Politically intended deception on the economic viability of synfuels

The long-term scarce green electricity will be reserved for necessary applications. The energy for additional luxury consumers such as e-cars will come primarily from the reconversion of synfuels. This will eliminate the efficiency advantage of electromobility.

The amount of green electricity available in Europe will be far from sufficient to meet immediate needs and, in addition, to produce enough chemical energy carriers. The electricity needed to close the energy gap will only be able to be generated from renewable sources in very distant countries. But how can this energy get from there to Europe? Neither electric power nor the electrolysis product hydrogen can be transported economically over long distances. This leaves only the option of converting the hydrogen into more transportable energy carriers in the producing countries.

This is associated with major disadvantages. The efficiency of hydrogen electrolysis is 70 to 80 %.*1 After further processing into synthetic fuels, about half of the energy is already lost*2. On the other hand, there is one major advantage: the volumetric energy density of synfuels is much higher. One liter of gasoline contains 3.7 times as much energy as one liter of liquid hydrogen.*3 Correspondingly fewer ships, pipelines, port, storage and processing capacity are needed – which, moreover, already exist in the consumer countries: Synfuels can largely be transported, processed and consumed using existing infrastructure.

Hydrogen produced by electrolysis in distant countries will therefore be converted into methane, liquid hydrocarbons or ammonia before intercontinental transport. To avoid transport costs, hydrogen will be imported to Europe as little as possible, but produced locally. If the electricity from our own RE capacity is not sufficient, synfuels will have to be reconverted – as well as to bridge dark periods.

Efficiency and yield

One frequent objection to synfuels is that the conversion losses are far too high. This tempts some representatives of the scientific community to make comments like these (translated to English):

„That’s why, depending on estimates, only 10 percent or less of e-fuels arrive at the wheel. Professor Fichtner calculates that 27 kWh of electricity are needed to produce one liter of e-diesel from CO2 and hydrogen. With that, even large e-SUVs can travel more than 100 kilometers. Economical e-cars travel 10 times further with the amount of energy contained in the e-diesel.“*4

Fichtner’s figures are roughly accurate, and his argumentation seems convincing at first glance. The reader gets the impression that it is about a comparison of two possible uses for the green electricity generated in this country. With 70 to 80 % efficiency, the electric car seems to perform unbeatably well. In contrast, its use as e-fuel involves a long chain of conversions: The electricity is first converted into hydrogen and then into e-fuel, with great losses. Finally, this is used to power an internal combustion engine, which wastes well over 60 % of the fuel as heat, depending on the operating state. Fichtner wants the reader to believe that e-fuels are a waste of energy.

But if you take a closer look and question the origin of the charging current, doubts arise. In fact, no green surplus electricity will be available for electromobility for decades to come. Electricity demand is running ahead of production due to the many electrification projects. It is true that as RE expansion increases, it will become more common, briefly and temporarily, for more green power to be produced than is demanded by end users at that time. However, this energy will also have to be used, as far as possible, to produce the scarce hydrogen.

Additional electrical energy to supply new electricity-consuming product groups (such as e-cars) and to bridge dark doldrums will therefore be supplied by thermal power plants, not unlike today. These will be fed with imported synfuels.

The electricity used to charge e-cars will therefore come predominantly from the reconversion of synfuels.

When considering the system as a whole, the conversion losses of synfuel production are equally reflected in the energy efficiencies of the e-car and the e-fuel burner. And since the poor efficiency of the internal combustion engine is matched by an equally poor efficiency of the chain of thermal power plant, power transmission and charging management, no efficiency advantages can be attributed to the e-car over the e-fuel-powered internal combustion engine in the long term.

