Considering how electric vehicles are considered to be cleaner this study does raise some interesting points to consider. This study is a cooperation between Aramco and IIT Kanpur and one needs to factor in the fact that Aramco is a Saudi Arabian oil company. Among many questions arising about this study a prominent one is that could the study be inclined in favour of petrol/ diesel vehicles as they’re the end consumers of Aramco’s products? In order to find an answer to these questions and the fact about the emission difference between EVs and IC vehicles, we spoke to Ahmad Al Khowaiter, Chief Technology Officer, Aramco. Mentioned below are some excerpts from the interaction.
Ahmad Al Khowaiter, Chief Technology Officer, Aramco.
TOI Auto: The study provides very interesting data points but is it favouring internal combustion engines since they are important for your key product?
We always insist on the highest standards of publication, so in this instance it is Nature Communications which is globally recognised as the highest standard in scientific publications. We believe that is the only way to ensure the integrity of the study. Also, it is not in our interest to have the wrong answer. For us this research is the basis of our investment and future strategy. Hence, we have to understand what is the truth and we need to understand what the future will hold and what the best options are. That’s why we always do our research in a transparent and open manner and are very clear about our objectives behind this kind of research. We have published studies in North America, Europe, China, Middle East and now India. We have a reputation and we want to maintain that reputation of transparency and objectivity.
Is there a particular segment of passenger vehicles where the difference in emissions exists or is significantly more than others?
It’s not just a segment but more about the geographical location. The carbon footprint or the full Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a vehicle depends on three major elements – its production carbon footprint (emissions associated with manufacturing), the second is the actual consumption of fuel from that vehicle during its duty life and third is the carbon density of its fuel source. The emissions associated with fuel production have to be accounted for as well. So it makes it difficult for a normal person to actually know their real carbon footprint and that’s what these kinds of studies shed light on.
In the study specific to India, it was identified that there are huge variances between regions where the carbon footprint for four-wheelers will be 15 percent higher in the East and 40 percent lower in the North East. That is because East and West India are dependent on coal for their power grids. This huge difference means that India needs to have region specific policies in order to incentivise the optimum means of reduction of emissions.’
What are the kind of vehicles that you considered for the study?
If you look at average vehicles sold in India, 65 percent sales were from petrol vehicles and 35 percent from diesel vehicles in 2018-19 including 5 percent of CV sales. During that year we had lesser EVs sold so it is very difficult to do an average comparison. What we did instead was to pick vehicles where you know you have comparable petrol/diesel and electric models (Tata Nexon, Tigor, Mahindra Verito etc). We also assessed these models not only in terms of region but when you charge them, duration and more because electricity will also fluctuate through the day. If you have a tendency to do overnight charging, which is very common, then you rely more on non-renewables. In absence of sunshine at that time, one could be more dependent on fossil-based electricity. This is why we have high emissions during night time charging and in winters.
Why do you think hybrids are more suitable for India in the short-term compared to EVs?
This is actually an observation across the world, that hybrids have a faster means of emissions reduction and there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that in the case of high carbon density grids, they offer a lower carbon footprint immediately. A Toyota study showed that limited availability of lithium-ion batteries means that it is possible to achieve greater emission reduction impact by utilising that limited amount in hybrid vehicles. In a hybrid you use around 3kWH or up to 5kWH of battery, whereas in a pure EV one could use about 80-100kWH of battery. This means less cars with a low carbon footprint can be built but if you are getting a similar reduction with a hybrid with only a 2kWH battery, there would be more cars produced, which can have similar emissions reduction.
Which is the cleanest region in India from a charging perspective and what are your views about two-wheelers in India as they have a larger population than cars?
When discussing the best region we need to understand how to define what’s best? Looking at emissions, I would suggest it is the North-Eastern region. Simply because you have a lot more hydro-electric power and a lot more natural gas. In Western and Eastern regions, 90 percent of electricity is generated from coal. However, in the North-East number of EVs and conventional vehicles registered are very small so that aso needs to be factored in. I think what’s more interesting is that in the case of a two-wheeler, an electric is the best option.
What makes you say that?
It is because of two key reasons. One is that the battery size is a lot smaller so manufacturing emissions are much lower. Secondly, electric two-wheelers are more efficient and petrol two-wheelers are not efficient enough and you can’t really hybridise them efficiently and that also doesn’t make any business sense because of the price limitations.
What are your thoughts on biofuels?
The whole area of low-carbon fuels is very exciting and biofuels are one form of low-carbon fuels. They utilise negative emissions of the low carbon plants. However, biofuels acquired from different sources have different levels of carbon footprint so validation certification is critical for them to have a real meaningful role. While they are costlier than traditional fossil fuels we do support biofuels but we are also bringing synthetic fuels into the market. In simple words, it is basically renewable electricity combined with electrolysis to produce green hydrogen and combining that with CO2 and producing Methanol to Gasoline. Hence, these fuels can be synthetically produced from renewable electricity.
Beyond that, there is hydrogen which is the ultimate low-carbon fuel. We are doing a lot of work in the area of low carbon-hydrogen around the world through our blue-hydrogen and blue-ammonia technologies. This might eventually be a competitive option but hydrogen is still quite expensive. However, we see that coming down over the next 10 years and entering many new markets.
Do you see a near to medium-term future for synthetic fuels in India?
Right now we are focused on Europe and other markets which actually incentivise synthetic fuels since they are expensive. But over time as costs of green hydrogen goes down, it will become similar to petrol or diesel. Hence, markets that we are trying to get into right now are the ones that can actually afford it and need it. Those would be aviation, which has been mandated to use sustainable fuels. Today most of aviation’s sustainability needs are being met with biofuels but we are also seeing the production start of synthetic hydrogen-based fuels.
Hybrids haven’t found much popularity in India yet. Do you see a viable future for them in wake of incoming EVs?
We feel that globally, hybrids actually have the biggest role to play in reducing the emissions of ICE engines. In terms of improving combustion-efficiency and having an immediate impact around the world we think there is going to be a mix of hybrids and other technologies going forward. The share of pure EVs will undoubtedly grow but it also makes a lot of sense to accelerate low-carbon and alternative fuels. In cases of urban areas, there are additional benefits of reducing emissions of particulates in the atmosphere. This is where there will be a big uptake of electric vehicles. Hence, in the overall picture hybrids have a big role to play but this can only happen when policies are rational and optimised.
Policies have to look at the full life cycle to make a rational and optimal decision. That means the usual kind of regulation on tailpipe emissions only can actually lead to negative results. Hence, it is best to look at a full life-cycle from the source of the energy to the final use of the energy in every sense.
What do you think about the scope of reducing fuel production emission in India?
There is a lot of opportunity in India, in the case of production of oil for example. India does not have that big a production but things like eliminating flaring of gas and eliminating leakage of methane form the LNG system are good business practices because you are saving products so there is basic economics behind it. At the same time there’s also a significant impact on emissions as methane has 70x of CO2. Any provision of reducing leakage from the LNG system will reduce emissions tremendously. In the future such practices will also make the industry more competitive, as lower emissions of a company will become the differentiators.
Last but not the least. How important is India for you from an oil perspective?
India is one of our biggest markets. It’s around a million barrels a day at least and it is going to be the number 1 in future. We know that so we are very interested in the growth story of India.