UCS Blog - Clean Vehicles (text only)

New Report Shows Electric Vehicle Technology Advancing Faster Than Anticipated

California’s influential Air Resources Board has just released a comprehensive assessment of the status of the state’s “Advanced Clean Car” regulations. While the report is not only about electric vehicles, the state’s Zero Emission Vehicle program is evaluated in detail. Overall, the findings are very positive on how California’s leadership on clean vehicle policy has spurred much of the auto industry to make new technologies available for consumers.

Electric vehicle technologies quickly moving forward

The 662-page report will take some time to digest, but the top line findings are clear: Electric vehicle technology is moving faster than was anticipated just 5 years ago. California leads the nation with over 250,000 EVs sold to date, and the number of plug-in vehicles is now approaching 30 models. The report cites many of factors that are accelerating the EV market, including dramatic improvements in battery performance and costs and the rapidly expanding charging infrastructure in California and the other states that have adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle regulation.

Stage is set to go further with clean car policies

The current pace of deployment also puts us on the road to increasing levels of EV adoption, displacing a growing amount of oil use and harmful emissions. One of the key recommendations in the report is that the Air Resources Board should move to adopt new ZEV standards to extend the current provisions which currently are set to plateau in 2025. The regulation will need to be strengthened to ensure that the state is on a trajectory to meeting both 2030 and later climate targets and the air quality standards in the state’s Central Valley and Los Angeles regions.

Strong signals needed to keep momentum

There are many positive signs for EVs. December 2016 set an all-time high for EV sales in the US, almost double the rate from a year ago. The introduction of the Chevy Bolt, the first long-range battery electric at a mass-market price has generated significant interest, as did Tesla’s announcement of its lower-cost Model 3.

However, not all automakers are shifting to clean technologies with the same effort. Some have zoomed ahead, like General Motors with plug-in cars making up over 5% of their new cars sold in California. On the other hand, several major car companies, like Honda and Fiat Chrysler, have done the bare minimum to comply with California regulations and almost nothing outside of the state. Therefore, the current Zero Emission Vehicle regulation needs to not only continue, but be strengthened. The report lays out the technical evidence for these conclusions.

#dieselgate, pt. II: Sergio’s Revenge

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) violated the Clean Air Act with sales of Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles powered by diesel engines.  This falls on the heels of the Volkswagen (VW) diesel scandal.  The engine at question is FCA’s 3.0-liter “EcoDiesel”—which could turn out to be anything but.

What the allegations say

Since this is an ongoing investigation, there are still a number of unanswered questions.  Here is what EPA has alleged:

  • Fiat-Chrysler did not disclose to EPA that certain software affects the operation of the emissions controls devices found in the Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
  • The software in question shuts off operation of the emissions control device. While this is allowed in extreme cases to protect the reliability and durability of the controls, EPA found numerous operating conditions that would fall into the category of “normal operation and use” and would therefore not be an allowable exception.
  • Taken together, these have the effect of a defeat device—this means that FCA could be liable for cheating federal emissions regulations and emitting smog-forming pollution well above the legal limit.

For his part, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of FCA, says that “there was zero intent on our side” to cheat on emissions regulations, calling such an idea “unadulterated hogwash” and noting that there’s “nothing in common between the VW reality and what we are describing here.”

According to the EPA, Ram 1500 pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokees powered by the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine contain software that may behave as a defeat device, releasing tons of excess smog-forming pollution that impacts public health. (Images courtesy of Motor Trend)

According to the EPA, Ram 1500 pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokees powered by the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine contain software that may behave as a defeat device, releasing tons of excess smog-forming pollution that negatively impacts public health. (Images courtesy of Motor Trend: Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500)

How does the sequel compare to the original?

FCA is correct to note that this is not quite the same thing as what VW did—in the case of VW, the software was explicitly tuned to alter operations dependent solely upon whether or not the vehicle was undergoing a test procedure.  The software at question in the Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee is more subtle—the emissions control devices remain fully operational during lab tests and are turned off during some typical on-road driving situations, but at question is whether or not these situations are narrow enough to fall within the exceptions allowed to protect the durability and reliability of the engine and its emissions control systems.  Because the types of situations are so broadly typical of routine driving behavior, these undisclosed shutdown modes were enough to raise a few eyebrows, particularly when considered in tandem.

How do the emissions controls work in the 2014-2016 EcoDiesel Jeep/Ram trucks?

The emissions control system in the Jeep/Ram trucks relies upon two separate systems working together to reduce formation of nitrogen oxides (NOx), one of the key ingredients in the formation of smog: exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), which recirculates exhaust gas back into the engine to reduce the formation of NOx; and selective catalytic reduction (SCR), which activates a fluid which reacts to chemically reduce NOx after its formed.

When one of those systems is turned off, the other can often compensate for a short amount of time.  For reasons related to durability of the engine and/or the controls system, there are narrow operating conditions where such shut-off is allowed.  However, such operation must be disclosed to EPA (which EPA alleges FCA did not do), and it must fall within a narrow band of operating conditions.  Key here is that there were a number of situations identified by EPA where both systems would be simultaneously either turned off or reduced in effectiveness—this means that the emissions system would be compromised, regularly emitting excess NOx emissions during normal vehicle operation and use.  Such conditions would not be generated when the vehicle was tested for emissions, which is another part of the reason this would have the effect of a “defeat device”.

In addition to the EPA allegations, a lawsuit was filed against FCA in December for the same vehicles by consumers who bought these vehicles in part because of the “Eco” and “clean diesel” marketing around them.  Accompanying that lawsuit was data from on-road emissions tests which showed average emissions of around 4-5 times the legal limit measured during real-world driving of a Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, with spikes in NOx as high as 40 times the certified level.

What are the potential health and emissions impacts?

Because of the shortage of details, it is impossible to know the full impact this scandal will have on emissions and public health.  Still, there are a few reasons why the problem here is likely not as severe as the VW scandal.

The affected vehicles by this allegation have only been available since model year (MY) 2014, which means regulators can address this problem much more quickly than the VW scandal, minimizing the impact they have on the environment.  The average vehicle identified here is likely to have traveled just half the mileage of those affected in the VW scandal, on average.  Perhaps most importantly, it also appears that the levels of excess emissions generated by the vehicles in question are likely significantly less than many of those included in the VW scandal—the data provided in the lawsuit shows that excess emissions from these vehicles could be around one-third that of the VW diesel cars, at the tailpipe.  And in total, the MY2014-2016 EcoDiesel Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee amount to about one-fifth the sales of the VW diesels covered under “dieselgate”.  Taken all together, the impact from this could thus be roughly a few percent that of the Volkswagen scandal.

While that may not sound like a lot, these software cheats could have helped contribute to at least a handful of premature deaths and increased hospitalizations from air pollution-related cardiovascular distress.  Aside from the significant damage to public health and the environment, cleaning up this mess will also likely require tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in remediation—hopefully payable by FCA and not the taxpayer.

Is there any good news on the horizon?

Another scandal like this is obviously terrible for the American people, especially those near congested roadways.  It is also not great for automakers looking to more efficient diesel engines to meet vehicle efficiency regulations set out to 2025.

Like the VW problem, this scandal will not be easy to fix.  While FCA believes it can address the issue solely via software updates and has offered to do so, VW said the same thing about its 3.0L diesel engines, and we are still waiting for an approved fix for those vehicles.

EPA is rightly utilizing more real-world emissions testing to complement its lab tests, and similarly subtle emissions violations by other automakers could yet be uncovered.  Given how complex and nuanced this investigation’s outcomes, it is possible there could be additional inquiries into other manufacturers—Mercedes, for example, has already been under investigation for similar software.

With the next administration getting ready to take office, it will be important that EPA continue to protect the public health and well-being of the American public by remaining vigilant against automakers, maintaining a level playing field where all are held equally accountable for their actions.

EPA (Correctly) Affirms Vehicle Standards, Despite Automaker Misinformation

EPA finalized its determination today that the current light-duty vehicle global warming emissions standards for 2022-2025 are appropriate. This adjudication affirms what we have said all along—manufacturers are currently ahead of schedule on the first round of standards (2012-2016) and continue to show the many pathways to cost-effectively meeting future standards.

This is a big affirmation for both consumers and the country as a whole:

To date, our analysis shows that the standards have saved consumers more than $34 billion in fuel. By 2030, this number will grow to $450 billion, even after taking into account costs for the technology used to drive those fuel economy improvements.

At the same time, we’ve avoided over 130 million metric tons of global warming emissions. The standards are working for consumers and the environment—there’s no reason to tap the brakes on that progress.

And for all their whining about wanting to weaken the standards, the automakers themselves have provided data that shows exactly why we shouldn’t.

Automaker data shows 2012-2016 compliance was easier, cheaper than expected

As I wrote about when the proposal was released, this decision is more than four years in the making and is backed up by a tremendous amount of benchmarking, modeling, and analysis. The large body of evidence gathered continues to point to new and innovative pathways that would allow manufacturers to not just meet but exceed the standards on the books—and each new data point confirms that fact.

In fact, the automakers themselves submitted data showing just how little technology they are actually applying to their vehicles in order to meet today’s standards, with much lower penetrations of complex/expensive technologies than originally anticipated.

 Comments by the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers)

The 2012-2016 Final Rule (FR) on which automakers initially signed off envisioned a much higher penetration of more costly technologies would be needed (dashed red lines). However, manufacturers have shown innovative new ways to improve upon cheaper technologies as they overachieve on those standards (orange bars), leaving plenty of cost-effective technologies available for deployment out to 2025. (Source: Comments by the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, Attachment 2, pp. 40-43)

Outpacing expectations, they have been able to continue to exceed the standards with even lower cost technologies thanks to investments resulting from the need to meet strong standards. This innovation has generated numerous new technology pathways such as high-compression engines like Mazda’s SkyActiv and 48V mild hybridization—though those technologies are not yet deployed at large scale. This leaves ample room to continue reducing emissions beyond the current 2025 standards with gasoline-powered engines.

As a colleague of mine likes to say, “While automakers continue to pull the lowest hanging fruit, innovation means that the tree is constantly growing new low-hanging fruit.” This is why historically industry has continued to overstate the costs of regulation.

Automaker data shows that 2025 standards can be met through gasoline-powered vehicles

Additionally, while the auto companies claim on one hand that more electrification and other pricier technologies will be needed to comply in the future, their own analysis shows that they can comply through the broad deployment of advanced gasoline-powered vehicles.

 Comments by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

Analysis submitted by the automakers shows that vehicles in 2025 can meet the standards through the deployment of turbocharged (TC), spark-ignited (SI) gasoline engines, complemented by advanced transmissions (HRST) and stop-start (SS). Note the very low penetrations of electrification required. Source: Comments by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Attachment 1, p. 74)

These gasoline-powered vehicles will be substantially more efficient than today, incorporating advancements such as 48V mild hybridization, which allows for efficient electric boosting of smaller engines and improved efficiency of accessories; high-compression engines running on thermodynamic cycles that are more efficient; dynamic cylinder deactivation that can downsize the engine in real-time to provide the right amount of power at the right time; more efficient transmissions that keep the engine operating at its most efficient point more frequently; and reductions in road load such as improved aerodynamics and low-rolling resistance tires to help reduce the amount of energy needed to drive the vehicle in the first place.

Investments in those technologies are buoyed by the certainty of the strong standards which EPA today affirmed, as noted by automakers: “By extending the standards for many years into the future, the agencies provide manufacturers with substantial lead-time, which is of great value in compliance planning.”

Meeting 2025 standards is no problem for automakers, which is why EPA held firm

All of this is to state the obvious: the automakers themselves show that the 2025 standards are achievable, which is part of why EPA has affirmed the standards set in 2012. So in the inevitable onslaught of automaker whining that will surely follow this announcement, remember this:

  • Automakers signed on to these standards with much hullabaloo when they were finalized;
  • Automakers are currently ahead of the game, deploying efficient technologies at reduced costs compared to original estimates of compliance;
  • Automaker data submitted in the four years hence continues to show that those 2025 standards are achievable with conventional gasoline-powered vehicles (thanks to the continued investment in and deployment of fuel consumption reduction technologies); and
  • Consumers and the environment stand to benefit tremendously by leaving these cost-effective standards in place.

EPA’s decision today confirms that the data is in and crystal clear: the 2022-2025 standards put on the books in 2012 remain feasible for manufacturers and will provide significant benefits for the country and the environment.

What Electric Vehicle Sales in 2016 Mean for the Future of Transportation

I’m a fan of electric vehicles. As I’ve noted, they can be a smart and flexible option to help the grid accommodate variable energy resources like wind and solar. And EVs are the option likely to have the most success at decarbonizing transportation.

I’ve noted that the claim “The only way to do X is Y” is probably incorrect. I expect EVs to become the best way to get transportation CO2 emissions to zero for most applications, but not the only way. Hydrogen fuel cells, cellulosic biofuels, and liquid fuels produced by renewable electricity also exist. Maybe we will use some of these technologies for specific applications. But it is my estimate that EVs will achieve the greatest reductions in transportation carbon emissions.

UCS has shown under the current electricity system, EVs reduce emissions compared to the average gasoline car in all parts of the country, even when considering manufacturing impacts. In most of the country they beat the best gasoline cars. That analysis uses the 2015 version of EPA’s eGRID database, which actually only includes data through 2012. The grid has gotten considerably cleaner even in the past few years.

The grid impact

So, theoretically, what would happen if all light-duty vehicles were EVs?

As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, that would be about a 25% increase in electricity demand. Light-duty vehicles account for about 3 trillion vehicle-miles per year in the United States. EVs get roughly 3 miles per kilowatt-hour. We would need an additional 1 trillion kWh of electricity. The U.S. currently uses about 4 trillion kilowatt-hours per year; an additional 1 trillion kWh represents a 25% increase.

US cars and light trucks produced just over one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2014, or about 20% of all U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions. In 2015, US power plants produced 1,925 million metric tons of CO2 while producing 3,931 billion kWh, for an emissions rate of about 0.5 tons per thousand kWh. The additional trillion kWh for the EVs would result in 500 million tons of emissions, or about half of what light-duty vehicles emit today, for a 10% reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions. That estimate applies if EVs are charged by the grid of today. It does not account for the fact that the grid is getting cleaner through existing market forces and policy actions, nor the ways that EVs can specifically help the grid accommodate greater use of variable renewables, nor actions such as buying green power or using a “green charging” algorithm.

