Could the United States reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2050?  A new report released this week says yes by assessing the potential for reducing petroleum consumption.  The National Research Council report, “Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels” found that by the year 2050, the U.S. may be able to reduce petroleum consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 80% for light-duty vehicles (cars and small trucks) through a combination of more efficient vehicles, the use of alternative fuels such as biofuels, electricity and hydrogen and strong government policies.

The most logical starting point, offering an economical and easy-to-implement approach, is improving the efficiency of conventional vehicles.  However, improved efficiency alone will not meet the 2050 goals because the average fuel economy of vehicles on the road would have to exceed 180 mpg; a scenario the report says is extremely unlikely given current technologies.  This is not to say that improved efficiency doesn’t play a role.  “To reach the 2050 goals for reducing petroleum use and greenhouse gases, vehicles must become dramatically more efficient, regardless of how they are powered," said Douglas M. Chapin, principal of MPR Associates, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.  Fuel efficiency measures center around decreasing the work the engine must perform, including: reducing vehicle weight, aerodynamic resistance, rolling resistance, and accessories as well as improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine powertrain. 

The report examined current capabilities and estimated future performance and costs by vehicle type, including: hybrid electric vehicles (e.g. Toyota Prius), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (e.g. Chevrolet Volt), battery electric vehicles (e.g. Nissan Leaf), hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (e.g. Mercedes F-Cell, slated for 2014 introduction) and compressed natural gas vehicles (e.g. Honda Civic Natural Gas).  Non-petroleum-based fuel options, also called alternative fuels, which could significantly contribute to the GHG reduction goal, were also analyzed, including: three biofuels (corn-grain ethanol, biodiesel and lignocellulosic biomass), electricity, hydrogen and natural gas.  Although natural gas was considered, its greenhouse gas emissions are too high for the 2050 goal.

There are pros and cons to each of the scenarios that combine various alternative fuels and vehicles.  For example, the study committee analyzed corn-grain ethanol and biodiesel biofuels, but found much greater potential in lignocellulosic biomass, which includes crop residues like wheat straw, switchgrass, whole trees, and wood waste.   The beauty of this alternative fuel is that it can be used without major changes in fuel delivery infrastructure or vehicles.

Electric powered vehicles do not emit greenhouse gases, but the process of generating electricity often does so the report stresses the importance of successful carbon capture and storage.  The additional load on the electric power grid is also a factor that must be considered.  Furthermore, the batteries essential to these vehicles may limit the use of all-electric vehicles to local driving because of their close range and long recharge times.  Serious technical challenges await advanced battery technologies under development.

Next the report considered using hydrogen as a fuel cell in electric vehicles.  The pro is that the only vehicle emission is water; the con is that greenhouse gases are emitted during hydrogen production.  There are low-greenhouse gas methods of making hydrogen, but they are currently expensive and require further development to become competitive.  Another pro is that fuel cell vehicles do not have the same limitations as battery vehicles, but the con is the cost and difficulty entailed in revamping the current fuel infrastructure to fuel cells.

"Alternative fuels to petroleum must be readily available, cost-effective and produced with low emissions of greenhouse gases. Such a transition will be costly and require several decades. The committee's model calculations, while exploratory and highly uncertain, indicate that the benefits of making the transition, i.e. energy cost savings, improved vehicle technologies, and reductions in petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions, exceed the additional costs of the transition over and above what the market is willing to do voluntarily," said Chapin.  So to address the barriers to implementation of these technologies, the report suggested adaptive policies such as investment in research and development (R&D), subsidies, energy taxes or regulations to achieve the desired reductions.

The report cannot tell the future, but the best approach is to promote a portfolio of vehicle and fuel R&D.  Both industry and government must support efforts to solve critical challenges.  Meanwhile, evaluation should be ongoing to see which technologies emerge as the most promising and cost-effective.

Published in carbonfree blog

It was a sad day in 2010 when Congress failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation.  However, a study by Dallas Burtraw, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, released this month says that the failure had the unexpected consequence of helping to lower greenhouse gas emissions.  There are two reasons why U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be lower by 2020: regulatory measures and market changes.

This is not to say that there is no need for cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.  On the contrary, they are still necessary to achieve long-term cuts in emissions and to help establish worldwide support on the issue of climate change.  The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) was an energy bill that would cap the amount of carbon dioxide power plants and manufacturers could emit, and set up a system to trade for carbon offsets. 

When ACES failed in the Senate after receiving approval in the House of Representatives, a series of piecemeal measures were put into place.  This hodgepodge of regulatory measures put the U.S. on track to meet a pledge set by President Obama of cutting climate change emissions by 17 percent by the end of this decade.  The first of which this blog already covered is Groundbreaking Fuel Economy Standards.  President Obama pushed for higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards with automakers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when ACES died in the Senate.  Also, the president is pressing for higher emission standards on coal-fired power plants.

