09 January 2015

Renewable fuels even greener than electric cars


The world needs transportation now and in the future. However, traffic should be handled in a sustainable way. Renewable fuels may provide the answer, since they seem to be an even more environmentally friendly alternative than electric cars. Unfortunately, legislation is slowing down the positive development.

"Traffic should be our servant," says Lars Peter Lindfors, Senior Vice President, Technology, Neste Oil.

Society cannot function without moving passengers and cargo. We need to decide how traffic could be made more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Lindfors believes that the challenge can be overcome.

"Fuels and vehicles have so far been developed to respond to the challenges, and we have no reason to suspect that the required development could not be achieved in the future."

Renewable drop-in fuels play a significant part in reducing traffic emissions, partly because of the long service life of vehicles.

"We should keep in mind that vehicle technology and the car pool change very slowly," Lindfors says. "If a company introduces a new model today, they will still be manufacturing it after 2020. These cars will be used in traffic until 2035–2040."

Modern renewable fuels can be an effective solution to the environmental challenge. Furthermore, they are often the most environmentally friendly solution.

Up to 50 percent less emissions from renewable fuel

Usually, the debate regarding emissions revolves only around emissions produced by vehicles, i.e. tank-to-wheels, which means that the CO2 emissions of an electric car are estimated as zero. However, when we study the entire fuel lifecycle, we get a very different picture.

A report by the European Commission, the car industry, and the fuel industry was completed last spring. It states that the CO2 emissions of a vehicle that uses biofuel may be even lower than the emissions of an electric car.

According to the survey, the average CO2 emissions of an electric car are 57 grams per kilometer when the average emissions of electricity production in Europe are taken into account.

The total emissions of renewable fuel are much lower, 24 grams per kilometer. These emissions originate from fuel production and transportation (well-to-tank). The carbon dioxide that is released when driving ends up back into plants.

Lindfors notes that the CO2 emissions of an internal combustion engine car that uses renewable fuel are more than 50 percent lower than the emissions of an electric car, when the average emissions of electricity production in Europe is used as a basis for calculation. The difference is more than fourfold when these emissions are compared to the emissions of fossil fuels (106 grams per kilometer).

Renewable fuels from waste

Neste Oil responds to the future challenges with its new generation of renewable fuels. They are based on the principle of responsibility.

According to Lindfors, roughly two-thirds of the renewable raw materials used by Neste Oil are waste (animal waste oil, waste oil from the fish processing industry, fatty acid distillates, technical corn oil, etc.).

"Our goal is to be able to use only waste raw materials by 2017", he reveals.

Neste Oil is a pioneer also in terms of the quality of renewable fuel. The consistency of Neste Oil's NEXBTL diesel, manufactured using the HVO method, is similar to that of fossil diesel, which means that it can be used in any modern car. Due to its purity, renewable diesel is actually superior to fossil diesel.

It does not give rise to any of the problems associated with traditional biodiesels (FAME). According to Lindfors, traditional biodiesel is known to have caused blockages in the fuel filters, especially in the winter season.

Legislation causes problems

There is an obstacle to the use of renewable fuels, however. Lindfors says that the current vehicle legislation and the related taxation legislation are not neutral in terms of the different technologies.

"According to the current legislation, an electric car does not produce any CO2 emissions, i.e. the legislation does not take into account emissions from the production of the electricity. On the other hand, the taxation of internal combustion engine cars is always based on the use of fossil fuels. The vehicle legislation does not take into account the fact that an internal combustion engine is able to process renewable fuels which CO2 emissions – from the vehicle's viewpoint – are zero."

"The legislators should look at the bigger picture, meaning that they should take into account both the vehicle and the fuel," Lindfors says. CO2 emissions should be studied according to the well-to-wheels principle that takes into account the fuel's entire lifecycle.” Alternatively the CO2 emissions when using biofuels should be determined as zero in compliance with the Biofuel Directive principle. This would lead to a neutral attitude towards electric cars and biofuels.

Lindfors points out, that renewable fuels truly reduce CO2 emissions. In 2013, a greenhouse gas emission reduction equivalent to annual emissions of 1.8 million passenger cars was achieved with NEXBTL renewable diesel.

Major development potential in vehicles

The fuel consumption levels of cars have clearly decreased in the past few years. Lindfors believes that the consumption will continue to decrease.

"Cars should consume as little fuel as possible, regardless of whether the fuel is fossil or renewable. That is the only responsible way to avoid the squandering of resources."

We need more ways of getting from point A to point B with less emission. In many cases, biofuels are the most environmentally friendly option.