Scenarios of EV market growth

It will be a while before EVs represent even 10% of vehicles, let alone 100%. EV sales were about 0.9% of new car sales in the US in 2016, up from about 0.7% in 2015. With somewhat over half a million sold during the period 2012-2016, EVs are currently about 0.3% of cars on the road.

Sounds small?  Well, compound growth is an amazing thing.  Continuing the 2012-2016 growth rate of 32% per year would put EVs at 10% of all new car sales by 2025, and about 40% by 2030.

Now, that might be a stretch.  It’s too short a time to extrapolate from, and technology diffusion tends to follow an S-shaped “logistic function” rather than a constant growth rate. Still, even with lower growth rates, existing targets are achievable.

The eight states that have signed the Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum have a combined goal of 3.3 million vehicles on the road by 2025 (and all new vehicles being zero-emission by 2050). I expect that most of these will be EVs, although some may be other technologies. These states represent about a quarter of the US population. If the ZEV states meet their goal, and the other states with three times as many people deploy only half as many EVs, that would be 5 million EVs by 2025.  This would represent roughly 2% of all vehicles on the road in the US, and possibly 5% of new car sales in that year.

US EV sales would need to grow at a rate of 25% per year over 2016-2025 to hit 5 million cumulative sales in 2025 (sales in that year would be 1 million). As shown below, 2016 represented a 37% increase in EV sales over 2015 (the 2012-2016 period saw 32% annual growth).


EV sales in 2016 were up 37% over 2015. Source: Inside EVs.

Two paths

Assuming we hit 2025’s targets, what would happen next? One of two things.

Maybe the market keeps growing. In UCS’s “Half the Oil” report, we present a scenario in which California meets its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) requirements, with 16% of new vehicles being ZEV by 2025. With further growth beyond that, ZEVs would reach 28-36% of light-duty vehicles in California in 2030. This Hawaii-specific study similarly forecasts a “high” case of about 33% of new car sales being EVs by 2030. Other studies feature even faster diffusion.

Or, vehicle sales might fall dramatically. If shared autonomous vehicles become the norm, far fewer vehicles would be needed. At any one time, no more than about 13% of cars are on the road. You might think you still need one car per person for rush hour, but 1) our number of commuters is less than half our number of vehicles; and, 2) these commutes are spread around a fairly broad time and are typically under half an hour. So one vehicle can support several commutes, even before you consider ridesharing. EVs could be grabbing a larger share of a shrinking market – at least in the countries that currently feature widespread car ownership.

Which way will the future take us? Photos from Mercedes-Benz and Wikimedia.

Which way will the future take us? Photos from Mercedes-Benz and Wikimedia.

Considering the progress from Google, Tesla, Apple, and others, full autonomy may be technologically possible by 2020. Regulations would take another few years to catch up. Granted, autonomous vehicles could be privately owned; the degree to which people choose to switch from owning vehicles to buying “transportation as a service” is uncertain. Still, the prospect of shared autonomous vehicles is why I think projections beyond 2030 are especially difficult.

Our transportation system might look much, much different.

Self-Driving Cars in 2017: Navigating the Promises and Pitfalls

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-driving cars lately—and I’m not the only one. Predictions abound about when the technology will be fully ready, but these vehicles are already out there being tested on public roads. In fact, I’m lucky if a week goes by and I don’t see a car with a spinning roof top sensor—even my first-grader is pretty good at spotting them. I live in San Francisco and have already seen a couple of Uber’s self-driving Volvos plying the streets over the past week. I’ve been seeing Chevy Bolts too—presumably being tested by Cruise Automotive. The race for self-driving cars amongst the tech and auto industry is clearly game on and is likely to heat up in 2017.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2017) is the first week in January in Las Vegas and will set the stage for 2017. Once again it appears that self-driving tech is going to be a hot topic with both major and upstart automakers as well as technology providers looking to reveal new products. Fiat Chrysler of America—a laggard in recent EV market analysis—is expected to announce a full electric vehicle at CES, building on the recent release of the plug-in hybrid Pacific minivan.  They’ve also partnered with Google’s self-driving business Waymo and are reportedly delivering 100 Pacificas for autonomous vehicle testing. Nissan CEO Carlo Ghosn is giving a keynote, Hyundai is expected to give rides in a self-driving Ioniq, and Faraday Future has been building anticipation around its CES announcement with numerous teasers. I’m taking the trip to Vegas this year to see what all the hype is about.

image002And no doubt there is a lot of hype. Personally, I’m hopeful about the potential for self-driving technology. I’m lucky enough to do a lot of my daily trips by bicycle with my kids in tow. And I’ve seen enough close calls to always expect the unexpected—but we all know even extra vigilance can’t guarantee 100 percent safety. So wouldn’t it be great if every car actually used their turn signal, or gave 3 feet when passing bicyclists that the law requires, or eliminated the dangers of distracted driving?

But I’m also leery about how these vehicles might cause confusion and disruption. Will their behavior be predictable in the same way as a driver’s? When I get to a stop sign in a car or on a bike, all it takes is a head nod or a hand wave and everyone can pass smoothly through a four-way stop. What happens when some vehicles don’t have drivers? When I walk across the street, I always tell my kids to make eye contact with the driver before they cross to make sure they see them. Now what? With driverless cars, the rules of the road might not change, but the norms will.  Once these vehicles truly hit the streets it’s going to be important to make sure not only that the vehicles operate safely but that those they interact with—from pedestrians, to cyclists, to other motorists and any other public road users—adapt to this new technology as well. And as Brian Wiedenmeier of the SF bicycle Coalition pointed out after a self-driving Uber twice made an illegal right hand turn across a bike lane, just following the rules of the road at this point seems to be a challenge.

Self-driving car technology may be able to make our roads safer, but building the public’s trust in the technology will be important to its acceptance. Uber’s decision this past week to defy an order to comply with self-driving car registration requirements was disappointing, to say the least. In its statement Uber seemed to argue that California’s registration requirements, which 20 companies have already complied with, are too onerous and would stall innovation. Instead of complying with this public safety law (and paying the $150 application fee) in exchange for allowing the company to use public roadways as a laboratory to test their technology, Uber chose to lawyer up. This doesn’t bode well for building trust. And if Uber does succeed in skirting the law, transparency will also be undermined, as reporting on incidents related to the safe operation of the vehicle would no longer be required.

Cooperation between government and industry in deploying self-driving cars is going to be hugely important to build confidence in the technology both by policy makers and the public. And the technology isn’t just about the safety of our roads—though that would be enough of a reason for cooperation. Other areas where these vehicles could have profound impacts include energy, pollution, impacts on public transit, congestion, and labor and workforce concerns—and whether the impacts are positive or negative is yet to be seen. On climate emissions alone, various studies show a wide range of possible outcomes as a result of deploying self-driving cars, from doubling of emissions to cutting them by 50 percent or more. There’s a lot at stake.

These issues are sure to heat up in 2017, as more vehicles are tested on public roads, new research points to the positive and negative outcomes possible with self-driving cars, and policy makers at the local, state and federal level start to consider the actions they can take to ensure companies advance this technology responsibly and steer outcomes toward societal good. Additional accidents involving self-driving cars are sure to bring more scrutiny to the technology as well as the protocols and protections being in put into place by companies and government agencies. UCS will also be taking a closer look at the implications of wide-spread deployment of AVs and ways to ensure they deliver on the promises and avoid the pitfalls.  So stay tuned.

When will self-driving cars be ready for prime-time? Not sure, but 2017 will no doubt be a year for  increased attention, debate, research—and yes—hype around cars that can drive themselves.


‘Little’ errors add up: What an electric vehicles study gets right, and what it gets wrong

A new study by consulting firm Arthur D. Little (ADL) claims that the benefits of electric cars, both environmental and economic, are lower than others, including UCS, have shown. However, the differences are largely due to questionable assumptions about battery replacements and the use of electric vehicles as a gasoline car replacement.

What they get right

EVs on average have lower overall greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs to fuel than gasoline cars now, and these benefits are likely to increase over time. This is the conclusion of our report and also the ADL analysis. In our report, “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave”, we found that the average electric vehicle results in about half the climate changing emissions than a comparable gasoline car, even when the manufacturing emissions are included. The ADL study finds a lower benefit, about 20 percent, due to assumptions discussed below. However, they also note that the emissions savings will likely grow over time as electricity generation becomes cleaner, consistent with our findings.

What they get wrong about emissions

The ADL analysis and the UCS analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is largely the same except for two factors: battery replacement and the need for a replacement gasoline car to accompany the electric car. These two factors account for nearly 40 percent of the ADL estimate of emissions from a battery electric car and therefore are critical to understanding the benefits of electric vehicles.

The ADL study assumes that all EVs will need a replacement battery after seven to ten years of use. The study cites the fact that “this is consistent with the warranty that BEV manufacturers offer on their vehicles’ battery packs” to bolster this claim. However, by analogy, gasoline cars would be expected to need a new engine and/or transmission after the expiration of a five-year powertrain warranty. We don’t know what the true lifetime and failure rate for electric car batteries are, especially for today’s second generation battery systems since they’ve only been on the market for a few years. But assuming a battery replacement at 7-10 years is a 100 percent failure rate for the battery system. Making this assumption would require some proof, and yet there’s no evidence that this is the case for battery lifetime.

The largest factor inflating the ADL estimates of emissions is the assertion that drivers of electric vehicles would require a replacement gasoline car for about a quarter of all miles driven, because electric vehicles are driven fewer miles per year than gasoline cars. This questionable assumption is critical to the lower electric car benefits seen in the ADL report: it increases their emission estimates from an electric vehicle like the Nissan LEAF by 28 tons, while the baseline estimate of  LEAF manufacturing and electricity use only totals 69 tons.

The ADL study chooses an unlikely scenario — that an EV buyer would purchase a vehicle that covers only 75 percent of their trips — to arrive at their emissions estimate, rather than doing a straight up mile for mile comparison. This argument is based primarily on early electric vehicle use data from Idaho National Laboratory that showed Nissan LEAF drivers drove on average 9,700 miles per year, while gasoline cars average around 12,000 miles per year. But since that data was collected, charging infrastructure has improved and electric car drivers are going farther. Per California Air Resources Board data, drivers of 2013 and 2014 Nissan LEAFs are going an average of 11,000 miles per year. But perhaps more important, it looks like at least some of the lower mileage in electric cars is not due to the technology, but instead the lease terms that many electric car buyers choose. Auto companies have offered very attractive low-mileage lease terms for electric vehicles, with 10,000 – 12,000 miles per year included in the lease contract. Nissan LEAF drivers that chose a 12,000 mile or lower lease drove on average 9,000 miles per year, while those on a 15,000 mile lease drove over 12,000 miles per year on average. If the lower annual driving for an electric vehicle is not due to technical limitations, then there is no basis for adding gasoline vehicle use to the emissions analysis of electric cars.

However, even if electric cars were being driven fewer miles, the assumption that additional gasoline miles would be needed is biased. Drivers will choose electric cars with a range and capability that meets their travel needs. Someone who requires the ability to regularly drive long distances without refueling is unlikely to choose a short-range battery electric car as a replacement for a gasoline car. That’s not to say that they couldn’t drive electric; however, they would likely choose a longer-range electric vehicle. The comparison chosen in the ADL study overestimates emissions from assumptions about the behavior of the drivers, not the actual emissions from making or using the vehicles.

What they get wrong about costs

While our report focused on the climate-changing emissions from cars, the ADL study also attempts to estimate the difference in costs between electric and gasoline cars. The same choices (100% battery replacement rate and the need for a rental gasoline car) that inflated the emissions estimates also have a large impact on the economic estimates. For example, the cost of the rental gasoline car to make up for miles driven below the national average adds over $10,000 to the ADL estimate of the lifetime electric car cost and adds over 15 percent to the cost estimate. As noted above, these costs are unlikely to occur because a consumer who needs to rent a car 25 percent of the time is not likely to choose a short range EV to begin with.

The next generation of electric cars will be even better

The next generation of electric cars are already starting to show up on dealership lots. Starting with the Chevy Bolt, there are likely to be several battery electric cars that combine longer range, the ability to quickly recharge, and at a more affordable price. These features will make it cheaper to use an electric car and also allow displacement of even more miles that are currently driven using gasoline. Combined with cleaner sources of power, electric cars will likely show even more benefits in the future compared to gasoline vehicles.

Electric Vehicles in the South: What’s on the Horizon?

posterIn coordination with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and Commissioner Tim Echols of the Georgia Public Service Commission (GA PSC), UCS convened an electric vehicle (EV) conference on November 9th to the 11th at Château Élan in Braselton, GA.

The agenda was developed in close coordination with these partners and with Southern Company. Key topics included investments in public charging infrastructure, the advancing capabilities of electric buses, and the issues to be considered in workplace charging. Participants discussed innovative technological solutions, policy suggestions, and strategies for communicating with potential EV buyers.

You can view all of the presentations here; my main takeaways are below.

The benefits of electric vehicles

A major benefit of electric vehicles is their reduced contribution to global climate change compared with internal-combustion vehicles (see UCS research on this topic). Dr. Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia provided an overview of climate science.

When charged with clean power, EVs can offer even greater benefits. Jeff Pratt of Oglethorpe Power discussed efforts underway in Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) to harness clean power for EVs, such as a system with photovoltaics, stationary storage, and EV charging.

Dr. Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech, in her keynote address, touched on the intersection of these clean technologies. The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative noted that, at the consumer level, there is a high degree of co-adoption of electric vehicles and solar power systems.

Electric vehicles can also significantly reduce emissions of other harmful pollutants that contribute to local air pollution and health problems. Reducing these pollutants is a major driver behind the adoption of electric buses. Proterra, BYD, and New Flyer discussed the advances in their technology and some of the applications.

Electric transit buses avoid diesel emissions in densely populated areas, and achieve even better efficiency gains over their petroleum counterparts than light-duty electric vehicles do, due to the stop-and-go nature of transit routes. Jason Hanlin of the Center for Transportation and the Environment discussed “smart deployments,” illustrating the factors that should inform selection of a vehicle and charging strategy for any given route. Don Francis of the University of Georgia spoke about that school’s procurement of an electric bus fleet. From a fleet operator’s point of view, the operations and maintenance savings of an electric bus are extremely valuable, as are the fuel savings. These can provide enough savings to warrant the higher capital cost.

