Porsche is taking a dual approach to a future with zero tailpipe emissions — announcing this month that its pilot e-fuel plant had gone online with commercial production. In addition to its growing electric vehicle (EV) product line, the automaker has been investing heavily in e-fuels — not just as an alternative to reduce emissions from ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles already on the road, but as a part of its plan to continue at least some level of production after the company’s 2030 carbon-neutral goal.
But while this rush to EVs and sourcing e-fuel (also known as electrofuels or synthetic fuels) could be a practical way of reducing greenhouse gasses when combined with an overall scaling down of the auto industry, in its current manifestation, this is just another way for the purveyors of personal passenger vehicles to protect their profits.
Located in Punta Arenas, Chile, the Haru Oni plant produces synthetic fuel from water and carbon dioxide. The plant runs on wind energy, making it “nearly CO2-neutral,” according to the automotive brand’s announcement. Porsche chose the South American country due to its windy climate, noting that the breezes are flowing almost three-quarters of the year in southern Chile.
According to manufacturers, e-fuels are interchangeable with gasoline: They can be transported just the same and used in combustion engines the same as regular gasoline. Further, these fuels can even be dispensed using the same filling stations that are already in place for gasoline. This means that unlike the switch to EVs, no new infrastructure is needed.
Michael Steiner, who sits on Porsche’s Executive Board for Development and Research, said in the company’s announcement, “The potential of e-fuels is huge. There are currently more than 1.3 billion vehicles with combustion engines worldwide. Many of these will be on the roads for decades to come, and e-fuels offer the owners of existing cars a nearly carbon-neutral alternative.”
But expecting e-fuels to completely take the place of gasoline anytime soon is wishful thinking at best considering that the U.S. alone burned through 134.8 billion gallons of the fuel in 2021. Meanwhile, Porsche is planning to produce just over 34,000 gallons of the synthetic stuff in the plant’s pilot year with a mid-decade goal of 145.3 million gallons per year — a fraction of the overall demand for combustible fuel.
While there certainly are other companies making their own e-fuels, it’s not anywhere near the scale that is needed. Nor is it realistic to expect an immense ramp-up in production in the near future. In fact, according to a report by the environmental group Transport & Environment, as of 2035 European production is expected to be enough for just two percent of the vehicles in Europe. Yet, automakers may be pinning their hopes for circumventing the European Union’s ban on new ICE sales by the same timeframe on an unrealistic switch to e-fuels.
Porsche is aiming for more than 80 percent of the vehicles it manufactures to be all-electric by 2030, but it also plans to continue to sell the original gasoline versions of its sports cars presumably under the guise of e-fuel availability. However, even if e-fuel were widely available at that time – and even if the production of synthetic fuel was such that gasoline production could be completely discontinued by that time – the push for carbon-neutral alternatives is actually about saving the auto industry, not the planet.
The focus on tailpipe emissions misses the point altogether and has become more of a marketing slogan than an actual environmental strategy. Chevrolet demonstrates this perfectly with its “EVs for Everyone” campaign — an insane suggestion for a planet with eight billion people on it. Not only does prematurely replacing a regular car with an EV result in more environmental damage and CO2 output, but the ubiquity of the personal passenger vehicle is not an environmentally viable option even with the complete cessation of tailpipe emissions.
There are simply too many of us to continue this model, let alone spread it to the developing world. EVs and e-fuels are an encouraging direction for passenger vehicles, but the sheer number of those vehicles cannot continue, let alone increase without causing further environmental damage. Expanding highways take habitat away from wildlife, leach chemicals into the ground and increase noise pollution, among other consequences. Parking lots take up prime real estate and litter the landscape — with parking taking up more space than housing in cities like Los Angeles. Nothing is produced in a vacuum — there is a carbon footprint for every component of every car, regardless of whether it is emissions-free and no matter how many carbon sinks the manufacturer has purchased credits in.
Real reductions in greenhouse gasses requires changing how we think about transportation altogether.
Image credit: Greg Banek via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.