Synthetic fuels are the decarbonization tool we didn't know we needed

The Fourth Generation MARKET INTELLIGENCE | 10/27/2020 | BY AMELIA TIEMANN

When we talk about “switching to clean energy,” we usually think about putting up solar panels, wind farms, or nuclear power plants to “replace” fossil fuels. But these strategies only address electricity generation. Electricity is only 30-40% of the total energy pie, while other energy sectors—shipping, aviation, and industry, to name a few—will also need to be decarbonized. These sectors are called “difficult-to-decarbonize” sectors because they require entirely different approaches to become emissions-free.

Aviation, maritime ships, long-haul trucking, and industry all use hydrocarbons (gas, petroleum, oil, coal and coke) for fuel. These fuels are all highly energy dense (and highly emitting), making them ideal for long journeys, or achieving extreme temperatures for manufacturing. As such, these sectors are immensely difficult to run without them. We don’t yet have proven technology to fuel commercial jets or ships with solar-powered batteries, or run a factory on 100% renewable energy instead of much more reliable coal and natural gas. As a result, alternative fuels that can be swapped in for hydrocarbons are beginning to become attractive.

A new report by energy research and consultancy firm LucidCatalyst and NGO TerraPraxis says that carbon-neutral, hydrogen-enabled synthetic fuels might be the answer to transitioning these “difficult-to-decarbonize” sectors. Synthetic fuels—meaning fuels made chemically instead of mined from the earth—can be economically competitive with fossil fuels, according to the report.

This is a crucial breakthrough. First, implementing synthetic fuels gets rid of the need to electrify everything. Assuming these fuels are carbon neutral, all we have to do is swap them in for hydrocarbons. Second, they could replace the 50-60% of global emissions attributed to these sectors, at identical cost to cheap traditional fuels.

The report is titled “Missing Link to a Livable Climate: How Hydrogen-Enabled Synthetic Fuels Can Help Deliver the Paris Goals.” Its authors, Kirsty Gogan and Eric Ingersoll, believe that once they become competitive, these fuels can help speed the delivery of carbon-free solutions to meet the goal of limiting temperature increases outlined in the Paris Accord in 2015.

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