Economic benefits of EVs, highlighted by Commissioner Tim Echols, include the fact that expenditures on electricity largely remain local and stimulate regional economic activity, while expenditures on gasoline do not have this effect.

Finally, electric vehicles may have operational benefits for the electricity grid. By providing a flexible load, they can enable more optimal use of assets by the utility, creating a smoother load profile. Influencing charging patterns in this way will require some sort of incentive or rate design, but there are numerous examples to look to.

Regional projects and initiatives

The South is home to a number of exciting research, development, and deployment projects. One such project that drew considerable attention from participants is The Ray, an initiative aimed at improving the sustainability of the transportation system.

 Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Wireless EV charging research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In facilities along I-85, The Ray is demonstrating not only EV charging and photovoltaic power systems, but other cutting-edge technologies. These include wireless EV charging (also discussed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists) and solar road tiles powering an intelligent tire safety check system.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is exploring a number of interesting ideas, such as solar-assisted EV charging stations and an EV car-sharing program in Chattanooga. Chattanooga has had a fleet of electric shuttle buses running a downtown route since 1992.

Duke Energy, with operations in several states in the region, conducts extensive research on emerging energy topics including solar power and storage. Stationary energy storage integrated with EV chargers may be able to provide multiple value streams, including reducing the infrastructure needs for supporting high-powered chargers.

Other promising local developments included Atlanta’s many efforts, such as installation of EV chargers at the airport (accelerated by the engagement of Mayor Kasim Reed and Commissioner Echols), and Jacksonville’s recent strides into EV leadership.

These innovative projects often bring together solar, storage, and other “distributed energy resources” (DERs). General Electric provided an overview of how these technologies can work together.

Charging infrastructure

The conference featured several panels on electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Experts considered questions such as the number, type, and location of public chargers, the role of utility investment, and the potential of workplace charging. John Halliwell of EPRI provided an overview of the current state of charging technology.

 Argonne National Laboratory.

This “charging pyramid” suggests relative numbers of the various types of charging stations. Source: Argonne National Laboratory.

While certain stations may be used often enough to recoup their cost from the sale of power, many others do not have such high utilization. These still serve a vital purpose by creating range confidence, assuring EV owners that they can charge at these stations if needed.

Public charging stations can also raise awareness among non-EV owners. Although an EV owner may have an app such as PlugShare showing just how widely available charging stations are, few non-EV owners are aware of this fact. The Federal Highway Administration’s new designation of “signage-ready” alternative fuel corridors promises to help alleviate this issue, broadening awareness of the existing EV charging network.

Utilities have a role to play in EV infrastructure. The specific role is a topic of considerable discussion around the country, especially in California. Independent charging providers and ratepayer advocates have concerns about utilities installing charging systems and recouping the costs through billing all customers, including those who do not own EVs. However, some locations are not currently economical for a third party to serve, such as many low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Utility investment might then serve a valid purpose.

Other solutions exist; for example, JEA has installed EV chargers with other sources of revenue (such as air quality funds), not billing its customers for these costs, and they work in cooperation with third-party charging providers. Greenlots, ChargePoint, and EVgo all talked about the opportunities they saw to work with utilities as partners. The utility’s knowledge of the distribution system is essential when siting new chargers, in order to avoid excessive costs of system upgrades. And, if there is value in providing grid services (such as demand response or frequency regulation, as several speakers discussed), these services would be sold to the utility in most of the South.


The “duck curve” caused by an abundance of solar power on the grid. Source: CAISO.

Workplace charging is an excellent option that can provide many benefits. It can raise awareness of EVs, establish range confidence, and mitigate “duck curve” situations with abundant solar power on the grid. This duck curve is not yet significant in the South, but given the cost reductions in solar power it may be wise to anticipate it. KC Boyce provided statistics on workplace charging showing which types of firms were most interested in offering it.

A major issue with workplace charging is managing the vehicles in a condition of saturated charger capacity; ChargePoint noted that its workplace chargers are very busy. A positive aspect of workplace charging is that it often leads to remarkable increases in EV ownership in a fairly short period, as shown by FPL. However, this means that the number of vehicles may soon exceed the number of chargers. The chargers may remain occupied for the entire day, even though the vehicle may be charged after only an hour or two. Consequently, many workplaces have developed customs or strategies for EV owners rotating their vehicles. Another idea suggested is the multiplexed charger, a single charger with four cords that rotates the charge without requiring physical movement of the vehicles or even any unplugging. One barrier to EV owners cooperating (such as by unplugging one vehicle when it is done to plug in another) is the lack of a common “full charge” indicator among the different models.


Electric trucks in the UPS delivery fleet. Source: UPS.

Commercial facilities may have EV charging not just for employees, but for their fleet vehicles. Mike Britt of UPS discussed how his company is using EVs around the world. As other presenters noted, fleets appear to be well suited to providing grid services.

Southern Company was interested in the speed with which higher-powered fast charging would become the standard. With batteries of 60 kilowatt-hours (kWh) or more becoming widespread in the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3, the typical 50 kW DC fast charger would not be seen as “fast,” taking over an hour to fully charge a battery. There is discussion about 150 kW being the new standard, but EVs with smaller batteries would not be able to handle that sort of power input. It was seen as more likely that some 150 kW DC fast chargers might play a role in intercity travel (like the 120-135 kW Superchargers), but the 50 kW stations will continue to exist.

An important issue to resolve is providing “home” charging for residents of multi-unit dwellings. Where such facilities have parking lots or garages, it is much more cost-effective to lay the infrastructure for EV charging when constructing or renovating those structures, rather than trenching into concrete for the sole purpose of laying conduit.


EV chargers are an emerging technology; work in recent years has rapidly reduced costs. Improving reliability is important; in this area, networked chargers have higher capital cost, but allow better monitoring of charger status.

Charging standards and protocols are continuing to develop, especially for “smart charging,” higher-powered DC charging, and induction (wireless) charging. This work often involves industry-wide collaboration.

Demand charges, where a facility pays part of its power bill based on its highest peak usage, are one way of designing rates to reflect the strain placed on the grid by electricity consumption. This method does raise the costs of operating high-powered DC fast chargers, so some alternatives were suggested. Building a stationary battery into the charger is a technical solution that lowers demand charges; this has been done by Tesla, Greenlots, ChargePoint, and others. Redesigning rates to account for the timing of the peak use is a regulatory approach that might also be effective.

There was considerable discussion about how consumers would prefer to charge. Is the right model that of the gas station, where an EV owner charges once a week or so for their total range?  Or is it closer to the smartphone model, where the owner (well, at least this smartphone owner) plugs it in every night and takes other opportunities to top off as available?  These two models were described as “gorging vs grazing.” Wireless charging has certain advantages but is a “grazing” solution only.

Consumer adoption

As noted by Advanced Energy, consumers view utilities as a trusted provider of information on EVs, and so that is a key role for power companies. Conversely, the utilities would also like information from EV owners. While the current chargers are not an overwhelming load on the grid, they can cause local grid impacts. Utilities would like to know when and where EV chargers are installed; there was interest in the example of the Salt River Project (in Arizona), which gave EV owners a $50 Amazon gift card for notifying the utility of this information.

A brochure from the utility might get a consumer thinking about EVs, but some other channels can help seal the deal. Workplace charging greatly increases EV adoption, not only because the prospective buyer now knows they can charge at work, but because they can discuss the technology with colleagues who already have EVs. Ride and drive events let people experience the performance and comfort for themselves. And, car-sharing programs such as in Chattanooga should increase familiarity with the vehicles even more—we look forward to seeing the effects of this program on the local EV market.

Automaker dealerships can be a source of information. Dealerships are not always knowledgeable about EVs, especially if there is only one model that does not have high volume sales; there is limited incentive for the retailer to become an expert on EVs in that case (although exceptional “EV champion” dealerships exist). Having more models of EVs tends to improve dealership familiarity and perceived legitimacy of the technology by consumers. The lower maintenance requirements of an EV do mean that a traditional service of dealerships is less valuable. Some efforts to increase EV deployment do feature incentives for dealerships, to encourage these key partners.

A major barrier to consumer adoption of EVs in Georgia was the loss of the tax credit combined with the introduction of an EV tax. Don Francis of Clean Cities Georgia showed that this tax appears to significantly exceed the foregone gas tax revenue from EVs. When discussing incentives for EVs, it is important to ensure that EV owners are not being unfairly subsidized by non-EV owners. However, the air quality benefits are real and do have economic value; this provides a foundation for utility investment in EV infrastructure (and/or EV rebates) in Kansas City, Jacksonville, and other cities.

Tesla sees EV adoption on a trajectory similar to cell phones. When Tesla started in 2004, the company made a list of barriers to EV adoption (such as range, appeal, performance, and charging infrastructure) and has worked systematically to address each barrier.


Participants shared their thoughts on the event and what they saw as the key needs going forward. One priority was finding ways to accommodate higher powered chargers without incurring exorbitant demand charges or unduly straining the grid. Integration of storage into chargers might be a good fit here, especially if the utility can operate the battery to provide other revenue streams and defer other costs.

Coordination between cities and utilities was seen as important, to reduce costs of infrastructure improvements. Funds from the Volkwagen settlement may provide an opportunity for cities and utilities to engage in long-term planning that would include EV infrastructure. The Atlanta airport installation of EV chargers grew out of collaboration between the city, the utility, and the PSC. This required the intervention of top-level policymakers to move the project forward. While it is great to have such champions, they do have constraints on their time and cannot directly shepherd every project to completion.

Other discussions featured the value of flexible loads, including not only EVs but also pool pumps, water heaters, and air conditioners. Utility representatives reiterated the importance of knowing where on the grid the EV chargers were being installed, including the specific feeder. Engagement with EV owners, as seen in the Salt River Project, could be helpful here.

Finally, there was an overall commitment to maintain the connections and the information exchange from this conference, and to continue to support EVs moving forwards. Bringing together diverse perspectives, replicating successes, dispelling myths, and highlighting innovative developments will drive change in the future.

A Glimmer of Good News for the Climate: EPA Affirms Fuel Efficiency Standards

On Wednesday, the EPA proposed maintaining its global warming emissions standards for passenger vehicles out to 2025. These standards were finalized in 2012 to protect public health, reduce global warming emissions and fossil fuel use, and save consumers money at the pump. The decision is part of a robust mid-term review of the standards and affirms both that these standards are working as intended and that they can be met out to 2025.

Just for the vehicles affected by this determination (model years 2022-2025), the standards will result in reductions in oil use of 1.2 billion barrels, avoiding more than half a billion tonnes of global warming emissions. That means nearly $60 billion dollars in savings back to consumers and the avoidance of more than 300,000 tonnes of harmful smog-forming emissions over the lifetime of these vehicles.

Manufacturers could meet even stronger standards…

This proposed decision is based on years of analytic work. Since the rules were finalized in 2012, the federal agencies have continued to assess the progress of the industry through extensive stakeholder engagement, computer modeling, and vehicle testing. The fruits of this labor were compiled back in August in the Draft Technical Assessment Report, to which they received additional comments on the technical, environmental, and socioeconomic merits of their analysis from industry, NGOs, and the general public. Wednesday’s proposed determination includes responses to those comments and integrates this additional data into its technical findings in a 700-page technical support document.

Taken together, this data confirms what we’ve been saying all along: the standards are working to provide consumers more efficient vehicle choices; automakers are exceeding the standards today; and through continued innovation, automakers could actually meet even stronger standards in 2025 than are on the books today.

…But the decision provides certainty for industry investment

While EPA agreed that automakers could meet even more stringent standards, opening up a rulemaking process to do so would create uncertainty for manufacturers for years to come, uncertainty which could delay investment in the very technologies needed to meet more stringent standards. Given the large body of evidence gathered over the past four years to support continued reductions in fuel use and emissions, the agency is acting now to protect the environment and ensure future consumers the most efficient vehicle choices in 2025.

Typically, product planning in the vehicle sector starts around 5 years in advance of the introduction of a vehicle. This means that many vehicles which fall under the regulations considered under the mid-term review are already entering their planning cycles. With this decision, the EPA is looking to assure automakers and provide the certainty needed to continue to make the investments in technology that can provide consumers with more efficient vehicles in the future.

We’ve already seen a tremendous amount of investment and innovation since the rules were first finalized: moving forward with the rules as they stand helps ensure that investment continues.

So what’s next?

Over the next 30 days, we will be working to provide additional data to the EPA in support of strong standards. We will also push for the administration to finalize this decision to provide the certainty needed to protect investments in efficient technologies for consumers.

While finalizing this decision would be the last required step for the EPA, the mid-term review of the standards will continue under the next administration because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is required to undergo a de novo rulemaking process under its statutory authority. Concurrently, California is reviewing its own vehicle standards, which currently mirror the federal standards. These standards have been adopted by 13 other states in the West and Northeast and will help these regions meet their own emissions goals.

The technical support for EPA’s decision will provide a strong technical basis for NHTSA to finalize equally stringent regulations and for California to reaffirm their standards, moving the industry forward. With oil prices continuing to be a volatile issue, the certainty of these regulations will assure consumers have efficient vehicle choices in 2025 that will save them money while protecting everyone from the impacts of fossil fuel use.

Encouraging Signs for Electric Vehicles at the LA Auto Show

I visited the LA Auto Show last week and was very impressed with the progress on electric vehicles (EVs) from just a year ago. Though there’s uncertainty where electric vehicle policy may head at the federal level, if we look just at progress in clean vehicles, especially those with electric drive, the trend is incredibly positive. Based on what I saw this week electric vehicles are poised to make a leap into the mainstream soon.

The Chevy Bolt is a long-range EV with a surprising amount of interior space.

The Chevy Bolt is a long-range EV with a surprising amount of interior space.

Signposts on the path to electrification

We know where we need to go with personal transportation: to reduce climate-changing emissions and petroleum use, we will need to electrify most personal vehicles in the coming decades. Mass-market EVs began to be available in late 2010, and now six years later, we have two important signposts that show we are on the path moving away from oil to electricity.

