Taken as a unit, the European Union is on course to meet its 2020 goal of 20% overall final energy consumption coming from renewable sources (some member states have already met their individual targets). The European Union’s Joint Research Centre Report on Renewable Energy Deployment in the EU (from this year, using 2015 figures) shows however that transport is lagging behind and most countries are currently set to miss the 2020 target for this sector unless they step up their efforts significantly. What are the factors holding back renewable energy in transport?
In 2015, the share of renewable energy in the EU’s final gross consumption hit 16.7% of the total, up from roughly 9% in 2005. While the 20% target of final consumption is for the EU-28 in general, different countries have different targets based on their resources and share of renewables in 2005. Greenhouse gas emissions and gross inland consumption of energy (a given area’s total energy demand, covering the energy sector’s own use, energy transformation and distribution expenditure and loss, and end-user consumption) are also down on their 1990 baselines, indicating greater energy efficiency as well as cleaner energy production. The report indicates three broad sectors in which progress is examined: electricity, heating/cooling, and transport. Electricity consumption from renewables in the EU-28 hit a total of 28.8% and heating/cooling from renewables hit 18.6% in 2015. Transport has a set target of 10% for all the member states, but the EU-28 figure for 2015 is 6.7%. Only Sweden, Finland, and Austria have met the target, and the report’s individual profiles for member states suggest that most of them will struggle to meet it for 2020. So why is transport failing to match the progress electricity generation/consumption and the heating/cooling sector have made?
Last out the blocks
This situation isn’t necessarily down to negligence. Renewables’ share of total energy use in transport started from a very low base, with an EU-28 total of 1.4% in 2004, compared to 10.2% for heating/cooling and 14.3% for electricity consumption (so in fact, renewables’ use in transport has achieved more than a four-fold increase since 2005). Electricty generation in particular had a head-start thanks to significant hydroelectric capacity already existing many years prior to the NREAPs (National Renewable Energy Action Plans, required by the EU but developed individually by the member states), and it remains one of the largest renewable sources despite stagnant growth compared to others.
Additionally, the technology required for greater integration of renewable sources in transport has been widely developed only recently compared to its integration in electricity generation. In terms of mass-market reach, most car companies focused on efficiency gains or hybridisation, with electric power but also retaining traditional fuel capabilty (the are also different types of hybrid motors, but as a general description this will have to do for the sake of brevity).
While all-electric cars have existed for a considerable period, their short range and weak horsepower meant they were unable to compete with petrol engines for mileage and so their production and use was limited. In fact, according to the CleanTechnica website, it took until 2008 to develop an electric car intended for general production with a range of over 300 km (the Tesla Roadster). Now, some Tesla-X models can hit a maximum of 475 km (as per United States Environmental Protection Agency tests in 2015), and other carmakers are following suit to develop all-electric vehicles. However, this is just one side of the coin. The lifespan of an electric vehicle is also cause for concern as its production and maintenance will all entail environmental costs, and the electricity used to fuel them still comes largely from fossil sources (although it can be argued that an electric vehicle running on renewable electricity could easily compensate these costs over its lifetime). Furthermore, European production and market share of all-electric vehicles has yet to seriously accelerate so such vehicles remain expensive, and in 2015 the European Environment Agency reports that less than 60,000 such vehicles were sold across the EU (although over 90,000 hybrid vehicles were sold), which in turn does not incentivise a wide availability of charging stations or maintenance servicing outside of the suppliers’ network. Lastly, hydrogen fuel cells were previously considered a possibility, but so far they have struggled to become economically viable and charging infrastructure is not widespread, so they are unlikely to make serious progress in the market any time soon.
The other big energy sources classified as renewable in the transport sector as per the EU report are biodiesel and bioethanol. While they can lead to certain emissions being lowered, and cars can be adapted to run on them relatively easily, they nonetheless generate considerable ethical problems. Firstly, the energy balance (i.e. the energy required to prepare an energy source for use versus the energy it gives when used) for most biofuels remains low, as a National Geographic article from 2007 gave biodiesel a score of 2.5 (so biodiesel only yields 2.5 times more energy than that required to grow it, process it, etc.).
