiring changes to infrastructure or vehicles.

A video during his presentation explained that synthetic fuels are produced by combining hydrogen and CO2. Hydrogen can be extracted from water using renewable energy but, for a liquid fuel, carbon is required.

This can be extracted from the air in the form of CO2 by using filters.

Using synthetic fuel, it said, trucks and cars can drive CO2 neutral with a combustion engine. It added: "The manufacturing process is currently still painstaking and expensive but experts believe as soon as 2025 synthetic fuels could make gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles CO2 neutral".

Kunter told delegates: "You don’t have to change your car to run on synthetic fuel and you can use existing infrastructure, so you can put synthetic fuel in a tank that has held diesel before. The infrastructure is there and the roll-out is easy.

"You can make all kinds of fuel grades out of it, the emissions are extremely good, and the fuel consumption is extremely good because you can optimise it."

He said the only thing lacking for its potential roll-out was political will. In his country, Germany, politicians were single minded in moving over to electric vehicles (EVs), and for them "fuel is a dirty word".

He accepted that EVs would have a role to play in cutting transport emissions, particularly in shorter urban journeys, but claimed there was neither the public acceptance nor the infrastructure to support a full transfer to EVs as planned.

The UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA) is also urging politicians to remove the blinkers when it comes to liquid fuels. In his foreword to UKPIA’s Future Vision, published in July this year, director general Stephen Marcos Jones, said: "It is a future where new, low-carbon liquid fuels and products can make as much of a contribution to decarbonising the transport we use as can electric vehicles."

However, the UKPIA report stated that the government would need to work with the industry to create the right conditions for low-carbon investment, and to consider the emissions from a vehicle during its entire life cycle.

It explained: "A technology neutral approach that incentivises a range of low-carbon technologies could offer the most efficient means to reduce carbon emissions across the UK."

It also noted: "The Department for Transport’s Transport Energy Model considers existing vehicle technologies and some fuels but as noted in this vision, there are many possible low-carbon fuel types that could also impact on a vehicle’s life-cycle emissions that need to be considered (currently the model is able to adjust for some biofuels content)".

The report also called for incentives for research and development to be widened to all low-carbon fuel technologies. Current policy under the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) incentivises development of advanced biofuels, but only for fuels that meet a very specific set of criteria.

It added: "While the need for clear criteria is required (especially for sustainability and ’real’ carbon savings), the current system could be more flexible, allowing individual companies to develop more of the low-carbon liquids options available."

Time is running short, but with the political will a more nuanced policy than mass-electrification could still be the best way to bring transport’s emissions down towards zero.

Consumer support for low-carbon fuels

Consumers want a range of low-carbon mobility options including low-carbon fuels, according to a new survey commissioned by the UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA) and FuelsEurope. The survey was carried out by Opinium, with responses from 1,000 people in the UK and 10,000 in total across Europe.
It found that consumers see a role for efficient internal combustion engines powered by cleaner fuels, alongside battery and hydrogen engines.
UKPIA director general, Stephen Marcos Jones, said: "This survey shows that the public wants choice when they buy a new car and that low-carbon liquid fuels are seen as part of that choice. UKPIA’s Future Vision publication showed some of the pathways to delivering low-carbon liquid fuels that would make use of existing logistics and infrastructure to deliver vastly improved emissions performance and these survey results show that the consumer sees a role for such fuels too. Now we want to work with the government to make these fuels a reality and be able to deliver the decarbonising potential at scale of these technologies biofuels, synthetic fuels and hydrogen."
The survey also highlighted that consumers will need time to adapt to alternative mobility solutions, with an overwhelming proportion of respondents heavily reliant on their cars.
Consumers support the development of electric cars, but for now the combination of price, range and infrastructure are factors which would prevent them from considering an electric car. While those barriers remain, over two-thirds of the respondents would opt for hybrid or internal combustion engines.