E-Fuels, Renewable Natural Gas, & Carbon Capture Are Deep Fakes

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Oh, the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth over the demise of fossil fuels. Everywhere you look, there is a story about how e-fuels can keep combustion engine cars on the road without burning gasoline, how renewable natural gas can keep generators spinning without creating carbon emissions, and how carbon capture will allow us to pretty much extend our fossil fuel wet dream forever.

The problem is, all of them hold some kernel of potential, but all of them are just another way for fossil fuel lovers to keep on doing what they have always done — make extraordinary profits from extracting, transporting, refining, distributing, and burning coal, oil, and methane gas. It’s a scam, people, and we have to stop believing that some form of magic pixie dust is going to keep those pistons pumping and those turbines spinning until the last molecule of fossil fuels has been burned — which means the last penny of profit has been realized.

E-Fuels

Porsche e-fuels
Porsche e-fuels facility in Chile. Image courtesy of Porsche.

Recently, the European Union caved to powerful special interests — primarily Porsche — by inserting language into its climate plans that condones e-fuels. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Porsche 911 is not going to be easy to convert to battery power. There are lots of well-heeled 911 owners who want to be able to drive their 911 Turbos in the Alps forever and a day.

So what if the fuel costs €10 a liter? They have the money and are willing to spend it so they can thrill to the sound of that magnificent boxer engine mounted way back over the rear wheels. Truthfully, a Porsche engine in full song is a magnificent aural experience. Porsche has established an e-fuel facility in Chile powered by that country’s abundant wind resources. The company has invested $100 million in e-fuels to date.

“Porsche is committed to a double-e path: e-mobility and e-fuels as a complementary technology. Using e-fuels reduces CO2 emissions. Looking at the entire traffic sector, the industrial production of synthetic fuels should keep being pushed forward worldwide. With this e-fuels pilot plant, Porsche is playing a leading role in this development,” said Barbara Frenkel, who is in charge of procurement at Porsche.

E-fuels are made in stages, according to The Guardian, but the central argument for them is that only renewable energy is used in each stage. First, electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then the hydrogen is combined with carbon captured from the carbon dioxide that results when fossil fuels are burned in a process that requires high pressure and a catalyst.

According to a report by Transport & Environment, by the time all this takes place, just 16% of the energy in the e-fuels that go into the tank is used to actually move a car down the road. This seems like an extraordinary waste of time and resources to soothe the ruffled feathers of a favored few. And yet, it was enough to get the European Commission to sign off on the loophole.“You’re basically trying to unburn petrol,” Michael Liebreich, a consultant on clean energy technologies. “You need an insane amount of solar to do that,” told The Guardian.

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The Rush Into Renewable Natural Gas

biodegester for renewable natural gas
Image credit: Vanguard Renewables

Let’s get something straight. There is no such thing as “natural gas,” any more than there is natural coal or natural oil. What we call natural gas is about 98% methane, one of the most potent of the greenhouse gases. Scientists say it is as much as 80 times more powerful as a climate warming agent than carbon dioxide. The principal difference is that methane “only” stays in the atmosphere for about 20 years, while carbon dioxide can hang around for up to 100 years.

People are beginning to question whether we should be burning as much methane as we do, and so the industry is desperate to drag a red herring across our path to divert our attention. Methane is methane, whether it comes from deep underground or from burping cows, or from rotting plant matter in landfills. Another huge source of methane is animal wastes.

Now fossil fuel companies are investing billions into capturing the methane in those waste ponds and landfills , which they are rebranding as “renewable natural gas.” Well, methane is methane, people. Put it in a pipeline with ordinary methane and it behaves exactly the same. “Renewable” or not makes no difference. It’s a climate killer no matter how you slice it.

There may be some benefit from keeping it out of the atmosphere, but it is not the solution that energy companies would have us believe it is. Despite all the buzz, the fuel is only expected to play a minor role in curbing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

While RNG can be considered ​“low-carbon” or even ​“zero-carbon,” depending on how it’s made, the reality is that people and cows only create so much waste. At most, RNG could displace around 16% of current fossil gas consumption, according to industry-supported research. Other studies suggest the share is much smaller, according to Canary Media.

Methane can leak from the digesters, landfills, storage tanks, and pipelines that handle both the raw materials and finished fuel products. If too much of the potent gas escapes into the atmosphere, it could offset the climate benefits associated with using RNG.

Critics say they worry that RNG is being touted as a transformative climate solution, on par with electrifying buildings and replacing methane-burning power plants with wind, solar, and other renewable sources. That refrain is often repeated by the US gas industry, which sees RNG as a means of justifying infrastructure expansion.

“The message you hear [from companies] that’s very persuasive for consumers is, ​‘Why do we need to get off the gas system if we can drop in a clean replacement instead?’” said Sasan Saadat, a senior research and policy analyst for the environmental organization Earthjustice. ​“We can keep all the same appliances in place and we’ll just substitute the clean fuel for the dirty fuel. What’s missing from that message is an honest assessment of how scant the supply of sustainable RNG is and how risky the potential is that RNG could actually increase climate impacts.”

Carbon Capture Is a Hoax

So where is the carbon needed to make e-fuels supposed to come from? Carbon capture, of course. You know, the technology that doesn’t work, has never worked, and is never likely to work, at least not from an economic perspective. Let’s be honest. Carbon capture is scam promoted by fossil fuel companies to divert our attention from the extensive environmental damage they do. It’s like the blatantly misleading algae research Exxon dazzled us with for decades before quietly shutting the project down recently.

The Takeaway

Remember that stat from T&E above, the one about how only 16% of the energy in e-fuels ever gets used to move a car forward? T&E also says hydrogen fuel cells are only 33% efficient, while electric cars are 77% efficient after all factors like inverter and charging losses are figured in. So, if you ran the world, would you prefer transportation systems that are 16% efficient or 77% efficient? Silly question, right? It’s a no-brainer.

A sustainable society cannot afford to squander so much energy. Let’s stop the end runs, the head fakes, and the misdirection plays. Electrification is the key to zero emissions transportation. End of story. Full stop.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5550 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley