Chased through the exhaust: Right technology, wrong purpose
A mega power plant in Patagonia produces green hydrogen and then synthetic gasoline from it. But that sets the wrong course.
The pilot project “ Haru Oni ” is progressing rapidly in the vast expanses of the Patagonian steppe in Chile. Less than a year after construction began, the synthetic gasoline (e-fuel) plant is almost complete . Green hydrogen is first produced from wind energy and water. This is then used to produce synthetic petrol using CO2 from the air. A consortium including Siemens Energy, Exxon and Porsche is in charge. The German luxury car manufacturer wants to buy the e-fuel.
The pilot plant will soon produce 130,000 liters of petrol per year, which is just 3-4 large tankers. But as early as 2026, the plant is to be expanded to a capacity of 500 million liters. For this purpose, 400 wind turbines with a capacity of two gigawatts are to rotate in the steppes of Patagonia.
Green hydrogen is a rare resource
An impressive example of German engineering. And at the same time a strikingly obvious proof of the fears of many experts that a central technology of a fossil-free future is being used for the wrong purposes and in senseless competition with the elementary needs of German and European key industries. Because green hydrogen is a rare resource: it is scarce, the “champagne of the energy transition”. So far, only a few per mille of all the hydrogen produced worldwide has been produced from green electricity, the rest is made from fossil fuels.
Even if green hydrogen production should grow as rapidly as some have predicted over the next few years, this substance will still be needed for a few decades to make those sectors of the economy CO2-free for which there are few alternatives: steel production, aerospace and long-distance sea transportation, some areas of chemical industry, just to name a few. Because it is hard to imagine that we could get by without steel or shipping anywhere in the world.
Individual car traffic and especially speeding on German autobahns are not among these applications. On the one hand, almost all countries show that you can make good and, above all, safer progress with a maximum speed of 120 km/h. On the other hand, there are much more efficient alternatives for car traffic, not to mention the train. With one kilowatt hour of green electricity, a modern car with lithium batteries gets about five times as far as a combustion engine with e-fuels. In other words: in order to make a certain volume of traffic CO2-free, you need five times as many wind turbines, solar panels and their raw materials for combustion engines with e-fuels as for electric cars with conventional batteries.
E-fuels have poor energy efficiency
The outgoing VW boss Herbert Diess understood this: “But the efficiency of e-fuels is extremely bad,” he says in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung . “You can imagine that for a few vehicles.”
In a world of unlimited clean energy, we might not care: if people are willing to pay for it, then – apart from the risk of accidents – it would be their innocent private pleasure to race down the Autobahn in a Porsche and enjoy the sound of the combustion engine .
But we don’t live in this world yet. Wind and sun are not in short supply, but the wind turbines and PV panels, the raw materials needed to build them, the factories, the workers are. The industry is producing at the limit and yet cannot keep up with the deliveries. Green electricity will remain scarce for a long time, just as tight as the CO2 budget that we still have.
So it’s going to be tight. If we want to have a chance of limiting global overheating to 1.5°C or just well below 2°C, then we have to use the scarce green electricity and the green hydrogen produced from it as efficiently as possible. And we have to focus it on what is actually essential. Racing in a Porsche on the Autobahn is not one of them, nor are space tourism , supersonic flights , flying taxis, and private jets . In times of the climate crisis, this could and should in fact be “waived” – caution: trigger warning.
Need to discuss energy consumption priorities
In order to cope with the planetary bottlenecks of the coming years and decades, we need a discussion not only about means and technologies, but also about purposes and priorities: which resource consumption is essential and which can be dispensed with. The question of sensible priorities arises immediately in Europe in view of the gas shortage in the coming winter and the population’s readiness to make sacrifices – and it will arise worldwide over the coming decades in view of the climate crisis and the scarcity of renewable energies in relation to global energy consumption.
In view of the tough political battle over the end of the combustion engine and the speed limit, the suspicion in the Haru Oni case is obvious: For Porsche, the purpose of the plant in Patagonia is not just to produce a few liters of e-fuels. It’s also a great lobbying tool. The project is intended to convince politicians to give the inefficient combustion engine a future instead of sending it to the museum. And save the untimely frenzy on German autobahns even in the age of the climate crisis.
This perspective is about more than just a hobby to keep running a few vintage cars. It is then a question of setting the course in mobility policy . The newly appointed Diess successor and Porsche boss Blume has already spoken out in favor of e-fuels. It would not come as a surprise if he handed over the first canister of e-fuel from Patagonia to his advocate and self-confessed Porsche driver Christian Lindner. The close connection seems to be there. But a MeFirst liberalism painted green may at best serve to calm one’s conscience – other tools are needed to deal with the planetary crises.