First off is the one of the stars of the auto show, the Chevy Bolt EV. The new battery electric car won not only ‘Green Car of the Year’ honors at the show, but also just received Motor Trend magazine’s overall ‘Car of the Year’ award. Why all of the buzz and accolades? One reason is that the car boasts 200+ miles of electric range, which was previously only available in the EVs from Tesla, combined with a sticker price just under $30,000 (after federal incentive). This combination of range and affordable price should open up all-electric driving to a much wider audience. Most drivers will be able use the Bolt for everyday driving with absolutely no concerns about running out of charge. Additionally, while cold weather reduces range, the Bolt should have plenty of range for drivers even in areas with harsh winters. However, given the reviews to-date, there are other reasons the car is generating praise: it’s a surprisingly roomy car with good performance and a quiet ride. The range is the topline feature that will get the most attention, but this car should also be noted for being simply a better car because it’s electric.

The Pacific is being advertised only as a 'hybrid', despite the fact it's actually a plug-in too.

The Pacific is being advertised only as a ‘hybrid’, despite the fact it’s actually a plug-in too.

The Chrysler Pacifica is the US's first plug-in electric minivan.

The Chrysler Pacifica is the US’s first plug-in electric minivan.

The second milestone EV I saw at the show wasn’t a car. It’s the new Chrysler Pacifica minivan. This minivan was being marketed as ‘only’ a hybrid at the show, but it’s actually a plug-in hybrid with about 30 miles of electric range (and >500 miles combined gasoline and electric range). The battery in the Pacifica is small enough to be fully charged overnight using a standard 110V outlet, but is big enough to make a significant dent in gasoline usage. However, the ‘biggest’ feature is its size and cargo space. The plug-in hybrid version has the same capacity as the standard gasoline version of the minivan. So families can now pick a much cleaner option for school carpools and soccer games, without giving up any of the utility of a conventional minivan.

Laggards catching up?

Another theme I saw at the LA Auto Show this year was some of the companies that have been laggards in the EV space starting to catch up. Earlier this year, UCS identified a number of automakers that were behind on EVs, including Fiat Chrysler America, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai/Kia. All of these, with the exception of Honda, had significant emphasis on electric drive at the show.

  • Fiat Chrysler had the aforementioned plug-in Pacifica placed prominently on display, as well as advertised heavily throughout the entrance to the showroom.
  • Hyundai also displayed their newest EV, the Ioniq, at the show which will come in both plug-in and fully-electric versions next year. The Korean automaker also devoted their entire press conference to electric cars, including the debut of a new all-inclusive leasing plan that promises to simplify EV ownership. Starting in California, the Ionic Unlimited plan will also customers to lease an electric car for a fixed monthly price that includes all maintenance and charging costs.
  • Toyota also was showing multiple electric drive cars for the first time in several years. The hydrogen fuel cell Mirai was joined by the Prius Prime, a plug in version of the redesigned Prius. The Prius Prime has much more battery range and electric drive capability than the last generation Plug-in Prius and could help get Toyota out of the EV ‘laggard’ category.
The new Hyundai Ioniq will be available in standard hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully electric versions. Will this push Hyundai out of EV laggard status?

The new Hyundai Ioniq will be available in standard hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully electric versions. Will this push Hyundai out of EV laggard status?

Altogether, the 2016 LA Auto Show was very promising for the future of EVs in the US. Compared to last year, I saw much more interest in EVs from automakers and also more examples of EVs that were ready to go on sale (as opposed to concept cars and prototypes). Many companies, even ones that previously had lagged behind, are coming out with good cars that also happen to be EVs. These EVs can meet people’s transportation needs, while also overcoming some of the biggest obstacles to EVs, range and affordability. We are farther down the road towards creating a robust EV market, which will bring us closer to cutting oil use, cleaning our air, improving our health, and curbing global warming.

The Bioeconomy in a World Without Carbon Pollution

Reaching the climate targets set in Paris will require dramatic action from all sectors of the economy over a period of several decades.  While energy and transportation are the largest sources of U.S. emissions, the future climate also depends in great measure on the biological carbon cycle.  Carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis and stored for months, decades, or even millennia in plants, trees and soils, and later returned to the atmosphere when the plants die and break down and carbon stored in soils is oxidized.  This cycle keeps a great deal of carbon out of the atmosphere, which is described as a carbon sink.  Biofuels, bioenergy and other biobased products sit at the intersection of energy and transportation fuel emissions and the biological carbon cycle, so we must consider both to understand their role in a world free of carbon pollution.

To slow and ultimately stabilize global temperatures, climate science finds that we will need to bring net emissions of heat trapping gasses to zero, with ongoing emissions balanced by increased sequestration of carbon in forests, soils or geological storage.  Last year in Paris, the nations of the world committed themselves to achieving this net zero target in the second half of the century.  This post is based on a talk I gave last month at a conference on the Bioeconomy at Rutgers University. I explore the role of the bioeconomy within a net zero world, especially the competition between using bioproducts to produce low carbon goods, and using land for carbon sequestration services.  My conclusion is that with smart land use strategies, the bioeconomy need not be a zero-sum game.

Getting to net zero requires low carbon products and carbon removal services

Advocates of what I will call the bioeconomy (shorthand for biofuels, bioenergy and bioproducts) argue that in a low carbon world we will need a lot of low carbon replacements for products currently made from fossil fuels.  One key rational for biofuels and bioenergy has been their potential to have lower lifecycle emissions than fossil fuel products they replace or complement.  But achieving a net zero economy requires a higher level of ambition.  All aspects of the economy must not simply reduce emissions compared to a status quo scenario, but bring net emissions to zero in the second half of the century.  Bringing net emission to zero will require steadily scaling up carbon sinks, both to offset economic sectors in which it is not feasible to bring emissions to zero, and to achieve net negative emissions profiles consistent with climate stabilization in the second half the century.  These goals are illustrated in the chart below, with falling blue bars reflecting the need to dramatically cut emissions while the growing yellow bars show the importance of increasing carbon sinks.


This chart, adapted from Professor Piers Forster, illustrates one scenario for keeping global temperature rise well below 2 degrees C. It highlights the need to simultaneously reduce emissions with low carbon products (the blue bars) while also scaling up anthropogenic carbon sinks that provide carbon removal services (the yellow bars).

Today’s bioeconomy is mostly about low carbon products

Today the primary way the bioeconomy supports the transition to a net zero economy is by providing less carbon intensive biobased fuels and products to substitute for carbon intensive fossil fuels and products.  This helps to bring down the height of the blue bars.  But the production of bio-based products also competes for land that could otherwise be used to expand the biogenic carbon sink, most notably by protecting, enhancing or expanding forests that can sequester carbon.  This means the bioeconomy can also influence the yellow bars.

The tradeoffs between producing biofuels and protecting forests has been the subject of considerable analysis and debate in the context of estimating land use change emissions from biofuels (see this earlier post for more details).  But there is another way to look at the same basic tradeoff in the context of the path to net zero emissions. The ability of the land sector to act as a carbon sink can be considered a carbon removal service provided by the bioeconomy.  Carbon removal services can be produced as a primary land use strategy, for example by expanding the amount of forest land.  But carbon removal services can also be produced in conjunction with production of other biofuels or bioproducts and as the economy moves towards net zero, the role of these carbon removal services will grow.

Net zero means moving beyond combustion

Two essential elements deep decarbonization strategies have in common are a steadily larger share of energy supplied from non-combustion sources such as wind or solar energy, and a steady shift in end uses of energy away from combustion based technology towards electrification.  For transportation, this means battery electric and fuel cell vehicles powered with wind, solar and other low carbon sources of electricity and hydrogen.  The transition beyond combustion will take time, and will occur more quickly in some sectors than others.  For example, battery electric passenger cars are available today, while long haul trucking is more challenging for electrification, and aviation even more so.

As the shift beyond combustion occurs, the bioeconomy must adapt.  One strategy would be to transition from its current focus on producing low carbon biofuels to a focus on producing carbon removal services.  As demand for gasoline falls, demand for ethanol to blend into it will as well.  But biofuel facilities are also well positioned to get into the carbon removal business.  In fact one of the first carbon sequestration projects is at an ethanol facility in Decatur Illinois, which is capturing CO2 emitted during the ethanol fermentation process and sequestering it in a saline reservoir in the nearby sandstone.


Archer Daniels Midland’s Agricultural Processing and Biofuels Plant, Decatur, IL. Photo DOE.

Fermentation, and many other important biological and chemical processes produce CO2 as a byproduct of their processes.  Because CO2 released from some of these processes is nearly pure, it is much more efficient to capture it from these sources than from exhaust gasses of combustion (in which CO2 is just 10-15%) or from the air (in which CO2 is just 0.04%).  Capturing and sequestering CO2 from the bioeconomy can complement existing low carbon fuel production in the near term, and over time the value of the carbon removal may eventually exceed that of the biofuel or bioproduct.  A recent study of how the Western United States could achieve a net negative emissions electricity system by 2050 using biomass energy coupled with geologic carbon sequestration found that, in most scenarios, the value of carbon removal exceeded the value of energy generation.  So, as demand for gasoline other liquid transportation fuels fall, the biofuels industry may evolve into sequestering carbon and producing recyclable bio-plastics in place of combustion fuels.

The bioeconomy has a big land footprint, and they aren’t making any more land

For the most part, the bioeconomy relies on arable land.  The land base of the United States is essentially fixed, so if we use more land for the bioeconomy, we use less for something else.  The lower 48 states are about 1.9 billion acres, of which about 600 million acres are forests, 600 million acres are grassland/pasture, and about 400 million acres are cropland.


U.S. Geological Survey. National Land Cover Database, 2011

Biofuels are already a major part of the crop mix

Already a significant share of U.S. cropland is producing bioenergy.  Almost half of U.S. cropland is planted in just two crops, corn (94 million acres) and soybeans (84 million acres).  A large share of these crops are already used as transportation fuel (about 40% of corn is used for ethanol and 25% of soybean oil is used for biodiesel), and given competing demand for food and animal feed, substantial growth will have to come from other sources.



USDA NASS, 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Production of first-generation biofuels is integrated with production of animal feed, as biofuels use consumes about 70% of the mass of the corn and 20% of the soybeans, with the remainder used for animal feed.  Further integration of biofuels production into existing agricultural production is possible, for example by producing cellulosic biofuels from crop residues like corn stalks that would otherwise be rapidly oxidized.  Using crop residues for fuel allows for expanded biofuel production without expanding the footprint of agriculture.  However, harvesting crop residues must be very selective, because residues also play an important role protecting soil from erosion and maintaining soil carbon.  Excessive harvest of residues from the field may reduce soil carbon, or miss the opportunity to increase it.  The use of residues must be carefully monitored, to understand the tradeoffs.  adopting limited harvest of residues together with practices such as cover crops, these tradeoffs can be mitigated.

Integrating perennial energy crops into the agricultural landscape provides another important opportunity for synergy between producing biofuels and providing carbon removal and other environmental services.  However, using large areas of land for perennial crops is not without tradeoffs.  For example, much of the U.S. land area identified as suitable for energy crop production in the Department of Energy’s the recently updated billion-ton study overlaps with the land identified for potential reforestation by the World Resources Institute.


Expanding either perennial energy crops or regrowing forests on land largely in pasture today can provide climate benefits with a relatively modest impact on food markets and other competing land uses.  But more of one land use obviously comes at the expense of less of the other, and they bring a different balance of low carbon goods versus carbon removal services.

Within forest management, there are similar tradeoffs.  Forests managed to provide maximum biomass for biofuels or bioenergy may come with shorter rotations and thus come at the expense of maximizing carbon stored in the forest.  Different combinations of products will provide different mix of carbon removal and other environmental services, for example forests managed with longer rotations will produce more timber and also store more carbon.

Smart land use opportunities at a subfield scale

Another emerging opportunity for synergy comes from recent efforts to apply the tools of precision agriculture to conservation goals.  Using fine grained data to evaluate yields, profits, and other outcomes at a sub-field scale, researchers find there is an opportunity to place perennial cover on small areas of farms that are marginally profitable for corn.  A related field of research demonstrates that strategic placement of perennials in row crop systems can provide disproportionate benefits, for examples placement of prairie strips on 10-20% of a field can reduce rates of water pollution and erosion by 80-90%.  Taken together these lines of inquiry suggests that with skillful placement, the integration of high yielding perennial energy crops like miscanthus into a landscape currently dominated by row crops can provide not only a feedstock for low carbon biofuel production, but can reduce pollution from row-crop agriculture while the crops sequester significant carbon in deep root systems.  Meeting biofuel feedstock demand with perennial crops can significantly reduce water pollution, thereby reducing the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scaling up perennials for multiple benefits

Initially, when only a small share of land is in perennial cover, the logistics of harvest and collection will not likely support large scale biorefinery feedstock requirements, so these strategies will at first be motivated primarily for the environmental services they provide, especially reduced water pollution.  But as biomass feedstock supply chains evolve and grow, perennial feedstocks can play a larger role in the bioeconomy.  The visual sequence below was created by researchers at Iowa State University.  It provides a visual representation of how Iowa’s landscape could evolve, from its present state dominated by row crops, to increasingly large share of perennial land cover.  The commentary I added highlights implications for the bioeconomy as we move towards net zero.

Perennial Progression Slidewhow Based on Imagery from Researchers Larsen, Schulte & Tyndal from Iowa State University from Union of Concerned Scientists Policies must support low carbon products and carbon removal services

With appropriate policy support for carbon sequestration and reduced water pollution, strategies that are good for the climate can also improve profitability for farmers.  Given that approximately 40% of U.S. corn grain and 25% of soybean oil are currently being used to produce biofuels, there is a substantial opportunity to complement the production of low carbon products with carbon removal and other environmental services within the footprint of land currently used for biofuel production.

The current policy landscape provides support through a variety of mechanisms for climate benefits associated with biofuels.  But in most cases, the same level of support is not currently available for land based carbon removal services that compete with or complement biofuel production, such as reforestation or agricultural practices to increase soil carbon.  This asymmetry in policy support is unlikely to produce an optimal outcome.

The land sector has a lot to offer in a net zero world, but it can’t do everything.  We need smart policies that deliver multiple benefits and we need to be realistic about how large a bioeconomy we have room for in a crowded landscape.  Different types of land will be suitable for different combinations of row crop production, utilization of agricultural residues for bioenergy, implementation of cover crops or conversion of specific areas to perennial cover or forest.  Moreover, the preferences of a landowner or manager will depend a great deal on policy support, market access, and availability of knowledge and technology to support different approaches.  Analysts need to provide data, insight and tools to guide these choices, while policymakers should provide a policy landscape that supports an appropriate mix of products and carbon removal services required to meet net zero challenge and stabilize the climate for future generations.

