Transport is one of the most energy-intensive sectors. It uses 30% of the world’s total final energy consumption. Many of the vehicles we see on the roads today run on fossil fuels. In 2016, transport emissions from road, rail, air and marine transportation — accounted for 24% of global CO2 emissions. Hang on there is more. Emissions growth in the transport sector is the highest of all sectors and is expected to increase by over one-third by 2030. Terrifying, isn’t it?
This is exactly why we need an alternative. One of the earliest solutions to this problem was urging people to use public transport. People started to carpool to their place of work. Others dusted off their bicycles and rode them on busy streets. All of these are valiant efforts, but they are simply not enough.
Thus, (and I am going to sound a little preachy here) to truly reduce carbon emissions in the transport sector, we need to stop using fossil fuels altogether and replace them with sustainable alternatives – Renewable Energy!
Setting the Stage – The Current Energy Landscape in Transport
Technological advances have enabled alternative and transitional energy sources for the transport sector. Vehicles using energy sources such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), electricity, and biofuels are becoming more widely used. This reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and curbs our impact on the environment.
However, the transition to these new technologies on a large scale has several challenges. This includes the high cost of technology, lack of adequate infrastructural development, policy support or even incentives for companies or people to transition.
But a lack of rigorous push for alternative energy is not just the fear of the new. Fossil fuels have the technical advantage of being ‘energy dense’. This means that a little bit of fossil fuels can provide much more energy than renewables. Such characteristics tend to favour fossil fuels and hence are the dominant sources of energy. In fact, 95% of transport energy comes from oil-based fuels.
So, without a serious energy intervention in transportation, it is difficult to achieve a sustainable future for our planet.
Source: International Energy Agency
Out with Old, in with the New – Can New Technologies Make A Difference?
Before we discuss if the alternative sources can sustain the future of transportation, let’s see what types of alternatives have been developed so far. (Some of them are quite interesting!)
- Aviation – An aircraft called Alice, is designed to carry 9 passengers and can fly up to 1040 km at a speed of 440 km / h on one charged battery. The cost of fossil fuels for such small planes is about $ 400 per 100 miles. However, according to Alice developers, the cost of covering the same distance will be $ 8. If electricity is generated from renewable energy sources, then the aircraft will be carbon-free.
- Railways – The railway sector carries 8% of passengers in the world and 7% of cargo, accounting for 2% of the total demand for transport energy. A solar-powered train has already become a reality in Australia – Byron Bay. It uses solar panels on trains and platforms to power batteries that control circuits and equipment on the train.
- Water transport – Integrated solar and wind power on shipping vessels can reduce about 10-40% of fuel consumption. Another technology – Skysail, uses towing kites to propel the ship forward that reduce engine load and fuel consumption.
- Automobile – According to IEA, global reserves of electric passenger cars in 2018 exceeded 5 million, which is 63% more than in the previous year. This does not just stop here. At the end of 2018, the number of charging points in the world was approximately 5.2 million, which is 44% more than the previous year.
Such technological advancements have certainly proved that adopting renewable energy in transport is possible. So why do we not see a quicker transition?
Awaiting the Push towards Renewable Energy
Although such transition is urgently needed to avoid climate change, governments have not yet supported such a progressive policy initiative. This is because converting the present-day transport system appears to be difficult. There are several reasons for this:
- Firstly, for renewables in transport to become popular, they must be competitive against fossil fuels. Competitive not just in terms of providing energy but also being cost-effective.
- Integrated renewable electricity in the existing electrical grid requires huge investments and infrastructural development. This is important to make large scale use of electric vehicles (EV) possible.
- Further, a large part of innovation requires remodeling car engines. Although we have existing hybrid models that use a mix of electric motor and combustion engine and have been effective.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel with the development of fully electric cars. Growth rates for EV have been enormous and prove to be promising. But the question now is whether a 100% transition to renewable energy for transportation is possible?
Source: EV Volumes
100% Renewable Energy – Ideal or Practical?
To be honest, we do not know. But some data shows that we have a promising start. For instance, a 100% renewable transport system that delivers the same service as world transport in 2014 would demand about 18% less energy. The main reduction is expected in road transport (69%) due to the larger scope for efficiency of battery power.
However, getting to this stage will involve several risks for developers and investors. Ideally, this should not stop them. We all know how that often goes. , governments should step in and put in place a set of measures to anticipate these risks and provide guarantees or incentives to early investors to continue progress in this sector.
A study on Renewables in transport laid out several recommendations for this transition period that included:
- For EVs to gain popularity, there should be access to charging points within short distances. Customers can only then move to EVs without being worried or use them only for short distances.
- Improvement of energy efficiency not only by using the best technologies available but also by acting on urban and public transport infrastructures.
- Fostering transport as a Service and car-sharing have great potential to decrease demand for energy and materials for road transport.
Investing in Renewable Energy
In the end, I believe that greater investments towards integrated renewable energy in transport can make a huge difference for our planet. To help with this, we need to reduce our travel and transportation to let the transition period be a lot smoother. Considering the pandemic has pushed many individuals to work from home, our need to use transport can be reduced if our work culture and lifestyle also sees a shift. Doesn’t sound too farfetched, does it?
If you want to know more about renewable energy, do lookout for our upcoming animated course on renewable energy. Click here to know more.
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- Global outlook for the transport sector in energy scenarios
- Energy End-Use: Transport
- Renewable Energy Pathways in Road Transport