In partnership with Audi. What does sustainability mean? Reducing local emissions is just the first step: our energy must come from renewable sources to guarantee climate-friendly mobility. Sustainable energy isn’t just for countries with resources to power geothermal and hydroelectric plants – there are other ways to distribute the benefits of climate-neutral fuel.
Using electricity produced by renewable sources is the only way an electric car can be considered fully sustainable. For some countries and contexts, producing green energy may be easy – but there’s no reason why the benefits of sustainable power should be limited to those countries lucky enough to be replete with natural resources.
If we want to ensure that our cities can become more liveable, cutting local emissions is an unavoidable priority. Electric cars are a great start but if we want our mobility systems to be fully sustainable, we need to look beyond what comes out of exhaust pipes.
All fuel that goes into our cars, be it gas or electricity, is the result of a production process that can cause plenty of emissions. The green credentials of electricity created by burning a lump of coal are very different to electricity created by a wind turbine. Similarly, only gas that is produced via a process that employs renewable energy can be considered truly environmentally friendly. Not all regions across the world are able to meet their energy needs with sustainable sources but that doesn’t mean they need to be short on sustainable mobility solutions. While the charging points that will feed our cars with climate-friendly electricity are built, there are other paths we can follow to ensure that the fuel we use every day can be called “clean”. Hybrid and gas-fuelled cars are an important part of the journey to emissions-free mobility.
Making the most of the natural bounty that their land was furnished with, some countries have had an advantage when it came to finding alternatives to fossil fuels. For example, Iceland’s geothermal springs have long been put to good use for all matters of energy production. Norway thanks to its fjords and plentiful waterfalls, has been able to rely on hydroelectric power, while Germany’s windswept northern coasts have seen it develop aeolic plants. A nation well disposed towards adopting sustainable energy solutions often ends up creating a societal culture that helps, sustains and furthers an environmentally conscious agenda. But the benefits of renewables needn’t – and shouldn’t – remain confined to the contexts where their development is supported. It’s one of the reasons why Audi has been working on technologies that allow for the use of renewable energy to produce fuel, which can be used in cars such as its fully developed g-tron range. Inside its power-to-gas plants in Werlte, Germany, wind power is used to sustain chemical reactions that produce synthetic gas. Despite having the same properties as natural gas, this fuel is made in an almost entirely climate-neutral way – but can be used interchangeably by gas-fuelled engines.
“In the past, energy was produced whenever you needed it – supply has always followed demand – but renewables depend on weather conditions, which is not always compatible with the demand curve,” says Tobias Block, a developer at Audi who has been working on the technology. “You need to have successful storage systems. In the short term you can store renewable energy in batteries – but if you think about the long term, you need infrastructure.”
Using wind power to produce gas means fuel can be stored using the same distribution grid that plenty of cars around Europe already make use of. And that same gas can be used well beyond the confines of the country it was produced in; perhaps most importantly, this kind of plant provides a model that can be adapted across borders. “You need the initial components, then there will be different solutions for different contexts,” says Block. With its g-tron range, Audi has found a solution that has already set the wheels in motion.
Many cities around the world are showcasing their plans to become carbon neutral within the next few decades. But thanks to strong political will and an environment that provides plenty of clean energy, Iceland is already making big steps in the right direction. Ólöf Örvarsdóttir, head of Reykjavík’s environmental and planning department, discusses the city’s strategy – and whether it could work elsewhere too.
Q What is Reykjavík doing to become a carbon-neutral city?
A Seventy per cent of our emissions are caused by transportation so if we want to become carbon neutral, that’s the main issue. The municipal plan we approved in 2013 is all about densification; 90 per cent of what we are going to build within our urban boundaries is going to be downtown. We’re also thinking about transport-oriented development: we’re aiming for a city line that is environmentally friendly. We are also adding charging stations for electric cars and we have just decided on 58 new plug-ins.
Q Where are these charging stations going to be built and implemented?
A When we build apartment blocks we’ll build basements with special parking spaces for charging. We are also choosing buildings that Reykjavík owns and putting charge-ports there. We are working to put them in the neighbourhoods as well, for those who don’t have a private home or villa.
Q How much of the energy you use is created by geothermal sources?
A Almost everything. It’s easier for us because we have environmentally friendly energy resources.
Q Do you think your city’s model could be replicated elsewhere?
A I think so. We are luckier than most, of course, because we have sustainable energy, so I think we should be in the lead. But we all have the possibility. Mixed-use developments, densification, sustainable transport – whether it’s bike lanes, public transport or electric cars – all of these are blueprint solutions. You can always adapt to local contexts.