Standing Strong for Science and Democracy

After one of the most contentious US elections in memory, the results are in. By their votes, Americans expressed deep disgust with politics as usual and issued an urgent call for our leaders to focus on those who have been battered by an economy that does not include them. While this is understandable, there is no sugar coating the fact that Mr. Trump’s statements and conduct brought out the worst in us.  Denigrating vital members of our community is wrong, and we cannot hope to tackle the enormous challenges of our time without a cohesive, respectful, and tolerant society.

Today, science, data, and evidence-based decision making appear to be major casualties of the election. The election results raise the specter of backsliding on the critical progress we’ve made in recent years on climate change and many other vital issues, even though these issues were barely discussed during the campaign. In no sense did the voters grant the new president a mandate to turn back the clock.

On this momentous day after, here are my top-level thoughts on the path forward:

Engage the new administration

As a candidate, Mr. Trump made statements on climate change, government regulation, and other issues that were disturbing. But the candidate’s position on a number of issues evolved over the course of the campaign, and Mr. Trump defended his evolution by pointing out that it is important for leaders to remain open-minded. In that spirit, we will do everything we can to communicate directly with the Trump team about the benefits of science-based decision making and the importance of addressing climate change, our food supply, and nuclear weapons, among many other things.

We believe it is particularly important to appeal to President-elect Trump’s business experience to point out that addressing climate change can bring jobs to those left out of the economic recovery. Mr. Trump’s proposed infrastructure legislation, for example, could fund thousands of good-paying jobs building transmission lines to connect renewable sources to population centers; repairing leaking gas pipelines; and removing the threat of lead pollution from drinking water pipes.

Mr. Trump was also a forceful opponent of wasteful government spending during the campaign. We can show his team that spending $1.1 trillion to update our nuclear weapon system does not make sense and that we cannot afford it. Similarly, we can show the waste and harm of large federal subsidies for commodity crops that subsidize foods that make us unhealthy.

Be the nation’s watchdog for science

With all three branches of government under control of one party, the absence of checks and balances greatly raises the risk of government by special interests. For example, numerous anti-science bills that were previously proposed in congress and vetoed are likely to return. And we can anticipate many attacks on the Obama administration’s regulations that protect our health, safety, and the environment.

UCS must be the leading champion of science-based public policy. We will bring special interest legislation and regulation to light, expose the actors behind it, and mobilize the scientific community against it.

Make progress in states, regions and cities

While we engage with the Trump administration to promote sound policies or fight bad ones, we will find other ways to make progress, too. We’ve done it before. For example, during the presidency of George W. Bush, we helped encourage states to pass laws like California’s Global Warming Solutions Act and to join together in programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

And, during the last eight years of gridlock between congress and the president, UCS helped make significant progress working regionally and within states. This past summer, for example, we helped California and Massachusetts pass clean-energy laws that go far beyond federal policies and position us on the right trend line. The California victory is particularly notable because of the diverse coalition of leaders that brought the bill over the finish line:

Leaders from the African-American, Latino and Asian communities joined Governor Brown in signing one of the most ambitious climate laws in the world.

Leaders from the African-American, Latino and Asian communities joined Governor Brown in signing one of the most ambitious climate laws in the world.

On this issue, we have a major tailwind working in our favor: the economics of clean energy are rapidly improving, making advances possible in all states. The presidential election does not change that. For example, Texas has invested billions of dollars in transmission lines that take advantage of plentiful and inexpensive renewable energy: wind energy is now so inexpensive in some areas that it’s given away at night. Georgia, which until recently had some of the nation’s best incentives in place for electric vehicles, had the second most electric vehicles sold in any state.

No matter what happens in Congress, we will continue to secure state policies that move us forward, such as renewable and energy efficiency standards, long-term contracting requirements, green banks, and others. We will also hold California and eight other states’ feet to the fire on meeting the commitments they made to expand electric vehicle market share, and will call upon them to back up these commitments with stronger incentives and infrastructure investments. With enough effort in the right places, we can secure a critical mass of geographically and politically diverse leadership states.

We will also push for progress at the regional level, where success reaps larger gains. For example, UCS will work to expand the highly successful regional cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions in the Northeast by including other sources of emissions, such as transportation fuels. And UCS will offer its technical expertise in the West Coast, the Midwest, and mid-Atlantic to meet a critical challenge: modernizing our regional electric grids so that as renewable energy expands, it is reliably and seamlessly integrated into the grid.

Cities are also an extremely important arena for progress. While we will focus on securing coordinated national food policies in Washington, we are also working to demonstrate successful approaches by local governments on good food purchasing policies. This idea, which has been highly successful in Los Angeles, creates demand for food that is healthy and locally grown. UCS will help spread this idea to other cities to build the food movement from the bottom up.

Using science to bolster our democracy

The bottom line is this: UCS will continue to work toward practical solutions and, regardless of whether or not our elected leaders choose to come together, we will stand up on behalf of science and democracy as we always have, and as forcefully as we need to. We will call out elected officials and other special interests when they ignore science and undermine safeguards that protect people’s health and safety. We will continue to expose fossil fuel companies when they deceive the public and their shareholders about climate change. We will continue to connect members of our Science Network with local groups working to reduce the pollution that make their children sick. We will provide research to communities on the front lines of climate change—threatened with rising seas, wildfire, floods, and drought.

In short, we will find ways to make progress on the issues that matter and, as always, we will rely heavily on the vital support of our more than 500,000 members and supporters to work for a healthier planet and a safer world. Photo: Matthew Platt/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Driving to a Stable Climate: The Pathway to Reducing Emissions From Transportation

The Paris climate targets require greatly reducing US global warming emissions from all sectors of the economy to reach or even surpass net zero emissions. Reducing emissions from transportation is critical to this goal since the United States transportation sector has now become a larger source of carbon dioxide emissions than electricity generation for the first time in decades. In 2014, the EPA estimated that 31 percent of all global warming emissions came from the transportation sector. Currently, the transportation system—from cars and trucks to airplanes and ships—runs almost exclusively on petroleum.  And because we burn petroleum in millions of moving vehicles, there is little opportunity for a technology fix that can capture the carbon dioxide that is produced during combustion. Therefore, achieving our 2050 climate targets will mean changing much of our transportation system from the burning of petroleum to cleaner, renewable sources of energy that have much lower emissions. Fortunately, many of the solutions to reducing emissions are already known and being put into use today.


US global warming emissions from transportation in 2014: Passenger cars and trucks and heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for over 80% of US transportation global warming emissions. (data source: US EPA, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2014)

The future is here already

For some applications like the personal vehicles many of us drive, we know how to begin this transformation: we can replace yesterday’s technology (gasoline and diesel cars) with electric-drive vehicles.  Both battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can replace many of the vehicles we currently drive and have the potential to be virtually emissions free during use. The emissions from these vehicles depend on the energy source used to generate electricity or hydrogen. Already in much of the United States, recharging a battery electric car results in lower global warming emissions than the most efficient gasoline car. And since electricity generation is trending towards lower emissions, recharging vehicles in the future will be even cleaner. Hydrogen can also be made using renewable sources that reduce or eliminate emissions, including solar and wind power.

Since light-duty vehicles make up over 60 percent of all global warming emissions from transportation, changing our personal cars and trucks to electric drive is critical to any deep decarbonization strategy. One influential report,  “Pathway to deep decarbonization in the United States”, shows that most light-duty vehicles on the road will need to be at least partially electric by 2050. This would require the majority of new cars sold in 2035 to be an electric drive vehicle. This is a significant change from today, but a number of states in the United States are already on this path. California and nine other states have adopted a Zero Emission Vehicle policy that requires automakers to sell electric vehicles, with the goal of 15 percent of all new cars being electrified by 2025.

To achieve deep decarbonization of transportation, gasoline-only light-duty vehicles are almost entirely replaced with electric drive vehicles. Figure from “Pathways to deep decarbonization in the United States. The U.S. report of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.”, 2015.

To achieve deep decarbonization of transportation, gasoline-only light-duty vehicles are almost entirely replaced with electric drive vehicles. Figure from “Pathways to deep decarbonization in the United States. The U.S. report of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.”, 2015.

Larger vehicles such as heavy-duty trucks and buses also will need to electrify, and solutions are beginning to be developed. Outside the Oakland UCS office, I often see one of AC Transit’s hydrogen fuel cell buses drive by. Battery options also are becoming available for both buses and delivery trucks and more information can be found in our recent report, “Delivering Opportunity”.  For some large vehicles, biofuels will likely also be part of the solution. Fuels like biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol can reduce emissions from transportation, if they are produced in a sustainable manner.

Planes, trains, and ships

Aviation, rail, and shipping make up a smaller portion of transportation emissions, though improvements are still important to reaching emissions reduction goals.  Efficiency improvements in aircraft can help, as well as the use of biofuels. Similarly, rail and shipping can also use a combination of biofuels, efficiency, and perhaps hydrogen to reduce energy demand and lower global warming emissions.

Cleaning up combustion is important too

To be consistent with long term climate plans, we must move transportation away from petroleum to the greatest extend possible. However, in the near and medium term, many of our vehicles will still rely on combustion. For this reason, we cannot ignore efforts to make conventional vehicles more efficient and less polluting. This means making sure that current rules on both passenger car and heavy-duty truck efficiency go forward, saving significant emissions and petroleum.

A path to cleaning up transportation

Reducing emissions from transportation will require a wide-scale shift away from petroleum. This change won’t happen overnight and will require new investments in alternatives to using oil, both in vehicle technology and fuel infrastructure. However, the good news is that many of the solutions we’ll need, like battery and fuel cell technology and conventional efficiency improvements, are ready to be put into action.

Dude, Where’s My Car (Charging Station)? How Public Charging Is a Centerpiece of a U.S. Department of Transportation Initiative

There are nearly 15,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles in the U.S., but there hasn’t been a great way to navigate to those spots without an app or internet access – until now.

Included in a package of electric vehicle-related initiatives from the White House is the designation of 25,000 miles of U.S. highway as “sign-ready,” meaning they are ready to get uniform signs for electric vehicle charging next to the existing signs for gas, food, and lodging. For now, the placement of the charging signs is limited to highway segments that have charging stations (existing or planned) at least every 50 miles. But this limited placement is not insignificant. 25,000 miles of highway across 35 states already qualify, and with additional investments in public charging coming from states and utilities, tens of thousands more highway miles will likely be getting charging signs in near future as well.

Highways across the country are “sign-ready,” meaning that they will have uniform signage for EV charging stations. See the interactive map at: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/alternative_fuel_corridors/maps/

I admit, signs for electric vehicle charging is not as exciting as breaking a 108-year championship drought, but this seemingly simple initiative could significantly impact the electric vehicle market.

First, the physical signs for electric vehicle charging could help alleviate range anxiety. Most electric vehicle drivers likely have an app for navigating to charging stations, but perhaps some are part of my T-Mobile family, which means ¼ the cell coverage for ¾ the price. So a charging locator app isn’t necessarily foolproof. If you’re driving along a highway with charging signs, however, no phone service is no problem. Charging signs will be a physical backstop to relying on cell phones or apps, and could give electric vehicle drivers additional peace of mind when embarking on a trip that is further than a single charge.

Second, signs for public charging can instill confidence in non-electric vehicle drivers and raise public awareness toward the existing network of 15,000 electric vehicle charging stations. Just seeing signs for electric vehicle charging every 50 miles along heavily trafficked highways could be the little nudge needed to choose an electric vehicle. Although most electric vehicle charging is done at home, many consumers want to know they can charge on-the-go, and both perceived and actual access to public charging is an important consideration when thinking about whether an electric vehicle can fit your needs.

Lastly, this announcement sends a clear signal to the next Administration that continuing federal initiatives to help electric vehicles gain a better foothold in the U.S. vehicle market should be a priority. Electric vehicles are not just a foil against climate change. They also cut oil use, are cheaper to fuel and maintain, and simply offer a better driving experience. For more on why electric vehicles are smart solution, check out our web content here.

Fuel Economy Reaches Highest Level Ever as Automakers Continue to Beat EPA Regulations

EPA released its annual reports on the fuel economy of new vehicles and how well automakers are complying with regulations—and yet again, new vehicles sold are more efficient than they’ve ever been, while automakers continue to exceed the federal standards.

Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said that EPA needs to weaken or delay implementation of fuel economy standards that are working to bring consumers more efficient vehicles…and he is not alone.

Federal fuel efficiency standards have helped put the most efficient vehicles ever into consumers’ hands, but Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is still pushing EPA to weaken or delay implementation of fuel economy standards…and he is not alone.

These reports aren’t really news—this is the same thing we have observed year after year since these standards went into place, and it should be in no way surprising.  Despite all their griping, manufacturers are doing well, exceeding standards even while selling near-record volumes of vehicles, including an increasing share of the SUVs that are some of their most profitable.

What is different about this year, however, is that we are in the middle of a mid-term evaluation of these standards, standards which automakers are trying to weaken, even while some manufacturers are actually reducing efficient options for consumers.  It’s clear from these reports, however, that the standards are working as intended and manufacturers have plenty of technologies left at their disposal to continue to meet future standards.

SUVs are not just more popular than ever—they’re more efficient

2015 saw a surge in SUV marketshare, but this was also accompanied by significant improvements in efficiency, buoyed by a bevy of new, smaller crossovers.  This is helping to keep the “trucks” that automakers love to sell ahead of the standards.  In fact, SUVs today are nearing the same levels of efficiency that cars had 10-15 years ago, a feat that would not have occurred without these regulations.

It isn’t just SUVs that are improving, of course—nearly every class of vehicle saw its highest achieved fuel economy ever.  By pushing manufacturers to deploy efficient technologies across all vehicles, these regulations are helping to ensure more efficient consumer choices in every vehicle class.

A variety of technology pathways are helping to achieve standards

A common gripe that we hear about regulations is that manufacturers will be forced to adopt technology X Y or Z, but these standards were designed to be flexible, providing manufacturers choices it can tailor to its own customers and vehicle profiles to improve the availability of efficient options for consumers while maintaining wide ranging options in size, make, luxury, performance, etc.  This is possible because there are a plethora of technology choices for manufacturers that are nowhere near being fully deployed.

