Electricity vs. Ethanol and The Death of Hydrogen?

Environment, Energy, R&D/Technology
Posted on: 05/21/09

Using biomass to generate electricity to power electric cars is more efficient than making biofuels for cars, according to a study published by the journal Science on May 7th.

Using biomass to generate electricity to power electric cars is more efficient than making biofuels for cars, according to a study published by the journal Science on May 7th. On the same day Shell CEO criticized electric cars as impractical and said “I want Shell to be really big in one renewable, and that will be biofuel,”. Shell did not mention hydrogen in this context, but during the very same week the U.S. Government decided to drop research on hydrogen fuel cell cars saying they would not be practical in the next 20 years.

The authors of the electricity-ethanol study, from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford and the University of California, Merced, calculated that generating electricity, by burning biomass in an efficient power station, delivered 80 per cent more mileage per acre of crops than conversion to ethanol for liquid fuel. It also doubled the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change. Of course, biofuels still give a driver more range than batteries, but the 80% difference in efficiency is by no means small. Read more about the findings here.

Royal Dutch Shell CEO, Jereoen van der Veer, was quick to react in Business Week saying that electric cars would need too much infrastructure but biofuels could use the existing infrastructure (of the oil companies of course). Van der Veer said Shell was not looking at wind or solar due to low returns on investment but would concentrate on biofuels as a renewable fuel. 1% of Shell’s investment last year was in biofuels.

Shell has been one of the open advocates of a hydrogen economy, but the Shell CEO did not mention that at all when talking about Shell’s plans for renewable fuels. Nothing much seems to be happening in hydrogen at Shell judging from the Shell Hydrogen website as the last thing to be posted there as “what’s new?” is more than one year old post.

U.S. Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, cut funding for hydrogen fuel cell cars from his budget for 2010 and seems to have angered proponents of hydrogen cars with the frequently heard comment that hydrogen is always at least 20 years away, whereas charging for plug-in electric vehicles can be done partly with the existing infrastructure and partly at special charging stations. “We asked ourselves,” Mr. Chu said, “‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no.’” See a great blog by Jim Motavalli on The Fight for Hydrogen Funding.
To get out of the trenches I would like to make a personal comment at the end that as was the first conclusion at the Driving Sustainability ´07 conference we will not be seeing a silver bullet solution for sustainable mobility but a multi-energy society. Sustainable varieties of biofuels already exist, electric cars are coming in 2011-2013 but will at first be more expensive to buy then traditional cars and I agree that hydrogen for transport is still a long way out, but might be a part of the future mix.

This view was firmly backed by the world’s largest automakers a few days ago in Vancouver Canada who agreed that “No single technology will triumph in the pursuit of a “greener” auto industry. Instead, the future will include a mix of cars powered by electricity, hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels. I might add to this much greater efficiency of the internal combustion engine, lighter materials and of course a change in urban design and human behaviour.



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