Nick Nigro's blog

Low gas prices tempt consumers to buy gas guzzlers, but they should resist

In the past six months, the price of gasoline in the United States has declined precipitously - from its June peak of $3.63 per gallon to less than $2 in some parts of the country now.

The effect this sharp price decline will ultimately have on greenhouse gas emissions is not yet known, but a reasonable estimate is that emissions will rise as less efficient cars and trucks become popular for the first time in years. Luckily for the climate, stronger federal fuel economy standards will mean that emissions from the transportation sector won’t rise nearly as much as they would have.

Using travel data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), monthly vehicle sales data, and fuel economy calculations by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoetle of the University of Michigan, we calculate that vehicles purchased in last five months will emit 7.8 million more metric tons of greenhouse gases than if car-buying habits before the gas price drop had continued. An average car emits about 43 metric tons of greenhouse gases over its useful life, so the additional emissions are about the same as putting 180,000 new cars and light trucks on the road.

The sudden plunge in gas prices can make it tempting to forget the lessons of the past.

Public policy, private investment needed to keep EV market growing in 2015

Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) were up 25 percent last year, and automakers are looking to boost sales further in 2015 with new and updated models. Clearly, EVs have moved beyond their infancy. But continued growth in the EV market will require smart public and private strategies to expand charging infrastructure so motorists don’t have to worry about running out of juice.

Advancing the deployment of low-carbon vehicle technology, like EVs, is essential if we’re going to achieve meaningful emissions reductions from the transportation sector, which is responsible for 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases. Globally, the problem is more acute as the number of light-duty vehicles on the road is expected to double to more than 2 billion by 2050.

Automakers will begin introducing their second generation EVs beginning this month with the 2016 Chevy Volt. While sales will likely jump because of the incremental improvements from the first generation Volt, more time is likely needed for batteries to improve and charging infrastructure to be deployed.

Our work for the Washington State Legislature shows that new business models to foster private investment in charging infrastructure will be vital, but public sector policies and incentives will still be needed in the near term to keep the market growing.

Firsthand lessons on public charging for EVs

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My ride for the weekend: BMW’s first mass-produced all-electric vehicle.

Washington, D.C., is well-situated for day trips with mountains, forests, beach and bay all a short drive away. On a recent weekend, I was lucky enough to tool around in style. BMW lent me their new electric car – the i3 – and asked that I race it around the DC metro region. (Or perhaps that’s just how I heard them.)

The car handles beautifully the way you’d expect a BMW to, and proves there’s no performance tradeoff by going with an electric vehicle (EV). For most drivers, EVs like the i3 can accommodate daily driving needs. The average American only travels 30 miles per day. In particular, EVs are well suited for commuting because a driver can charge at home or the workplace. But day-tripping with an EV can take more planning and I learned firsthand that a robust public charging network is essential if EVs are to make more headway in the marketplace.

At C2ES, we often cite the importance of public charging stations to extend the range of EVs and give drivers confidence that an EV is a practical replacement for their conventional car. To allow EV drivers to travel as they would with a gasoline car, quick charging stations are needed along major roadways. Multiple, slower charging stations (referred to as Level 2) should be at key destinations to provide redundancy in case stations are in use or down for maintenance. Those are some of the conclusions of our new paper assessing the public charging infrastructure in Washington state and the same can be said of Washington, D.C.

Energy efficiency financing models for buildings could work for natural gas vehicles

Owners of large buildings who want to save money by improving energy efficiency first have to overcome a huge hurdle – the upfront costs of getting the work done. A similar hurdle exists for fleet managers considering switching to natural gas vehicles to save on fuel costs – high initial expenses for vehicles and infrastructure.

What if the same method being used to pay for more energy-efficient buildings could also be used to get cleaner alternative fuel vehicles on the road? A new report by C2ES makes the connection between a commonly used business arrangement in the building sector and its potential use in the deployment of natural gas in public and private vehicle fleets.

Eight states take a big step to advance zero-emission vehicles

States representing more than a quarter of U.S. car sales made a strong statement today that they’ll be engaged in advancing the deployment of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs).

In their “Multi-State ZEV Action Plan,” eight states — California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont — lay out an ambitious agenda to support vehicle sales and fueling infrastructure over the next decade with the goal of putting 3.3 million ZEVs on the roads by 2025. These vehicles, which include cars fueled by electricity and hydrogen, are a key part of our efforts to reduce the emissions contributing to climate change.

The transition to a low-carbon transportation system will take decades and cost billions. As C2ES has noted in our work in this area, government is unlikely to make significant new investments in the near term, but it can play a critical role in encouraging private sector investment in ZEVs and their infrastructure.

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.

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