In the EU, the path to climate neutrality is quite simple: in addition to the ban on new cars with combustion engines, simply import e-fuels – and thus continue to use the technology in Europe in a climate-neutral manner: But it’s not that simple, a study shows.

If the EU countries have their way, the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines should be banned from 2035. Combustion cars that run on e-fuels, on the other hand, could still be allowed afterwards.

For the European Union, 2050 is the year in which it wants to be 100 percent climate-neutral. By 2030, the EU wants to reduce its emissions by at least 55 percent. In order for this to succeed, its member states are increasingly relying on technologies and infrastructure from renewable energies.

Since there is not enough free space in Europe for the construction of renewable energy sources and Africa and the Middle East are getting more hours of sunshine, there are plans to use solar and wind energy there for the production of synthetic fuels, also known as e-fuels to use. The products, such as methane and green hydrogen, which is produced by the electrolysis of water using only green electricity, are ultimately to be imported into the EU. According to the plans, the existing technology and infrastructure should simply continue to be operated in a climate-neutral manner.

But it’s not that easy, as a study published in January in which the Fraunhofer Institute for Energy Infrastructures and Geothermal Energy (IEG) was involved showed. The research team predicted a significant price increase for green hydrogen and methane in the coming decades.

According to this, a megawatt hour could cost more than 100 euros in 2030 – and even in 2050 the price could not be much lower. For comparison: At the time the study was published, methane cost around 30 euros per megawatt hour on the European raw materials market, according to the study. “The high costs show that importing e-fuels to Europe is not a cheap panacea to circumvent bottlenecks in the expansion of renewable energies or to achieve a transformation on the supply side,” said Ben Pfluger from Fraunhofer IEG.

E-fuels import expensive and time-consuming

Comparable risk premiums for investment capital as in Europe are decisive for the competitiveness of hydrogen imports from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. Transport costs also played a decisive role.

The study warned: “Too often, green hydrogen and fuel imports are used as gap-fillers in national energy conversion strategies.” The projects are “too big and too expensive”. It therefore requires strong political support and, in the long term, a high level of price certainty at which e-fuels can be purchased.

Researchers called on policymakers interested in importing green hydrogen or fuels to start developing policies. Because large infrastructure projects would have a correspondingly long lead time. Although e-fuel production in the region from North Africa to the Middle East is attractive, it is offset by developments in capital and transport costs. They could “reduce or even nullify the region’s advantages”.

“Germany cannot cover its need for green hydrogen alone”

The EU rates green hydrogen as essential to achieve the climate goals. To this end, it set up the joint European hydrogen project “Hydrogen-IPCEI” (Important Projects of Common European Interest). The EU Commission has already approved a ten-year German regulation, according to which Germany may support investments in the production of green hydrogen in non-EU countries with up to 900 million euros.

“Germany cannot cover its need for green hydrogen on its own,” the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has already stated. The reasons lie in the insufficient amount of wind and solar energy and not enough free space. However, since “industry, aviation and heavy goods traffic can be made climate-friendly” with the help of green hydrogen, the federal government has created the “Hydrogen Potential Atlas”. This is to analyze the potential for the production and export of green hydrogen in West and South Africa, for example. Specifically, it is about examining the conditions for the generation of renewable energies and the necessary infrastructure.

It is still unclear whether combustion cars powered by e-fuels will actually still be allowed to be registered after 2035. However, the EU Commission has promised to submit a corresponding proposal as to how only vehicles fueled with climate-friendly fuels can be registered after 2035.

Sources: IEG, BMWI, hydrogen lighthouse projects, with material from the DPA