Additionally, while biofuels lead to lower emissions of certain pollutants, chief among these particulates, they can contribute to a higher production of other harmful greenhouse gases like ozone. Therefore, the question of their overall emissions balance is not simply one of being better or worse than traditional fuel, and will require further research to improve biofuel sources and emissions. The issue of land use also makes this a contentious topic. Brazil was considered an early pioneer of biofuels as it focused on extracting fuel-grade ethanol from sugarcane (with an energy balance of 8), but this came at the cost of massive deforestation so it wasn’t considered viable. In general terms, it also means clearing and exploiting virgin land, or dedicating what was previously agricultural land used in food production to the cultivation of crops for biofuel production. This all makes scaling biodiesels up to a wider scale is to say the least a divisive topic, and realistically their efficiency must improve greatly to be considered a viable source, both in terms of performance and in terms of avoiding an imbalance between agricultural land used for food production and that used for biodiesel production.
Why focus on transport?
Given these setbacks, and the ongoing abundance (at least in the short term) of oil and natural gas as transport fuels and energy efficiency gains for these resources, it seems overzealous to insist on an energy transition in transport. But I argue that’s precisely why there needs to be greater focus on this area. Transport in the European Union tends to use sources that are not only finite, but which generally need to be imported (the EU’s dependency ratio for oil is roughly 88%, natural gas roughly 70%, and these have consistently increased since the 1990s), so their viability depends on their availability, good prices, and good relations with suppliers (seeing as Russia is Europe’s single biggest supplier of both, that’s not guaranteed). While biodiesel’s viability depends on serious efficiency gains and a wider production and distribution network, electrification has the potential to increase the share of energy used in transport coming from renewable sources. The increase in electricity generation from renewables can feed into transport over time. As solar and wind generation increase in power and battery storage allows for electricity from these sources to be stored rather than used or fed back to the grid by individual users, a base capacity can be accumulated to power more demanding energy sources. The Joint Research Centre’s report indicates that renewable electricity is already responsible for a small percentage of the total renewables contribution to energy used in transport. Additionally, renewable electricity prices have fallen quicker than predicted, making increased electrification and better integration of green electricity in transport systems a money saver sooner than expected. The graph below shows price cut wind energy has achieved in just six years.
Aside from improving our transport systems’ ecological footprint and reducing European dependence on imports, there are important health considerations. Almost half a million premature deaths in Europe are attributed to poor air quality, and the European Environment Agency states that 90% of Europe’s population still live in areas where certain key pollutants (PM10, PM2,5, NO2, etc.) exceed levels deemed harmful to health. Reducing emissions can help reduce these deaths and alleviate pressure on healthcare systems already strained by tight budgets and ageing populations. Transport accounts for roughly a quarter of emissions and is but one area with room for improvement, but arguably one of the more difficult ones in which to implement large-scale changes due to various levels of ownership, the need to adapt infrastructure to changes, and high upfront costs of replacing rolling stock. Nevertheless, there is no room for excuses. Just five years ago, the idea that wind or solar power were close to competing with fossil fuels in terms of energy prices was considered a pipe dream, yet now the balance is slowly tipping in their favour. Battery storage technology is also improving, allowing renewable energy to supply power when the renewable source is not generating it, something Fox News and co. have apparently ignored. It’s a difficult task, but inaction only means being forced to address the problem later when its effects become more critical, not addressing it at all simply isn’t an option. Local-level public transport is already considerably greener than before in most places thanks to electrification or conversion to low-emissions natural gas and the retirement of the most polluting vehicles, the challenge now is to scale up the progress and infrastructure necessary to make travel in general a greener activity. Besides, with the EU set to beat its collective goal on renewable energy use, why not be more ambitious? The cost of action now is high, but the cost of inaction will be higher in every sense, and too often we ignore the long-term benefits of emissions reductions. Be it better incentives to use public transport, schemes to retire and replace the most inefficient vehicles, serious advances in biofuel efficiency or a greater presence of renewable electricity in relation to electrified transport options, progress might be slow but it’s possible. Maybe the biggest challenge is convincing policymakers and ourselves that it will be worth it.