Manufacturers have a broad array of technologies at their disposal to continue to use conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles to meet future standards. From gasoline direct-injection (GDI) to advanced transmissions, there are a number of technology pathways for manufacturers, all of which can lead to further reductions in fuel use—the six highlighted here are merely a subset that omits aerodynamic improvements, weight reduction, Atkinson-cycle engines, variable-compression-ratio engines, and much more.

Manufacturers have a broad array of technologies at their disposal to continue to use conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles to meet future standards. From gasoline direct-injection (GDI) to advanced transmissions, there are a number of technology pathways for manufacturers, all of which can lead to further reductions in fuel use—the six highlighted here are merely a subset that omits aerodynamic improvements, weight reduction, Atkinson-cycle engines, variable-compression-ratio engines, and much more.

Case in point: Mazda is among the best-performing automakers and continues to outpace the standards by deploying efficient direct-injection engines across the board, but they have plenty of room to grow when it comes to transmission efficiency or stop-start technology.  On the other hand, Nissan has exploited tremendous improvements in continuously variable transmissions to ensure its cars and trucks are well ahead of the standards, but it has yet to significantly deploy direct-injection or turbocharging to its engines.

In addition to the technologies highlighted by the EPA in the Trends report, the technical assessment report put out this summer noted a number of additional technologies like the use of lightweight materials to reduce weight of vehicles, utilization of advanced valve controls to run the engine in a more thermodynamically efficient cycle like Atkinson- and Miller-cycle engines, and the reduction of “road load” by improving aerodynamics and reducing the rolling resistance of tires.  Beyond conventional technologies, there are also the more than 500,000 electric vehicles sold to-date that are helping manufacturers exceed the standards—while they are not necessary to achieve 2025, they are certainly helping us to meet our oil and climate goals and will become a bigger and bigger part of the new vehicle market as we aim for a more sustainable transportation future.

Working as intended—why slow down?

Customers are buying the most efficient cars and trucks ever in near-record volumes—that is exactly the type of progress we need to accelerate to meet our oil reduction and climate targets, and the light-duty vehicle standards remain the best opportunity to make this happen.

With manufacturers overachieving each and every year of the standards to-date and plenty of technology opportunities on the horizon, it’s tough to imagine why the agencies would give into industry pressure to weaken the standards—reports like this chock full of good news for the auto industry and showing the positive impacts of the regulations will continue to provide the ammunition to strengthen these targets out to 2025 and beyond.

Meeting the Transportation Demands of the Future: It’s All About Options

Like most teenagers growing up in suburban Chicago, I couldn’t wait to turn 16 and finally get my driver’s license. The ability to go wherever I wanted, the freedom of not having to ask my parents for a ride, and just the thrill itself of driving were all things I looked forward to. However, I also loved taking advantage of Chicago’s public transportation whenever I could. I’m a big supporter of cities having convenient public transportation options; I feel this way despite the fact that I’m now an engineer for one of the Big Three automakers in Detroit.  

A Tale of Two Cities

I moved to the Detroit area about 3 years ago for a job at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. I knew that there would be some significant differences between Detroit and my native Chicagoland, but the one that would stand out the most is the state of public transportation in each city. Chicago has an extensive public transportation network, utilizing a mix of buses, subways (the “L”, as we know it in Chicago), and commuter rail that serve both the city and suburbs. All these various modes of transport are managed by a multi-county Regional Transit Authority that coordinates schedules and ticket sales.


The Detroit People Mover is one of the public transit systems in Detroit. Photo credit: Mikerussell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2180481

Metro Detroit, on the other hand, has five separate agencies operating public transportation, and they currently don’t coordinate with each other very well. For example, if a Detroit resident needs to go somewhere in the suburbs, he would have to take a DDOT bus to the edge of the city, then transfer to a SMART bus. Because of the lack of coordination between the agencies, there are many gaps in the network. Even if there is a route that could theoretically get you to your destination, there is no guarantee that a seamless transfer is possible. Because of this, virtually everyone drives everywhere.

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that public transportation is lacking here. Detroit’s economy is dominated by the auto industry, so anything that dissuades people from buying cars isn’t going to get much support. I myself now work in that industry, so automobile sales matter to me as well. However, I believe that having viable public transportation options is critical for the success of Detroit and many other cities. It is possible to have a successful auto industry while still offering alternatives to people that can’t (or don’t want to) drive all the time.

What’s at Stake

According to the World Health Organization, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. As metropolitan areas continue to grow, in both population and physical size, transportation needs will grow as well. This will have a significant impact on our resources and infrastructure, not to mention the effect that increased fuel consumption might have on our environment.

Furthermore, our transportation policies can have a big effect on social equity and everyday quality of life. Reliable access to things like jobs, schools, and grocery stores are essential for a successful community, but there are communities that have been left out. Take for example the story of James Robertson, a Detroit resident who walked about 21 miles each day to get to his job, because he could not afford to replace his car and the bus options were very limited. Even in cities with good public transit such as Chicago, neighborhoods with a large minority population unfortunately sometimes have more limited options. As a person of color, I don’t want to see people like me miss out on good opportunities simply because there is no way to get to them. As an engineer, I know it is possible to find solutions to these challenges.

Building a Brighter Transportation Future

Despite all these concerns, there is hope for the future. Ride-hailing and ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar have exploded onto the scene in recent years. Several cities have established light rail and Bus Rapid Transit lines. Auto makers are continuously seeking improvements in fuel efficiency, and investing in hybrid and electric vehicles. There is also a strong push for autonomous vehicles, which could be a game-changer for those who are physically unable to drive, either through private ownership or a ride-sharing system.

Public policy is another area where change is happening. Here in Southeast Michigan, we will be voting on a property tax increase to fund a Regional Master Transit Plan that will bring improved transit options to Detroit and its suburbs. The plan would create several new bus lines, including bus rapid transit, re-establish commuter rail service in the region, and continue funding the brand-new streetcar in downtown Detroit scheduled to open next year. I personally plan to vote in favor of the proposal, because I believe private vehicle ownership doesn’t have to be the only option. Making it easier and more efficient for people to get places leads to better economic opportunities, stronger communities, and a better environment for all.

Bio: Jonathan Tyler is an engineer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, working to identify and address manufacturing-related quality issues. He is an active member of the National Society of Black Engineers at both the local and regional level.

Trucks and Buses: The Next Frontier in Electric Vehicles

Today, I am happy to announce the release of a new report that UCS co-authored with The Greenlining Institute on heavy-duty electric trucks and buses in California.

Why Heavy-Duty Vehicles?

Heavy-duty vehicles play a large role in transportation and transportation as a whole is the largest source of global warming emissions in California and is fast becoming the largest in the United States. Heavy-duty vehicles also greatly contribute to poor air quality, with low income communities and communities of color most likely to be burdened with this pollution and the increased health risks it brings.

While progress has been made on getting electric trucks and buses out there, there’s even more needed to realize the benefits of clean air, reduced oil consumption, and high performance that electric vehicles can bring to the heavy-duty sector.


An electric truck and bus made by BYD. Photo Credit: BYD

The Report Answered Three Main Questions

1. How do the life cycle emissions of heavy-duty electric vehicles compare to traditional diesel and natural gas vehicles?

Short answer: way lower. One of the hallmarks of electric vehicles is that they do not have any tailpipe emissions, which provides great relief to the local air quality in the communities they are driven in. But what about the life cycle global warming emissions?

We used transit buses as a representative example of heavy-duty vehicles and found that battery powered electric buses on today’s grid in California have nearly 75 percent lower global warming emissions than diesel and natural gas buses. Fuel cell electric buses fueled with one-third hydrogen generated with renewable energy (per California law) have 50 percent lower global warming emissions than diesel and natural gas buses.

So like passenger cars, electric heavy-duty vehicles offer significant life cycle benefits over traditional vehicles on today’s grid.

2. What is the state of technology for heavy-duty electric vehicles?

Short answer: way further along than you might think. A battery electric transit bus was recently announced with a range of 350 miles and overhead and underground on-route chargers can extend the range of electric vehicles beyond what they get on a single charge. Fuel cell electric buses have long had ranges over 200 miles.

There are more than 15 transit agencies deploying electric buses, with two in California committed to being fully electric. While electric trucks are not yet suitable for long-haul shipping, there are a large number of trucks and buses that operate only in cities and are great candidates for electrification today.

3. How can we ensure that all Californians benefit from the growth of the heavy-duty electric vehicle industry?

Short answer: job training and equitable hiring practices. Already, there are nearly 15 manufacturers in California making electric trucks and buses, making the state an early leader in this industry. As this industry grows, how can it be one that provides economic opportunity for all Californians?

My colleagues at Greenlining interviewed several manufacturers and scoured Department of Labor databases to paint a picture of the types of job opportunities that exist in the heavy-duty electric vehicle industry and what skills and trainings are needed for workers to enter these quality jobs.

In short, electrical skills will become increasingly important for jobs related to assembly, manufacturing, and electrical infrastructure, which represent the most prevalent job opportunities in this industry. And as a young industry, with many small (yet growing) companies, now is the time for companies to develop and implement equitable recruiting and hiring practices.

Electric truck and bus technologies are advancing and smart policies to accelerate their deployment will benefit air quality, health, and the climate, as well as provide good job opportunities for underserved communities.

This report has been a fantastic opportunity to work with Greenlining, one of the most respected racial and economic equity organizations, and highlights the many dimensions to making the world one that is healthy and just. Check out the full report here: Delivering Opportunity: How Electric Buses and Trucks Can Create Jobs and Improve Public Health in California.

P.S. Today also marks my first blog at UCS. Before joining the Clean Vehicles team about this time last year, I worked for US Senator Brian Schatz (Hawaii) on energy and climate issues as a Congressional Fellow. Before that, you could find me in the research lab studying fuel cells at Cornell and UC Santa Barbara.

The State of the Electric Car Market in 4 Charts and Graphs

I’m guessing that over the past 3 months (or more), your news feed has been dominated by election-related stories. So you may have missed the recent good news about the electric vehicle (EV) market in the United States. To bring you up to speed (and provide a brief break from election hullaballoo) here are 4 graphs that explain what’s been happening in the world of EVs.

Graph 1 : EV sales are charging ahead (see what I did there?)

EV sales in the US just hit a new record. Over 45,000 EVs were sold in the third quarter of 2016, up more than 60 percent from the same time a year ago.


EV sales are on the rise, though still represent around 1 percent of national vehicle sales. Source: insideevs.com

The sales increase can be partly attributed to the second generation Chevy Volt, which became widely available in March 2016 and includes 50 miles of electric range along with a backup gasoline engine. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the Volt allow many drivers to do all of their normal daily driving purely on electricity, without any fear of running out of juice because they can just fill up with gas if the batteries are drained.

Confused about the difference between PHEVs like the Volt and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) like the Nissan LEAF? Check out this explainer post.

Graph 2 : EVs are selling despite lower oil prices

EV sales reached this new high-water mark despite spotty availability of EV models across most of the country and continued lower-than-average oil prices, a factor often cited as hampering EV sales.


EV sales continue to climb despite relatively low gas prices. Sources: InsideEVs.com and U.S. Energy Information Administration

Low gas prices do take some of the spotlight off of EVs, despite their lower operating costs compared to gas-powered vehicles. But even with gas hovering around $2.30 a gallon, driving on electricity remains cheaper.

The US Department of Energy estimates that driving on electricity is like paying $1.15 per gallon of gas, and electricity prices have historically been much more stable and predictable than gasoline.

Graph 3: Sales would be even higher if they were more widely available

Generally speaking, EVs are not readily available outside of California. The current lack of availability is due, in part, to the fact that a major policy pushing automakers to offer EVs—the California Zero Emission Vehicle Program—does not require automakers to sell EVs outside of California (yet).


The requirements of the California program are set to expand to 9 additional states (ME, CT, VT, NY, MA, RI, MD, NJ, OR) in 2018, which together made up 28 percent of combined vehicle sales in 2015. So, the expanded role of policy pushing automakers to sell EVs in major vehicle markets outside of California will likely accelerate aggregate EV sales over the next couple years.

Graph 4 : More automakers are getting in the EV game

2017 should be an exciting year for EVs. Chevy is about to drop the Bolt, an all-electric car with over 200 miles of range and a price tag of around $30,000 after the federal tax credit. Toyota is releasing a new Plug-in Prius, now called Prius Prime, and recent pricing announcements put the cost similar to the price of existing Prius models.

Also in 2017, Tesla is aiming to ship their much-anticipated Model 3, and Hyundai will launch their Ioniq series that will include several electric drive train options. In 2018, Audi is slated to launch an all-electric 300-mile range SUV. Check this post for more detail on other EVs coming to showrooms soon.


Consumers are now able to access many more electric vehicle options compared to 2011. More EV offerings from more automakers are planned in the next couple years, which will help the EV market continue to grow. Note that all BMW i3s were considered BEV, though some were the range-extender models that are PHEVs. Source: ucsusa.org

Overall, more EV options mean more choices for drivers to choose a vehicle that is cheaper and cleaner than a comparable gasoline model (and fun to drive). Though the EV market still has to overcome some hurdles , the state of play right now provides real reason to be optimistic about where EVs are headed.

Déjà Vu: Shoddy Economic Study Touted by Automakers Flaunts Facts

The mid-term evaluation of fuel economy standards is in full swing, and with the close of the public comment period on the Technical Assessment Report from the federal agencies, we now have a better understanding of the types of arguments being used by automakers as they try to weaken the federal passenger vehicle efficiency standards—to no one’s surprise, it relies on a lot of half-baked nonsense and fearmongering.

One statistic repeated over and over by automakers and their trade associations comes from a report that just happened to be released the same day industry was testifying at a House hearing on the standards—the claim is that up to 1.1 million jobs could be lost due to the 2025 standards, citing a report by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR).

This statistic is not just notable for its magnitude—it also runs counter to analysis released earlier this year which notes the positive impact these standards would have on automaker profitability in a variety of future fuel price scenarios.  Of course, it’s not the first time the Center for Automotive Research has used bad analysis to fearmonger around lost jobs…

Déjà vu all over again

This faulty analysis predicting 1 million jobs lost is really no surprise—five years ago, the same authors said that the standards adopted would lead to…1 million jobs lost in 2025.  So, at least they’re consistent? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

They also predicted that while “this loss would happen by 2025 [it] would start to cumulate with the increase in standards in 2017.”  We’re basically at 2017 now…so how are we doing?  There are no hints yet of the massive increases in costs related to fuel economy standards, with estimates of the costs to meeting the standards actually dropping since the first CAR study in 2011.  Manufacturers are having absolutely no trouble meeting the standards, even exceeding them, despite gas prices having dropped significantly.  Automotive sales are booming, aiming for nearly 18 million units for the second consecutive year—about 5 million more vehicles sold than when the study was written, well exceeding the CAR projections.  And the automotive industry has added 450,000 jobs in the same timeframe.

