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Fri 15 Nov 2019 01:12 AM

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Opinion: clean energy's dirty secret

Carmakers are pushing electric cars as the answer for climate change advocates, but if the electricity still comes from fossil fuel power stations has anything really changed?

Opinion: clean energy's dirty secret

Going electric The Dubai government estimates it could accommodate 32,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2020

“Fundamentally, the future of the automobile as we see it is electric,” Thomas Klein, the CEO for Mercedes Benz Middle East, told Arabian Business recently at the Dubai Motor Show.

“We’ll see more hybrids, but also more fully electric vehicles coming,” he said, and added that the wider adoption of electric vehicles is hampered by an incorrect “belief that there is some kind of disadvantage to driving electric cars… I can absolutely [say] that there is not.”

While it makes sense that the German carmaker might want to push the concept as it helps improve its image with environmentalists, but while in Paris last month for an interview with the CEO of Airbus ahead of this week’s Dubai Airshow, Guillaume Faury made a very interesting point that highlights a flaw in the whole electric power theory.

“Electricity is just a way to carry power, it’s not a source of energy. If a coal plant powers the electricity then it’s powered by coal,” he said. That’s a great point. If your electric car is powered by electricity that comes from a power station that burns coal or oil or any other fossil fuel can it really be classed as truly clean energy? Aren’t you just repacking the same problem?

Burning coal

In this part of the world this is certainly likely to be the case. At a time when you may think that coal is about to be erased from the pages of history and renewable energy has become much more fashionable, demand for coal is actually increasing, according to a report last year by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

After two years of declines, coal demand rose 1 percent in 2017 and accounted for 40 percent of all new power generation. While the US and Europe is looking to reduce usage, demand is rising in China and India and across most of Asia.

“If the electricity comes from the coal burning plant down the road is it really clean energy?”

This is also reflected closer to home. According to the UAE Energy Strategy 2050, the government wants to increase the contribution of clean energy, but coal will still account for 12 percent of power generation by the time we reach the middle of the current century.

And the source of the electricity you may be pumping into your electric car will soon more likely come from a coal source as Dubai is working on the Hassyan Clean Coal project, which is a $3bn power station currently under construction and due to begin operating next year.

Electrifying aviation

When it comes to planes, the Airbus boss said fully electric powered jets are still some way off. “We want to decarbonise aviation, therefore, we need liquid fuels because the energy density of kerosene is around 12,000 watt hours per kilogram. A battery is 200 to 500 watt hours per kilogram, it doesn’t work for us unless you’re going very short distances,” Faury believed.

But the dream of planes pumping out less CO2 emissions into the air isn’t too far into the future, it seems.

“Electricity is just a way to carry power... If a coal plant powers the electricity then it’s powered by coal”

“We are developing those technologies. We believe it will take three, four, five years to develop some of those technologies, then start the development somewhere in the middle of the second half of the decade to have planes entering into service before 2035 and we will start to decarbonise big time from 2035 onwards,” he said.

Electric dreams

Last year, the Dubai government reported that there was about 4,000 hybrid and electric vehicles on the road in Dubai, including fewer than 1,000 fully electric vehicles. It has set a “soft” target of 10 percent of all vehicles in Dubai to be electric by 2030, but Faisal Rashid, a director at the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy, said the challenge was persuading car dealers to offer more electric models for sale to consumers.

“Even today, if we give every incentive you can think of, there aren’t cars available,” he said. But then it comes back to the Airbus CEO’s stance: if the electricity comes from the coal burning plant down the road is it really clean energy?

Shane McGinley, Editorial Director of Arabian Business.