EurActiv - Letters to the Editor

Sir,

Regarding ‘Brussels pushes for electric cars‘:

The European Commission (EC) released a communication on 28 April in response to a request from the Spanish Presidency to prepare a report on Clean Fuel Vehicles, focusing specifically on electric vehicles (EVs). Spain now produces as much as 30% of its electricity from renewable sources, including solar and wind energy.

The European Commission’s response is an attempt to meet ‘political requirements’ by enthusiastically supporting electric vehicles but within a strategy that aims to provide an appropriate and technology-neutral policy framework for clean and energy-efficient vehicles. It recommends following a twin approach: promoting clean and energy-efficient vehicles based on conventional internal combustion engines and facilitating the deployment of breakthrough technologies in ultra low-carbon vehicles.

The communication includes specific types of alternatives: electricity, hydrogen, biogas, and liquid biofuels in ‘high blends’. The overall emphasis is on plug-in hybrid and ‘pure’ electric vehicles.

This new initiative is part of an overall strategy called ‘Research Efficient Europe’ and within this framework it sets out a pragmatic set of proposals that it believes will enable the industry to achieve very ambitious market penetration targets for EVs, recognising (and assuming) that economies of scale will have to make EVs more affordable to consumers: 1-2% market penetration by 2020; and 11-30% by 2030.

Among the specific action headings for electric vehicles are proposals facilitating market placement, standardisation of charging and refuelling infrastructure interfaces and emphasis on both public fast charging and slower home recharging.

Importantly, some tangible obstacles to EV commercialisation also are recognised: the lack of battery energy storage capacity; challenges of battery EVs operated in cold and hot environments; recognition of batteries using rare earth metals from limited geographical areas; and the requirement to develop a network of battery recycling facilities.

The policy portfolio supporting ‘greener vehicles’ includes continuing measures for reducing vehicle emissions, such as implementing the regulation on CO2 emissions from cars by 2011, fuel consumption of mobile air conditioning systems, and a strategy targeting fuel consumption and CO2 emissions from heavy vehicles. New emissions regulations will be proposed to reduce CO2 in vans to175 g/km by 2014 (applied to all new vans from 2016 onward) and target 135 g/km by 2020. Lower NOx limits for cars may be proposed by 2016. The plan also includes derogations for small vehicle manufacturers.

The Commission also promotes research into second generation liquid biofuels. But the general inability to come up with a meaningful and practical definition of sustainability (i.e. something simple that can be implemented and enforced) is not addressed. The statement mentions biogas among the potential biofuels to be supported but does not address any specific proposals to encourage biogas and biomethane.

Natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas vehicles (LPG) are mentioned in passing as having an established regulatory framework that can be a model for EVs. But the gaseous fuels are marginalised through omission despite the fact that (or because?) there are over 11 million NGVs and 15 million LPG vehicles worldwide and these options are not promoted as ‘how to get where we want to be’ in a future dominated by EVs or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Also included is a mid-term review of CO2 legislation for both private cars and light vehicles (vans) in 2013. In overseeing these developments, the Commission will re-launch the CARS 21 High Level Group, a 2005 effort including the EU automotive industry, the European Commission, the European Parliament, member states, trade unions, NGOs and consumers to improve its competitiveness towards the main global competitors.

Does the new communication signal a European policy leading to a more balanced approach for alternative fuels? Though the Communication reinforces the need to generate more renewable electricity, it also recognises some ‘realities’ and challenges of moving new fuels and technologies to market. It says, for example, “the feasibility of hydrogen technology for mobile applications remains very difficult […] due to the very high cost of the technology and the need to provide a fuelling infrastructure”.

The Communication also suggests that the Commission will attempt to achieve better balance in its approach to advocating clean and efficient vehicle technologies. Clearly the new Communication is an attempt by the Commission – drawn from multiple directorate generals touching upon climate, environment, industry and transport – to be somewhat less disjointed than some of its past alternative fuel transportation policy initiatives. As in many countries, the EU travels on a rollercoaster of support for hydrogen fuel cells, gasoline-electric hybrids, liquid biofuels and now EVs.

But there seems to be a stronger realisation by the Commission that there are multiple directions on the road to the future.

Jeffrey Seisler (Clean Fuels Consulting) & Kevin Leydon (Leydon & Associates)

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