So with all of the things that have gone right in the past five years for the industry, just how in the world does CAR think a catastrophe will strike this time?  To understand how the authors arrived at this ridiculous and incorrect assessment number, we have to dive deeper into the study.  There are a few basic assumptions on which the CAR analysis is based:  future gas prices, future technology costs, consumer response, and economic response—these latter three are the key sources of error in the study and deserve further detailing.

Cost assumptions are pulled out of thin air

The costs of improving fuel economy are a key parameter to any analysis of fuel economy standards—it goes directly toward the benefits to consumers.  The latest data shows that these standards continue to be cost-effective for consumers, even with low projected gas prices—so how did CAR come up with its evaluation of the cost of these standards?

Incredibly, the answer is pretty much that they pulled the values assumed for costs to the consumer out of thin air.  CAR assumed costs of $2000, $4000, and $6000 incurred by consumers to meet the fuel economy standards from 2017-2025.  The paper cited to support this was not based on any technology costs but rather an analysis from 1991 on pricing strategies used by automakers to shift consumer behavior, which is not pertinent to the question asked by CAR.

Furthermore, these costs represent significant overestimates for the expected costs.  The lowest assumed increase in cost was $2000 in 2025—accounting for the inflation assumed in the CAR report, this is equal to about $1500 in 2013$.  In the TAR, EPA’s projected costs of compliance were less than $1300 in 2013$.

In other words, the lowest cost scenario assumed by CAR in its analysis was actually higher than the agencies’ estimates!

CAR’s own data sources show that consumers value fuel savings more than assumed

The underlying principle behind the CAR analysis is that costly technology will not pay back in fuel savings for consumers, so consumers will buy less vehicles, resulting in less jobs.  However, in their assessment of how consumers evaluate future fuel savings, they ignore half the cited references and exclude anything published since 2011, including two papers which are actually updates to the cited work.  The authors do this by ignoring the studies which focus on a discount rate (rather than assuming that 100 percent of the fuel savings anticipated over the ownership of a vehicle will be achieved, consumers assume an implicit “discount” of those savings—this yields a discount rate).  In fact, when those studies are included in the estimate, the implied payback a consumer is looking for falls to within the life of the typical car loan based on the studies cited by CAR (5-6 years).

A recent consensus study by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found that the literature shows significant uncertainty around how consumers value fuel savings:  “The results of recent studies find that consumers’ responses vary from requiring payback in only 2 to 3 years to almost full lifetime valuation of fuel savings” (Finding 9.3).

Once again, CAR used an estimate at the extreme end of a range of data in order to achieve a conservative, industry-favoring result instead of utilizing a value consistent with the literature.

Modeling is only as good as your inputs…and these are not very good

An age-old adage when it comes to models is “GIGO”—garbage in, garbage out.  Massive inconsistencies throughout the report and fundamental flaws in the work itself on a number of issues completely undermine the analysis.

The authors flip-flop repeatedly throughout the report on the use of “nominal” and “real” prices (nominal prices are the value of today’s goods in current dollars, while real prices include the impacts of inflation).  For example, in assessing how quickly the standards would pay back, they assumed gas prices in real dollars but costs in nominal dollars—this has the effect of overestimating payback time by nearly 25 percent!

As for the models themselves, there are a few primary flaws in the approaches taken by CAR.  Among other issues with the models, CAR conflates expenditure (which is a measure of both price and quantity) with sales—this leads to an overestimate of the impact on vehicle production.  Of greater concern, however, is the way in which the errors in assessing these questionable impacts are then compounded by inaccurate translation into job losses.

Rather than pursue any rigorous macroeconomic analysis, the authors choose to use a simplistic multiplier approach—i.e., there are x millions of vehicles being produced, y million direct jobs, and z indirect jobs, so changes in x result in a directly proportional change in y and z.  This is inappropriate under their assumption of a rosy economic picture due to the fungibility of jobs in a functioning economy.

As an example of why more rigorous analysis is needed, we can look at a previous macroeconomic analysis of the jobs resulting from these standards—while the standards would lead to significant job losses for the oil and gas sector, for example, those job losses pale in comparison to job creation in all other sectors, resulting in nearly 600,000 net jobs gained as a result of the standards.  This is exactly why in a fully-functioning economy you can’t just point to a single sector as the authors here have done but instead must look at the impacts on the entire economy.

I’m shocked—shocked!—to find industry up to its old tricks again

It’s no surprise the automotive industry would hang its hat on the Chicken Little posturing found in this report from CAR to engage in some good old-fashioned fearmongering. But it’s also pretty hard to take seriously given the numerous holes in the analysis and their record on previous predictions.

The standards are working, the automotive sector is doing well, and the latest data shows that we are well on our way to meeting the 2025 standards.  And we’ll continue reminding the agencies of those facts to counter the nonsense that industry tries to pass off as analysis.

How Should Oil Companies Adapt to a Carbon Constrained World?

Last week my colleagues released a report on the failure of major fossil fuel companies to make a clean break from disinformation on climate science and policy, or to plan adequately for a world free of carbon pollution as laid out in the international climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015.  Today I want to focus on oil companies, and consider how they should change the way they extract oil and use it to produce gasoline, diesel, and other fuels and products.

In order to adapt to a carbon constrained world, oil companies should invest in a supply chain that focuses on the most important products and most efficient ways to produce them in a world committing to reduce heat-trapping emissions.  The changes in the transportation fuel sector will not happen overnight, so this will be a process that plays out over a span of several decades.  Assessing their progress in this ongoing evolution will require much better information than we have today about the emissions of the whole global oil supply chain.

Running out of oil used to be a major concern, not any more

For many decades, securing access to enough oil to power our economy, particularly the transportation sector, was a top concern of policy-makers.  But changes in how we make and use fuel are altering that equation.  Geologists and chemical engineers have proven adept at locating and converting an ever wider range of fossil resources into gasoline, diesel and other fuels and products, tapping resources not previously included in estimates of oil reserves like tight oil extracted from shale by fracking in North Dakota and Texas, and bitumen separated from the tar sands in Alberta.  Thanks to this ingenuity, the availability of sufficient gasoline, diesel and other transportation fuels is much less of a concern.  Instead, the most profound challenge facing the oil industry is the climate consequence of using the products it produces.  Instead of worrying about where the oil will come from, we need to focus on where it is going (the atmosphere).

A stable climate means being smart about which fossil fuels to extract

Recent analyses have compared the known fossil fuel resources (reserves and recoverable resources) to the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide consistent with stabilizing global temperature rise at less than two degrees centigrade.  These studies have found rather from needing to identify new fossil fuel resources, climate stability requires that a significant share of already identified resources are never extracted and burned.  Until and unless we have carbon capture and storage technologies deployable at scale, fossil energy companies interested in a long term future can no longer simply locate and secure rights to extract additional fossil resources.  Rather, their competitiveness and business prospects will depend upon their ability to supply a changing mix of products at competitive prices with minimal emissions.  In short, oil companies will need to be smarter and cleaner, rather than just bigger and cheaper.

Getting smart about oil

Figuring out which fossil fuels should remain in the ground is simple if you think in very broad strokes.  Most of the coal and the most polluting sources of unconventional oil like tar sands should not be developed or extracted, while a larger share of conventional oil and gas can be used as we transition to a steadily growing share of energy from renewable and low carbon sources.  But it gets a lot more complicated if you get into the details.  What makes this tricky is that both the supply and demand side of the fuel fossil business have complex carbon implications, and both are changing over time.  If all the fuels were made into one product, we could phase out the dirtiest sources first.  But the fact is that different fossil fuels are used to produce different products today, demand for these products is changing today and will change even more dramatically in years to come.  This is true both in terms of broad categories like coal, oil and natural gas, but also within the range of resources called oil.  As the team behind the recently updated Oil Climate Index explained last week, there is a lot more complexity in different crude oils than most people understand.  Different crudes supply a different mix of products, and the carbon impact depends on both the extraction, refining, and product mix.

Two key questions

To think clearly about the prospects for a carbon constrained oil supply chain, we need to consider two key questions: which refined products of fossil fuels are the hardest to replace with low carbon alternatives; and how these products can be produced with the lowest emissions.  Put another way, we need to consider separately the emissions from fuel users and fuel producers, and figure out the prospects for minimizing both.

We understand how to reduce emissions from using fossil fuels

Emissions from the use of fossil fuels account for the majority of their lifecycle emissions, so let’s consider these first.  We have a good understanding of what is required to reduce emissions from fossil fuel use, and have in place some key initial policies to reduce these emissions, such as the Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from electrical power generation, and energy efficiency measures to cut fossil fuel use in vehicles and homes, policies to promote fuel switching towards cleaner fuels and to promote substitution of renewable fuels for fossil fuels.

Coal is easier to replace than jet fuel

It’s already clear that decreasing coal use is easier that cutting oil use, and as we look into the future, many experts expect that substantially decreasing gasoline use in the cars and trucks we drive will be easier than replacing jet fuel in the aviation sector.  As we move towards a future in which global warming emissions are increasingly constrained, it seems clear that some parts of the fuel market will shrink faster than others.

We are not doing as well at reducing emissions from extracting and refining

The emissions from extracting and refining fossil fuels are less well understood, and are much less carefully regulated, but it is clear these emissions vary widely.  Consider just the fossil fuels we call oil.  In fact, oil is not just one thing. The resources we call oil range from thin liquids that resemble nail polish remover, to materials more like peanut butter or window putty.  Different fuels are more or less suitable to produce different final products.  And emissions from extracting and refining these various resources range from less than 50 kg CO2e/barrel to more than 250 kg CO2e/barrel.  Moreover, the average emissions per barrel have been rising quickly.

Reducing avoidable emissions

Some of the variation in emissions from extraction and refining is a function of how oil producers conduct their business, for example, the extent to which they are venting and flaring methane and other associated gases at oil and gas extraction sites.  There are readily available strategies to dramatically cut these emissions. For example, where venting and flaring are the problem, simply investing more attention and resources to reducing methane leaks, and building and maintaining the appropriate infrastructure to manage gas responsibly can drastically reduce the emissions associated with oil extraction.

Avoiding the dirtiest sources

In other cases, the type of oil resource itself, such as extra heavy or sour crudes, are inherently more energy intensive to extract and refine.  The tar sands are the best known example, but other extremely heavy crudes from Venezuela fall into the same category.  In theory, technology may be able to mitigate the additional emissions from these fossil fuel resources, particularly if carbon emissions from the extraction and refining process can be cost effectively captured and safely sequestered.  But at the present time, this technology is not commercially available, and its technical and economic prospects are unclear.  Until the cost effectiveness of these strategies is clear, these fossil resources are clearly disadvantaged.

Old oil fields often have rising emissions

Even the same oil fields will have different emissions over time, as more energy and different techniques are required to extract oil as an oil field gets depleted.  This is called enhanced oil recovery, and it involves pumping steam, carbon dioxide, methane or other gasses into the oil field to help oil flow so it can be extracted.  How the power to run the pumps and heat to create steam is generated, where the carbon dioxide or other gases come from, and how much of the carbon dioxide or methane stay in the ground versus escaping into the atmosphere make a big difference in the emissions.  As I said, it is complicated, but this complexity means that the engineers and operators have lots of opportunities to reduce emissions, if they have the motivation to do so.

Different types of oil are suitable for producing different product slates

The expansion of so-called tight oil production from the Bakken in North Dakota produces a mix of hydrocarbons on the light end of the spectrum, with a lot of short hydrocarbon molecules like methane, ethane and what are called natural gas liquids.  These light products are used for power generation, to produce plastic and are blended with gasoline, but they are not readily refined into diesel or jet fuel.  Other heavy oils tend to produce more heavy products, including more petroleum coke, a heavy low value product that is more or less a substitute for coal.  Oils with a lot of sulfur, often called sour crudes, are also problematic, and require extensive additional processing to produce low sulfur fuels that are required to avoid serious air pollution problems. Thanks to the magic of chemistry and the ingenuity of chemical engineers, it is possible to make a wide range of products from different initial sources of oil, by adding additional process steps and chemical transformations.  With the right process, methane, the smallest hydrocarbon, can be converted to diesel fuel.  But these chemical transformations come at a cost in dollars, energy, emissions and yield.  Sorting out which oil sources are most suitable from a cost and emissions perspective requires information about the chemical nature of the oil, including the levels of impurities and the fractions of lighter and heavier hydrocarbons.

Implications for the future of the oil industry

Even in a future where carbon pollution is increasingly constrained, some key transportation fuels are likely to be around a lot longer than others.  The companies that can produce those fuels, and do so without creating a lot of additional emissions from their own operations, will be the winners in carbon constrained economy.  The fossil fuel industry should focus on resources and processes that produce the hardest to replace fuels (more jet fuel, less petroleum coke) with the lowest carbon supply chain.  To assess their progress requires greater data transparency than is presently available.  Greater reporting, traceability and transparency of the full supply chain will allow responsible energy companies, investors, consumers, and policy-makers to make better decisions about the future of oil and gas. This need for improved disclosures is also highlighted in The Climate Accountability Scorecard.

Policymakers should demand improved transparency and implement policies that push the oil industry to adopt the best available control of pollution from their own operations. This will ensure that even as demand for fossil fuels shrinks overall, the oil industry does its share to cut its emissions and supports the transition to a world free of carbon pollution. ©corlaffra/Shutterstock.com

The Road to High Octane Fuels

The biofuels world is abuzz with talk of high octane fuel.  Ethanol trade groups weighed in recently with regulators on the role of higher octane fuel in meeting fuel economy targets.  Their interest in gasoline and fuel economy might seem odd, except that their plan is to deliver higher octane gasoline by increasing the amount of ethanol blended into it. Octane is a confusing, technical topic with complex implications for ethanol and vehicle efficiency.  Depending upon whom you ask, high octane gasoline blends with more ethanol are either critical to enable cars to deliver much needed fuel economy improvements, or a dead-end strategy that Congress should block, by requiring ethanol blends never exceed 10 percent.  As usual, the arguments of the most extreme partisans on either side lean towards hype, so here are the 9 things you need to know about high octane fuel, and my perspective on a path forward.