Further regulatory measures in the wake of national cap-and-trade’s demise include California and some Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states establishing their own cap-and-trade programs, and 29 states setting clean-energy requirements for utilities. 

Market changes putting the U.S. on the path to lower carbon emissions by 2020 have been covered by this blog also.  Low natural gas prices have been shifting the market away from dirtier coal as power plants' fuel of choice. 

If ACES, also called the Waxman-Markey Bill, had passed the law would have barred the EPA from issuing carbon standards for power plants, refineries or factories.  Furthermore, it may have very well headed off establishing the higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards.  Lastly, under a national cap-and-trade program, any regional or state efforts would be offset by increased emissions elsewhere.

So the planet still needs further, faster and more wide ranging cuts in fossil-fuel use, but the U.S. is on the right path to curbing carbon emissions with the help of some regulatory measures and market changes.

Published in carbonfree blog

In what is easily the best environmental action in a generation, this week, the Obama Administration announced new CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards for cars and light trucks (think minivans and sport utility vehicles).  By 2025, these vehicles will be required to average 54.5 miles per gallon (MPG).

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulates CAFE standards and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency measures vehicle fuel efficiency.  An agreement in support of acceptable standards was made between the government, automakers and their unions, and environmental organizations.

The stage for these historic fuel economy standards was set by an energy law enacted in 2007 under President George W. Bush.  Additionally, the 2009 federal bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler were tied to better fuel efficiency. 

Fuel-efficient cars and trucks were the U.S. auto industry’s saving grace.  It makes good sense on multiple levels to continue these efforts.  For one, 570,000 new jobs can be created by 2030.  Not to mention saving consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the gas pump and reducing U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels.  This also translates to strengthening national security by lessening the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

What about fighting man-made global warming?  The new standards will cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks in half by 2025.  This reduces emissions by 6 billion metric tons, which is more than the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the United States in 2010.  We thank President Obama for his leadership on combating climate change, pollution prevention and national security.

Starting in 2017, the standards will be phased in over the course of eight years.  New fuel-saving technology is projected to increase the cost of new car or light truck by $3,000 on average.  This means consumers will pay a little more when they buy the vehicle, about $50 more a month over a five-year loan, but they’ll more than make up for it at the pump with expected gas savings per vehicle between $7,000 - $8,000.  And that is good for the environment and our wallets.

Undeniably, the vehicle fuel-efficiency standards represent an unbeatable combination of protecting the environment and strengthening the economy.  They’re also the nation's single largest effort to combat climate-altering greenhouse gases, but we can’t stop building our carbon-reduction portfolios now.  Wonderful news like this should push us to continuing to find more ways to reduce our carbon footprint, as individuals and a nation.  Now let’s go invest in some renewable energy projects!

Published in carbonfree blog
Wednesday, 21 March 2012 23:22

How to Save Money on Gas

Gas prices are on the rise.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, gasoline prices are up 11%, increasing from $3.29 in mid-December 2011 to $3.65 by mid-February 2012.  Assuming you’re an average driver who gets fuel economy of 22.5 mpg, pays a fuel cost of $3.65/gallon, and travels 15,000 miles annually, that translates into a $20 increase each month to fuel your vehicle.

The best way to save gas money and reduce your carbon footprint is to stop driving.  However, if you cannot walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation to get you where you need to go, heed some of these driving and maintenance tips.  They boost your fuel economy and make the most of your monthly gasoline budget:

Drive more efficiently:

  • Avoid aggressive driving which includes speeding, rapid acceleration, and braking.  When you don’t drive sensibly you can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent around town.  Plus if you drive sensibly you may avoid an accident and thereby save on more than just gas.
  • Observe the Speed Limit.  Gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph.  You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.30 per gallon for gas.
  • Remove Excess Weight.  If it is a heavy and unnecessary, take it out of your car; especially if you drive a smaller car.  Did you know an additional 100 pounds in your vehicle could reduce your MPG by up to 2 percent?
  • Avoid Excessive Idling.  Idling can use a quarter to a half gallon of fuel per hour, depending on engine size and air conditioner (AC) use.  It only takes a few seconds worth of fuel to restart your vehicle.
  • Use Cruise Control.  Maintaining a constant speed can help you save gas.
  • Use Overdrive Gears.  Overdrive gearing reduces your car's engine speed which saves gas and reduces engine wear.

For these and more fuel saving tips, such as Keeping Your Car in Shape, Planning & Combining Trips, and Choosing a More Efficient Vehicle, check out http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/drive.shtml.

Published in carbonfree blog