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Potential and Challenges of Low-carbon Energy Options: Comparative Assessment of Alternative Fuels for the Transport Sector


The deployment of low-emission alternative fuels is crucial to decarbonise the transport sector. A number of alternatives like hydrogen or dimethyl ether/methanol synthesised using CO2 as feedstock for fuel production (hereafter refer to “CO2-based fuels”) have been proposed to combat climate change. However, the decarbonisation potential of CO2-based fuels is under debate because CO2 is re-emitted to the atmosphere when the fuel is combusted; and the majority of hydrogen still relies on fossil resources, which makes its prospects of being a low-carbon fuel dependent on its manufacturing process. First, this paper investigates the relative economic and environmental performance of hydrogen (produced from conventional steam methane reforming and produced via electrolysis using renewable energy), and CO2- based fuels (dimethyl ether and methanol), considering the full carbon cycle. The results reveal that hydrogen produced from steam methane reforming is the most economical option and that hydrogen produced via electrolysis using renewables has the best environmental profile. Whereas the idea of CO2-based fuels has recently gained much interest, it has for the foreseeable future rather limited practical relevance since there is no favourable combination of cost and environmental performance. This will only change in the long run and requires that CO2 is of non-fossil origin, i.e. from biomass combustion or captured from air. Second, this paper address unresolved methodological issues in the assessment of CO2-based fuels, such as the possible allocation of emissions to the different sectors involved. The outcomes indicate that implementing different allocation approaches substantially influences the carbon footprint of CO2-based fuels. To avoid allocation issues, expanding the boundaries including the entire system and is therefore recommended.

Funding source: This research was carried out as part of the EDDiCCUT project ( EDDiCCUT was a 4-year research project (2012–2016) supported by the Norwegian Research Council under grant number 218952 and by an industrial consortium (Bharat Petroleum, Uniper, and Norske Shell)
Related subjects: Applications & Pathways
Countries: Netherlands

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