High octane fuel enables more powerful or more efficient engines

I am trained as a chemist, so when I hear octane I think of a saturated hydrocarbon molecule with 8 carbon atoms.  But in the context of engines, octane is a standard measurement for fuels that describes their ability to burn without knocking in high compression engines[1].  Higher octane fuels allow for engines to operate at higher compression ratios, which improves power and performance.  When gasoline is first distilled from oil it has an octane number of about 70.  But such a low octane fuel would severely limit the efficiency of engines, so refinery processes and additives are used to raise the octane number to about 87 for regular gasoline and 91 for premium[2].

Automakers would appreciate higher octane fuel

Higher octane fuel makes life easier for automakers.  Automakers are increasingly adopting turbocharging and other engine technologies to improve power and fuel efficiency, and these technologies work better with higher octane fuel[3].  However, the higher prices of high octane fuel available now discourages consumers from purchasing it, limiting its use primarily to luxury or high performance vehicles.  If higher octane fuel was widely available at attractive prices, automakers could squeeze more performance and efficiency out of technologies they are already starting to use.

The ethanol industry is very excited about high octane fuel

There are a variety of possible additives to raise octane, but ethanol is at the head of the pack.  A complex set of technical and regulatory constraints limits the combinations of additives that can be used in gasoline.  Over the last decade, ethanol has become a major high octane fuel additive.  Today most of the gasoline sold in the United States has 10% ethanol, but if the ethanol blending level was increased from 10% to 30% without making other changes in the fuel, the octane rating would increase by about 6 points (or from 87 to 93)[4].  Moreover, ethanol is generally less expensive than gasoline, so higher ethanol blends could be sold for less than conventional gasoline, offering the promise of higher octane fuel for lower prices.

Ethanol is more valuable as a source of octane than as a source of energy

One of the puzzles of ethanol’s recent history has been the simultaneous success of the 10% ethanol blend (called E10) and the almost total failure of a higher concentration blend called E85 (which is actually 51%-85% ethanol).  One important reason has to do with market access.  E10 is compatible with all cars and is sold in almost all gas stations[5], while E85 is compatible only with flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) that make up 6% of the fleet, and is sold in only about 2% of gas stations[6], often at uncompetitive prices.  The result is that E10 is used almost everywhere, and E85 is used almost nowhere.  But while these logistical challenges are significant, there is a more fundamental reason for the competitive advantage of E10 over E85.

Ethanol plays two roles in gasoline blends, acting as an additive to increase octane, and also acting as source of energy.  In E10, ethanol is a cost competitive source of octane, and without ethanol, refiners or blenders would need to increase the use of other high octane blending components that are more expensive than ethanol[7].  But in E85 ethanol makes up the majority of the fuel, and in this case the lower energy density of ethanol compared to gasoline results in FFVs getting about 25% fewer miles per gallon on E85 than E10.  To make up for this, E85 must be sold at a commensurate discount to be cost effective.  The point is that when ethanol is used for octane it adds value, but when it is used as a fuel, like E85, the resulting fuel must be sold at a steep discount.  So it makes sense to use ethanol as an octane booster, and high octane gasoline expands that opportunity.

High octane ethanol blends used by optimized vehicles balance higher octane against lower energy

One reason high octane ethanol blends are attractive is that they balance the interests of drivers and automakers.  According to recent studies, an optimized high compression engine using a high octane ethanol blend of between 20-40% ethanol would have an efficiency gain that approximately offsets the lower energy content of the blended fuel[8].  This gets a little confusing because there are several related measures of efficiency in play: volumetric efficiency (or miles per gallon), cost effectiveness (or miles per dollar), energy efficiency (or miles per unit energy), and carbon intensity (global warming pollution emissions per mile).  An optimized high compression engine running on high octane mid-level ethanol blend would improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon intensity, but because of the lower energy density of ethanol the volumetric efficiency would be a wash.  Prices of ethanol and gasoline change over time, but generally ethanol is cheaper than gasoline so cost effectiveness would also likely improve.

If everything works as planned, drivers could buy cheaper fuel without a mileage penalty, automakers would see a greater benefit from emissions reducing technologies like turbocharging that they are already introducing, the efficiency of the combined vehicle fuel system would improve and emissions would fall.  The overall impact of the improvements is subtle.  Recent studies suggest that the cars optimized for E25 would reduce carbon intensity by about 5% compared to E10.  This may seem like a fairly modest improvement, but every little bit helps.  And together with other improvements in conventional vehicles, more electric vehicles, and cleaning up all of our fuels, high octane fuels can help cut oil use and reduce global warming pollution from transportation.

But while the impact of high octane fuels on overall vehicle efficiency is subtle, these fuels have a dramatic impact on the value of added ethanol.  Going from E10 to E25 without optimization would maintain the same energy efficiency, but volumetric efficiency would be expected to fall by roughly 5% because of ethanol’s lower energy density.  That means a car that goes 300 miles on 10 gallons of E10 would go about 285 miles on 10 gallons of E25.  But optimizing the engine (especially the compression) to take advantage of the higher octane of E25 can improve energy efficiency about 5%, enough to offset the lower energy density, so the car can go 300 miles on 10 gallons of E25.  This means the additional 1.5 gallons of ethanol in E25 versus E10 takes you 45 miles in an optimized car instead of 30 miles in an un-optimized car, 50% farther!   Ethanol is a much more competitive fuel in vehicles optimized for octane, which is why the ethanol world is so excited about it.

To make high octane fuels a success, we need to optimize the whole system

The transportation fuel system is complex and large, and a lot of things need to change in a coordinated fashion to make a transition to high octane fuels work.  Automakers have to start selling optimized vehicles, gas stations have to make the high octane fuel available for these optimized vehicles while continuing to provide appropriate fuel for the existing fleet, and fuel producers and distributors have to adjust their operations to match the evolving demand.  This kind of transition may seem challenging, but we have changed our fuel blends several times in the past, including dramatic changes like replacing leaded gas with unleaded and changes that happened behind the scenes such as reducing sulfur.  With coordination, advanced planning, and appropriate consumer education, this can be a manageable process, but it cannot happen overnight.

Today we don’t yet have an agreed upon target for the optimal properties of high octane fuel, to say nothing of an agreement on how best to manage a transition.  The Department of Energy has been leading a project on the co-optimization of fuels and engines, and technical discussions are underway in places like the Society for Automotive Engineers, the Coordinating Research Council, and ASTM International to understand the pros and cons of different approaches and to develop technical specifications. Fuel regulations and policies at state and federal level will also need to be adjusted.  Only once these processes are well underway can automakers and fuel retailers start to adjust their operations, leading eventually to more visible changes, as the high octane fuel and optimized vehicles enter the market.  Even with concerted action starting now, this process will take about a decade, so realistically we can look for high octane fuels to have a significant impact until 2026 or so.

Changing from E10 to E25 does not mean 150% more ethanol

So far I have just been discussing how we use ethanol as part of our fuel mix, but many of the most challenging and controversial questions about ethanol pertain to how it is made and what it is made from, rather than how it is used.  The transition to E10 happened mostly between 2005 and 2010, and while it was not very visible to drivers, the increased consumption of corn to produce ethanol profoundly reshaped U.S. agricultural markets and land use and caused an anti-ethanol backlash that continues to reverberate[9].  So it is understandable that blending more ethanol into gasoline raises concerns about where all the ethanol will come from and associated impacts on grain prices, water pollution and wildlife habitat.


Of course if all the gasoline changed from E10 to E25 overnight, it would require two and a half times as much ethanol, which would be a big problem.  Most ethanol used in the U.S. today is made from corn, and since E10 already accounts for nearly 40 percent of the corn crop, a rapid transition to E25 would put intense pressure on corn markets with global ramifications and would cause a great many problems.  But for the logistical reasons I explained above, changes in the fuel supply will not happen overnight. Realistically it will take a decade before vehicles optimized for high octane fuel and the fueling infrastructure to deliver these fuels are widespread, and it will be several more years after that before these new vehicles account for the majority of the fuel consumption.  Because of the ongoing progress on fuel efficiency, the cars being sold between 2026 and 2036 will be much more efficient than the cars they are replacing, and this means total fuel use will be falling.  For example, if a car sold in 2016 that gets 25 miles per gallon of E10 is replaced in 2026 with one getting 50 miles per gallon of E25 it will use just 25% more ethanol, and almost 60% less petroleum, to drive the same distance as the car it replaces[10].

Accurate projections of how demand for different fuels will evolve over time are much more complicated since they must consider not just fuel efficiency and ethanol blending, but also increasing use of electric vehicles and many other factors.  A recent study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory explored these questions in detail[11].

Getting the maximum climate benefit from each gallon of ethanol means moving beyond corn

Today most ethanol is made from corn and sugar, but as we look towards a clean transportation future, it’s clear we can and must do better.  The U.S. has plenty of biomass resources to produce enough cellulosic ethanol for mid-level blends without using any more corn, but commercial production of cellulosic ethanol just started recently.  It will take several more years until billions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol are available for blending into high octane fuels.  Precisely how quickly cellulosic ethanol scales up depends a lot on investors’ perception of the future demand for ethanol, which has been quite confusing lately.  A roadmap for high octane fuel will clarify ethanol market expectations and facilitate investment in cellulosic ethanol production.

Fool me twice? Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with fuel economy loopholes

A lot of vehicle efficiency experts are deeply skeptical about high octane ethanol blends because of a bad experience with flex fuel vehicle (FFV) policy.  Their skepticism is well founded, since we are still recovering from the disastrous FFV loophole that was introduced back in the late 1980s.  In a shortsighted effort to promote alternative fuels like E85, Congress created a loophole that gave automakers credit under (CAFE) fuel economy regulations for selling the flex fuel vehicles that could run on E85, but could also run on regular gasoline.  Automakers did indeed sell quite a few FFVs (more than 16 million FFVs between 2004 and 2014[12]), but FFV drivers almost never fueled up on E85, so as far as reducing petroleum use is concerned, the strategy was a disaster.  The main impact of the FFV loophole was that auto makers sold less efficient vehicles, thus increasing overall oil use in the fleet.

The road to high octane fuel

The ethanol and auto industry are already starting to argue that high octane fuels should be somehow supported in the mid-term review of the fuel economy and GHG standards for 2022-2025.  I agree that optimizing vehicles and fuels as a system makes a lot of sense. But since we are at least a decade away from getting a new high octane fuel into the marketplace, it would be seriously premature to credit any efficiency improvements associated with higher octane fuel now.  Providing credits up front would likely backfire, just as the FFV loophole did.  Crediting emissions reductions before they actually appear is also a bad bet for the climate, since increased emissions from weaker standards are guaranteed, but the potential benefits of a transition to high octane fuel may never materialize.

We are encouraging regulators to base the mid-term review on the fuels currently in the market. As my colleague David Cooke explained, automakers have the technology to meet and exceed the current standards with the fuel we have today.  Looking forward, it makes sense to see what opportunities high octane fuels present to make cars even more efficient, which should be considered in the next round of vehicle standards (2026 and beyond). A well implemented deployment of high octane fuel can accelerate efficiency improvements in conventional vehicles, but changes in the standards must be based on the fuel drivers actually use, not wishful thinking.



[1] Actually there are a pair of tests run under different conditions that produce the Research Octane Number (or RON) and Motor Octane Number (MON).  The Anti-Knock Index (AKI), which is the primary octane index used for gasoline in the United States, is the average of the two.  The octane number compares the complex mix of hydrocarbons and other components in gasoline to a fuel composed of just iso-octane and heptane, with pure octane assigned a rating of 100.

[2] See the FAQ on Automotive Gasoline by Bruce Hamilton for lots more useful information at http://www.faqs.org/faqs/autos/gasoline-faq/.

[3] According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), sales of turbocharged engines have increased from 3% in model year (MY) 2010 to 17% in MY 2014, and they project that by MY 2025 more than 80% of engines will be turbocharged,  EIA. Today in Energy for April 6, 2016. “Engine design trends lead to increased demand for higher-octane gasoline” Online at http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=25692 .

[4] J.F. Thomas, B.H. West S.P. Huff. 2015. Effects of High-Octane Ethanol Blends on Four Legacy Flex-Fuel Vehicles, and a Turbocharged GDI Vehicle. Available online at: https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/pdfs/ORNL_High_Octane_Legacy_Vehicles_Report(final).pdf

[5] In fact, the ASTM specification for gasoline allows up to 10% ethanol, so E10 compatibility is essentially the same thing as gasoline compatibility.

[6] http://www.fuelsinstitute.org/researcharticles/e85_amarketperformanceanalysisforecast.pdf

[7] Irwin, S. and D. Good. “The Competitive Position of Ethanol as an Octane Enhancer.” farmdoc daily (6):22, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February 3, 2016.

[8] T.G. Leone, J.E. Anderson, R.S. Davis, A. Iqbal, R.A. ReeseII, M.H. Shelby, and W.M. Studzinski. “The Effect of Compression Ratio, Fuel Octane Rating, and Ethanol Content on Spark-Ignition Engine Efficiency. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2015, 49, 10778−10789

[9] For details, see my recent report, Fueling a Clean Transportation Future.

[10] 25 MPG car driving 12K miles will use 480 gallons of E10, or 432 gallons of petroleum and 48 gallons of ethanol.  Replacing that car with one that gets 50 miles per gallon on E25 will cut fuel use to 240 gallons, 180 gallons of petroleum and 60 gallons of ethanol.  Thus while ethanol blending increased by 150%, ethanol use increased only 25% while petroleum use falls by almost 58%.

[11] C. Johnson, E. Newes, A. Brooker, R. McCormick. S. Peterson, Paul Leiby, Rocio Uria Martinez, G Oladosu ML. Brown. 2015. High-Octane Mid-Level Ethanol Blend Market Assessment National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  Available online at http://www.afdc.energy.gov/uploads/publication/high-octane_mid-level_ethanol_mkt_assessment.pdf

[12] U.S. Information Administration. Alternative Fuel Vehicle Data. Available online at: http://www.eia.gov/renewable/afv/supply.cfm?fs=a&sfueltype=e85