Biofuels and electromobility - competitors or partners?

Last week the National Platform for Electromobility published its second interim report, whereupon the Federal Government published a "National Government Program for Electromobility". On this occasion, I would like to investigate the question today of the relationship between the two most promising mobility alternatives, which are able to replace petroleum-based mobility in the medium term - biofuels and electromobility.

The demand for finite oil continues to increase and the prices per barrel for the "black gold" also increase (see article). If we do not want to make the beloved freedom of driving a luxury item in the medium term, we have to think in good time about alternative mobility scenarios that are not so closely linked to oil. That is exactly what is already being done in many areas.

Biofuels and electromobility are probably the most important mobility alternatives at the moment. Bioethanol suffered a setback at the beginning of the year with the introduction of E10, but this is not necessarily due to the biofuel itself, but rather to poor planning when it was launched. The fact is, the more a mobility alternative penetrates into our everyday life, the more it has to assert itself in the light of the public and withstand the critical assessment by society.

Facts about electric mobility and electric vehicles

The media presence of electromobility is great and it is also an important topic at the major auto shows. Here are some facts about electric mobility and electric vehicles:

  • Vehicles produce very low direct emissions (noise, air pollutants)
  • Have a good carbon footprint if the electricity used to charge the battery comes from renewable energies
  • The number of automobiles registered for German road traffic has so far been low and is below 5.000.
  • By 2020, 1 million electric vehicles should drive on German roads (National Electromobility Development Plan)
  • The costs to reach this volume target are expected to be between 0,8 and 2,7 billion euros by 2020 (Source: Research Network Energy Impuls OWL).
  • There are currently several model regions in Germany in which vehicles and new infrastructures are being tested
  • The average range of electric cars is currently around 200 km / charge with a charging time of around 2,5 hours
  • With only a few models to date, an electric vehicle can be purchased for just € 7.000
  • Here is an overview with photos of the currently available electric vehicles

Electromobility as a competitor for bioethanol and biodiesel?

Sometimes I watch in Articles and comments on biofuels or electromobility is a form of mutual fear of one another. This respect can be understood in terms of economic strategy, because both are usually mentioned in the same breath when it comes to the development of more climate-friendly mobility.

After all, it is about opening up a huge market in which even biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel are already exposed to a competitive situation. As a decision-maker in the biofuels industry, the potential impact of electromobility, which can be difficult to grasp on the infrastructure of the transport system, can be a headache.

Just think of the investments in the biofuel industry, which eventually turned into bad investments because the tax burden for biodiesel has changed very much to the negative and the demand for it Biodiesel has broken in. However, this kind of unpredictable development can affect any innovative technology.

In any case, I believe that the mobility of the future will offer enough space for both biofuels and electromobility, and finding an alternative is the most important goal.

Electromobility is a competitor for the bioenergy industry because it can buffer the fluctuating energy from wind and solar energy. The privilege of storable, renewable fuel energies was previously reserved exclusively for bioenergy.

At the moment, electric mobility still has various disadvantages, which is why it is not yet as flexible to use as biofuels. Even a solidly functioning electric car with an equivalent range and similar fueling times as with classic combustion vehicles still has some obstacles (see discussion after the Article on the introduction of E10).

Electromobility also does not provide a direct energy source, but rather corresponds to a certain type of energy distribution. It should not be forgotten that the installation of an infrastructure for electromobility, such as the production of appropriate automobiles and the construction of a dense network of charging stations, has not yet produced a single kilowatt hour of renewable electricity.

Internal combustion engine vs. Electric motor

The development of the internal combustion engine has been an engineering masterpiece that, with the steam engine as a pioneer, has had a major impact on the industrial revolution. The decentralized use of large amounts of energy is decisively promoted by converting the chemical energy of a fuel into mechanical energy (work).

The triumphal march of the automobile is also closely linked to the further development of the internal combustion engine. German engineers such as Carl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Rudolf Diesel, Nicolaus Otto or Felix Wankel have contributed decisive pioneering work to the development and thus laid the foundation for the very good reputation of the German automotive industry worldwide.

The internal combustion engine has been improved bit by bit in 150 years of development history and adapted to the wishes of customers. Nevertheless, machine builders believe that they still have great development potential.

The first electric motor is about the same age as the first internal combustion engine and also dates from the first half of the 19th century. The electric motor converts electrical energy into mechanical energy and is the counterpart to the generator, which converts mechanical work into electrical current.

The combination of both engine types is possible and can be realized with a hybrid drive. Depending on the respective situation (city traffic, highway), the internal combustion engine or the electric motor is used.

Advantages and disadvantages of biofuels and electromobility

Cooperation opportunities

Can electromobility and the use of biofuels exist in parallel in the automotive sector or will one of the mobility alternatives prevail in the medium term?

I personally hope that, above all, there will be lively partnerships between the two drive alternatives. Even if there will of course be sporting competition between the two mobility scenarios, I am convinced that interesting scenarios can be developed that combine bioenergy and electromobility in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Due to the development of automobiles and engines, car manufacturers are the decisive interface which can influence the form of the alternative mobility scenario. This is where it is decided whether electric cars, modern biofuels or hybrid vehicles in particular are to be brought onto the market.

Hopefully, in the medium term, when buying a car, the customer can decide which engine type should be installed in the selected model. That would be a relatively democratic way of imposing responsibility on motorists to which mobility scenario they want to personally contribute. I cannot answer whether such a flexible design of automobiles will be economically justifiable.

I see approaches for cooperation between the biofuels and electromobility sectors in the following points:

  • Production of electricity from biomass (biodiesel, bioethanol, biomethane, Hydrogen) in decentralized incineration plants and subsequent use of electricity to charge the batteries of electric vehicles
  • Decoupling the infrastructure from petroleum-based mobility
  • Use of the batteries of electric cars as storage for excess bioenergy.
  • Distribution of different mobility areas in which one of the scenarios promises advantages (big city, local transport, less densely populated regions, countries with little developed power grids / developing countries etc.)

Design a shared vision of biofuels and electromobility!

In my experience, the modern use and further development of biofuels on the one hand and the use of electromobility on the other hand appeals to various people who do not have much in the other scenario (at least currently). I see reasons for this in the following points.

While the ultimate combustion of biomass in the use of biofuels is often morally obsolete or reprehensible for the supporters of electromobility, the lack of support from agriculture, the large amounts of raw materials for the manufacture of batteries and the risk of using fossil fuels in electromobility often a veto among the supporters of biofuels.

Both mobility scenarios are relatively far apart from each other in their basic approach (see also Article on the "sex appeal of bioenergy"). BUT both forms have a common root in the desire to provide an alternative to petroleum-based mobility and thus also to support climate protection, for example. Both mobility scenarios should also be aware of this common root and the common goal and bundle their desire to change the current mobility in joint measures.

Biofuels and electromobility are not competitors at many levels, but address various problems. Above all, bioenergy provides a modern and decentralized “degradable” energy source, while electromobility provides low-emission and powerful drive technology.

I would be very happy about joint projects to rebuild the infrastructure and maybe one or the other already has an idea in stock that he / she would like to share in a comment.

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