Plug-in Future

Plug-in Future

Are EVs really the solution to Europe’s environmental problems? And if so,
what happens if everybody rushes to adopt them? Could the electricity grid and materials supplies possibly cope? Or would a migration to more lowcarbon liquid fuels be a better answer? These are among the competing scenarios for 2050 tested by Ricardo in a ground-breaking new study that has set commentators talking. 

With September’s IPCC report on climate change as a timely wake-up call, Europe’s policymakers face weighty decisions on how the continent’s road transport should best drive into the low-carbon future enshrined in EU legislation. Will that future be electric? What about hydrogen power?

Or could super-clean designer fuels be part of the solution, if not the complete answer? Whilst battery power is seen as working well in light-duty passenger cars and vans, it is significantly less suited to use in larger
and heavier vehicles. What is more, unless charging demand is carefully managed, a mass rollout of electric vehicles would place huge stresses on the electricity supply infrastructure, requiring significant investment.

Better and speedier, argue some, would be to accelerate the shift to low-carbon liquid fuels. These offer the hugely tempting advantage of retaining large parts of the existing fuel supply infrastructure, and they can potentially go directly into the gasoline and diesel vehicles we are already using today.

Each of these scenarios is fraught with unknowns. How much and how fast
will battery technology improve? How easily can electricity supply networks be expanded? Is there enough lithium for the billions of extra battery cells that will be required? Will the liquid fuels industry be able to scale up its currently lab-based processes many thousand-fold to supply
enough low-carbon fuels to power our conventional cars into a clean future?

Scenario planning

In the face of so many wild-card variables, detailed policymaking might appear nigh-on impossible. But Ricardo’s stateof-the-art scenario planning process provides a very useful strategic tool to explore the likely outcomes and possible consequences of a variety of proposed future scenarios. And this is precisely the type of exercise Ricardo has recently undertaken in collaboration with Concawe, the environmental science organization for
the European fuels industry.

Challenged to examine potential pathways to achieving a major reduction
in European automotive GHG emissions by 2050 compared with business-as-usual (BAU) projections, the study developed two deliberately very contrasting scenarios.

The first assumed a near-universal uptake of electric vehicles in the light-duty sectors, while the second relied more on combustion-engined vehicles and the phased replacement of today’s gasoline and diesel with their low-carbon biofuel or eFuel equivalents, combined with a lower
(46 percent) share of plug-in vehicles. Both scenarios were scoped to deliver tank-to-wheel (TTW) GHG savings of 90 percent compared with 1990 figures, as well as a reduction in total parc lifecycle GHG emissions to 13 percent of their 2015 value.

Working back from each of these postulated snapshots for 2050, the
scenario planners had to weigh up many hundreds of different contributory factors – not only the headline questions mentioned
above, but other less obvious influences as diverse as EV drivers’ charging behaviours, Europe’s high-voltage transmission grid, and the likely future stability of nations supplying key raw materials. Ricardo’s transport policy analysis model, SULTAN, originally developed for the European Commission, was used to explore these and many other parameters, allowing each to be evaluated in terms of its influence on the overall scenario. As an example, the study found a very high sensitivity to the likely
future costs of EV batteries, the availability of low carbon fuels, and also significant risks associated with the supply of lithium.

Labelled High-EV (HiEV) and Low Carbon Fuels (LCF) respectively, the scenarios present very different pictures of how the European car and van market might look in 2050. Yet a note of warning is appropriate at this point: intriguing though these hypothetical outcomes undoubtedly
are, it is vital to stress that these are not forecasts but possible future situations developed by Ricardo specialists using many sets of assumptions and expert judgements as to the weightings to be applied to each one of the contributory influences. As such, the scenarios represent opposite extremes that are unlikely to occur: clearly, the out-turn will be somewhere in between, but analysis of the scenarios can be very helpful in providing
planners with insights into the potential implications of a move towards either extreme. A halfway-house Alternative Scenario has been modelled, too.

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