Meaningful statements about the efficiency of e-fuels also require taking into account the location-dependence of the yields of photovoltaic and wind turbine systems. The differences are considerable:*5

Theoretically possible
Yield [%]
South Africa3.061275,320
Middle East5.5834911,924
United Arab Emirates1.883164,225
Tabelle 6: Yield of PV systems in 2019 depending on location

Identical PV systems supply more than twice as much electricity in North Africa as in Germany, which compensates for a large part of the conversion losses. Correct well-to-wheel considerations therefore largely invalidate the efficiency reservations against PtL:

„The operation of a passenger car with green PtL arithmetically requires a PV capacity of 6 kW in North Africa, a passenger car with battery with 5.7 kW almost as much in Germany.“ *6

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters when considering the system as a whole is the total cost. Thomas Korn, founder of the KEYOU company, has summed this up succinctly:

„Energy efficiency must be viewed in a differentiated way. The sun radiates usable energy that exceeds the current global energy consumption by a factor of five thousand. If only one percent of the world’s desert areas were used to operate solar thermal systems, for example, the entire current energy demand could be generated. Energy is the only raw material that we get 24/7 continuously delivered from outside our planet – and that for us unimaginable, almost infinite time. In the right latitudes, renewable energies already show lower energy generation costs than conventional coal-fired power plants, or the use of natural gas or nuclear energy.“* 7

The cost issue is considered by many experts to be settled:

„If the costs of electromobility are used to subsidize synthetic fuels from renewable production in sun-rich countries, nearly 600 million tons of CO2 can be saved in Germany by 2030, representing a significant contribution to CO2 reduction. From the early 1930s, synthetic fuels could reach cost parity, which would allow the entire German transport sector to switch to synthetic fuels.“ *8

There is thus no question about the importance of synfuels for the further energy transition:

  • Far more green power will be needed than can be produced in this country, and energy will only be economically importable in large quantities in the form of synfuels
  • As long as there are no sufficiently large electricity storage facilities, the reconversion of synfuels into electricity in thermal power plants provides security of supply (nuclear power plants also do this, but are politically blocked in the DACH countries).
  • Existing vehicles can only be de-fossilized with synfuels

The energy transition will therefore only succeed if Europe builds synfuel production capacities in faraway countries. Politicians have so far done their best to prevent this by refusing to classify vehicles powered by synfuels as climate-neutral. Without this market segment, an important incentive for large-scale investment is missing.

The first companies are overcoming this resistance and are already taking action today:

„Porsche is building a pilot plant for e-fuels in Chile. The e-fuels are to be used as early as 2022. … The plant’s initially small volume of 130,000 liters by the end of 2022 is to be ramped up within the following two years so that 55 million liters of synthetic fuel will be produced by then. By 2026, the partners even want to produce more than ten times that amount.“ *9

This is an excerpt from the new chapter „Outlook into the Future“ of the second edition of my book „Der Elektroautoschwindel“.
Kai Ruhsert, 20. März 2022


1 https://www.energie-lexikon.info/elektrolyse.html

2 https://www.now-gmbh.de/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/EPP_Abschlussbericht.pdf

3 https://www.bmvi.de/SharedDocs/EN/Documents/VerkehrUndMobilitaet/cep-mini-flyer-with-technical-facts.pdf

4 https://www.auto-motor-und-sport.de/tech-zukunft/alternative-antriebe/e-fuels-13-fragen-und-antworten-synthetische-kraftstoffe-wahrheit/

5 https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/xlsx/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2020-all-data.xlsx

6 https://www.frontier-economics.com/media/4297/rpt-frontier-uniti_mwv_effizienz-antriebssysteme_26-10-2020-stc.pdf

7 https://automotive-opinion.com/2020/06/23/h2-der-kraftstoff-der-zukunft-mit-wasserstoff-kann-der-verbrenner-ewig-leben/

8 https://www.sac-group.eu/mobility-germany/

9 https://www.auto-motor-und-sport.de/tech-zukunft/alternative-antriebe/synthetische-kraftstoffe-porsche-intensiviert-e-fuel-forschung/

Pic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrofuel#/media/File:Fossil_fuel_and_wind_power.jpg

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