Moving Our Cars Off Oil

This post first appeared in Txchnologist.

It is too early to pick the ultimate car of the future. Plug-in electric, hydrogen fuel cell, and biofuel vehicles are currently in contention, but it is quite possible that no single alternative will dominate the future the way that gasoline-powered cars own our roads today. The competition will be fierce because these new technologies will not only be competing against each other, but also against the ever-improving internal combustion engine. By 2035, it’s quite possible a new gasoline-powered car will get 50 mpg and a hybrid-electric car (like the Toyota Prius) will achieve 75 mpg.

Whatever technologies win out, it is clear the societal costs of oil are too high. The price at the pump fails to include all the national security and environmental costs of exploration, extraction, distribution, and consumption of oil. Since oil appears cheaper to the consumer than its true cost to society, we end up consuming more than we should. We send hundreds of billions of dollars out of our economy each year – $330 billion in 2010 alone – to oil producers with monopoly power instead of investing the money here at home.

What's The Car Of 2035?

This blog post also appeared on Edmunds Auto Observer

In movies like the iconic Demolition Man, we’re led to believe the future will be filled with cars well advanced from those on the road today (in the case of the Sylvester Stallone action flick, our cars will instantly fill with foam upon a collision). But what do the real experts think about the cars we’ll be driving in the future? For example, will our cars drive themselves like Google’s modified Toyota Prius?

We answer some of these questions in our recently released report that focuses on reducing the U.S. transportation sector's greenhouse gas emissions and oil use. The report details options available to automakers for building the cars of the future. It doesn’t attempt to predict the makeup of the car market in the future – that’s up to the consumer. Instead, the report highlights that many combinations of vehicles could significantly reduce oil use and greenhouse gas emissions in the future.

Jump-starting the plug-in electric vehicle market

There is a lot of buzz around Washington these days that plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are the answer to our energy security and climate problems. In the recent State of the Union, President Obama restated his goal of having 1 million PEVs on the road in the United States by 2015, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently released a report projecting that we will meet the goal. Meanwhile, a panel I sat on for Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) said the data indicates we won’t get quite that many PEVs on the road by 2015. The question is – does it matter if we precisely reach the President’s goal or not? The answer is no, so long as we are taking concrete steps towards jumpstarting PEV manufacturing and supporting infrastructure and learning from the experiences of early PEV adopters.

Making the Case for Plug-in Electric Vehicles: Smart Shopping

This is the third post in a three-part series on PEVs. This one examines the reasons to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. Part 1  Part 2 

In our previous posts, I described some of the benefits to national security and the environment with the use of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). This final post takes a look at what is often the most important issue to Americans: their wallets. PEVs are not cost-competitive with conventional vehicles in most situations yet, but there are some considerations that could be compelling for consumers to consider this winter when the first PEVs hit the market.

Making the Case for Plug-in Electric Vehicles: Breathing Easier

This is the second post in a three-part series that examines the reasons to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. Part 1  Part 3

Last week, I discussed why consuming oil is bad for U.S. national security. In this post, I’ll look at another reason to consider a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) – helping the environment. I’ve previously explored the effect PEVs will have on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is clear that PEVs have the potential to reduce GHG emissions significantly so long as society also reduces the carbon intensity of the electrical grid. But the environmental benefits of PEVs are not limited to climate change.

Figure 2: It's hard to see through all the smog, but that’s the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC in 1988. (Source)

PEVs also benefit local air quality, which might matter a lot if you live in a city with poor air quality. Despite enormous strides in the U.S. to reduce air pollution, the EPA estimated in February of this year that nearly 127 million Americans live in areas where air quality concentrations are above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to establish and periodically update and evaluate the NAAQS. While air quality has improved significantly since 1990, nearly half of Americans still face air quality-related health risks, including decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, and premature mortality.

Air pollution primarily comes from stationary fuel combustion, industrial processes, and vehicles. Transportation mainly contributes to two air pollution problems: ground-level ozone and particle pollution. Particle pollution or particulate matter (PM) consists of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air; coal fired power plants, as well as diesel vehicles including cars, trucks, and buses, are some of the sources of PM. Ground-level ozone, a serious air pollutant also known as smog, results when sunlight reacts with oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (which are components, for example, of vehicle exhaust).

The health effects of air pollution include decreased lung function, respiratory infection, and even increased risk of heart attacks and strokes under certain conditions. While the U.S. EPA and state governments are moving ahead with regulations that improve the air quality for Americans, most people (especially in urban areas) remain at risk of effects from excessive ozone and PM. The American Lung Association recommends the EPA reduce air pollution from vehicle tailpipes. One way consumers can help is by purchasing vehicles with lower tailpipe emissions such as PEVs.

The more miles Americans travel in passenger vehicles powered by electric motors, the more local air quality will improve according to a study completed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It is difficult to quantify air quality benefits from using PEVs since air pollution can come from multiple sources, including vehicle tailpipes as well as power plants. All-electric vehicles in cities will almost certainly improve local air quality since a mile traveled that is powered by electricity does not produce any vehicle emissions and the power plants that produce the electricity are often located away from city centers. For plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, those improvements are tempered by the percentage of miles that rely on the gasoline or diesel-powered backup energy source rather than by the batteries. In fact, using PEVs can result in more local air pollution at the electricity generation source, especially if the source is a coal power plant. This potential problem underscores another reason (in addition to the goal of reducing GHG emissions) that we should work on reducing power plant pollution as we green the vehicle fleet.

PEVs will not end air pollution in the United States, but increasing the market penetration of these vehicles will help reduce air pollution in cities throughout the country. In the next post, I’ll look into how the financial numbers might work out with a PEV for your next vehicle purchase.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow