Nick Nigro's blog

Save fuel and look good doing it

A quick glance around this week’s Washington Auto Show might make you wonder if you’ve stepped into the past, with large trucks, SUVs, and sports cars getting all the attention. But look under the hood and you can see the auto industry’s more climate-friendly future.

The cars and trucks of 2014 are lighter, more aerodynamic, and powered by increasingly efficient engines. A key impetus for these improvements is tougher federal fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards. The auto show provides evidence that the industry is working to meet these ambitious standards, and that we can significantly reduce emissions without compromising consumer choice.

One way to improve fuel economy is to make the vehicle lighter. That’s exactly what Ford Motor Company did to the best-selling vehicle in the United States: the F-150. All 2015 Ford F-150s will have an aluminum body and truck bed – shedding 700 pounds while still being able to tow and haul more than the previous generation. That could boost its gas mileage from 20 mpg on the highway for the 2014 model to 30 mpg.

Automakers have increasingly substituted strong, lightweight aluminum for steel in hoods, wheels and other components. The F-150 and Tesla’s aluminum-body Model S show they’re going beyond that.

Another way to increase gas mileage is to improve an engine’s ability to convert fuel (potential energy) to work (kinetic energy). General Motors is making the Corvette Sting Ray for the first time 1976, and the new version is beautiful and efficient. The 2015 Sting Ray is the quickest, most powerful, and most efficient Corvette ever made. The 7-speed V-8 Sting Ray gets up to 29 mpg on the highway. That’s about twice the fuel economy of the ’67 Sting Ray my dad drove when I was a kid.

Private finance can break down barriers in AFV market

Private finance is playing a critical role in accelerating the deployment of clean energy technologies that will reduce the impacts of our energy use on the global climate. Can some of these innovative financing tools – or new tools – also help spur alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) and fueling infrastructure?

That’s a question we have set out to answer in a new initiative with the National Association of State Energy Officials. As a first step, we’ve explored some of the key barriers in the AFV market that private investment could help address.

States will need coordination, creativity to meet electric vehicle goal

Eight states have given a big boost to zero emission vehicles by agreeing to support putting 3.3 million on the road by 2025. California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont together account for about a quarter of the auto market, so their commitment is significant. 

To reach their goal, these states will need to learn what policies and actions are most effective at driving sales of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs), starting with electric cars.

Two early lessons are evident from our ongoing work in this area: Stakeholder coordination is critical, and creative policy solutions are needed. The memorandum of understanding the governors signed last week will foster an environment for both.

Consumers and global climate will win with new vehicle standards

As early as this week, the federal government will announce what is likely the largest move ever to save oil. If last year’s proposal becomes final, as expected, the fuel economy of a typical new car will go up by more than 70 percent by 2025. The standards will improve how far cars and trucks travel on a gallon of gas even more than the original corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, enacted by Congress in 1975.

The new passenger vehicle standards for fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions are also the single largest move by the federal government to address climate change. Three critical factors made this possible: consumer commitment, technological progress, and smart public policy.

Time for Some Action on PEVs

It’s been over a year since we assembled the Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEV) Dialogue to work on the major market barriers to PEVs nationwide. Yesterday, we released the first product of this diverse and important group – An Action Plan to Integrate Plug-in Electric Vehicles with the U.S. Electric Grid.

We’ve talked in the past about how policies like fuel economy standards and technologies like PEVs, fuel cells, and advanced internal combustion engines are the key to reducing oil consumption and the impact our travel has on our environment. PEVs could play an important role in that effort, but only if they’re given a fair shot.

C2ES's Nick Nigro interviews PEV Dialogue members, Watson Collins of Northeast Utilities and Zoe Lipman of National Wildlife Federation, about the PEV Action Plan. Listen to the podcast now.

The Dawn of a New Day for Autos

A lot has changed in the two years since I made my first visit to the Washington Auto Show. Back then, gas prices averaged $2.68 per gallon and the Nissan LEAF looked like a “car of the future” compared to the other vehicles on the showroom floor. Now, prices at the pump are 25 percent higher, averaging $3.50 per gallon in 2011, and fuel costs are eating up the largest share of the average American’s income in over 30 years. Meanwhile, the auto industry is adapting their product line to their new environment and cooperating more closely with regulators. The 2012 auto show includes many more alternative vehicles like the all-electric Ford Focus (see picture below) and the Prius V, a 42 mile per gallon hybrid station wagon.

NPR Not Plugged In to All the Facts on Electric Vehicles

A recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition about plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) misses the mark. At C2ES, we don’t believe PEVs are the single answer to our transportation energy security and environmental problems, but we think they could make a contribution if they’re given a fair shot. That’s why we started an initiative on PEVs almost a year ago to take a practical look at the challenges and opportunities of PEV technology.

First, the story mentions plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the Chevrolet Volt at the outset, but then ignores how that vehicle type overcomes the problem at the heart of the story – range anxiety. The fear of being stranded due to inadequate driving range and deficient charging infrastructure is a legitimate critique of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). BEvs are battery-only vehicles, i.e. they cannot run on gasoline. But, the Volt and soon-to-be-released Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid can run on gasoline or electricity and have the same range as a conventional car. You can travel 25 to 50 miles in a Volt or up to 15 miles in a plug-in Prius without using gasoline and then rely on gasoline to fuel the rest of your trip. It’s difficult to estimate how many trips these electric-only ranges will accommodate, but a plug-in hybrid overcomes the need for a consumer to make that determination. In case you’re wondering, the average car trip length is 9.34 miles according to the National Household Transportation Survey.

Carbon Markets Take Flight (In Europe)

This post originally appeared on Txchnologist

At a time when many are adopting the narrative that carbon markets are faltering, the European Union (EU) is aggressively pursuing the expansion of theirs to include aviation. One of only two mandatory greenhouse gas (GHG) cap-and-trade systems in the world, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) plans to fold in a new sector beginning in January 2012. Our research shows reducing GHG emissions from aviation is critical if we are to mitigate the impacts of global climate change. Low-carbon fuel technology and other technologies for airplanes are advancing at a rapid clip, but we need a climate policy – either a price on carbon or something else – to get over the hump.

Climate Change at Kili

Glaciers on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

I recently returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for a great cause, and I was reminded why I left engineering to work on climate change. Mount Kilimanjaro, or Kili, is the tallest peak in Africa, and its summit is covered with beautiful glaciers (see the picture to the right). But those glaciers are rapidly disappearing, and scientists estimate Kili’s summit will be ice free by 2022. This trend is a prime example of forced adaptation to climate change and provides a serious warning of things to come unless we work together to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. The action we need has to come from government at all levels, businesses, and individuals as we explain in our Climate Change 101 series.

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.

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