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  • Writer's pictureBen Haley

Evolved in the New York Times

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

Evolved was recently cited by the New York Times in an article titled "American Drivers Regain Appetite for Gas Guzzlers", concerning a recent downturn in Americans' desire for fuel efficient and zero-emission -- electric and hydrogen fuel cell -- vehicles.

"A preference for big cars is not going to help the country reach the goals outlined in the Paris climate accord, reached in December. To help reach those goals, average fuel economy would need to soar to at least 100 miles per gallon -- most likely achievable only though widespread adoption of electric and other zero-emission cars, according to Ben Haley, a co-founder of Evolved Energy Research"

Let's take the opportunity to dig further into those numbers, because they represent an important yet incomplete story. First, let's look at what I was talking about with my reference to "over 100 miles-per-gallon" remark. Below we show efficiency gains from five future US energy systems we've analyzed (named for their electricity generation mixes). We see modest efficiency gains in the first few years, well within the bounds anticipated by existing Federal CAFE standards.

After 2025, however, adoption of alternative-fuel vehicles drives the average fuel efficiency sky-high. This chart doesn't mean we're all driving Smart Cars - it means we've become smart about what we put in our vehicles. Making vehicles ~5x more efficient is critical, but more critical is the energy that they run on. Here we show the adoption of zero-emission vehicles in our Mitigation Cases vs. our Reference Case. A little different, no?

And these will need to be powered by an electricity system totally unlike our current one (hydrogen is made with electrolysis, a process that uses electricity). Studies that focus on the limited effect that zero-emission vehicles have on the emissions equation with today's electricity mix are completely missing the forest for the trees. Zero-emission vehicles are the demand-side promise of a deep decarbonization-compatible transportation sector. Unlocking this promise, however, requires at least as significant a transformation in electricity. The chart below shows the generation mix by year in the High Renewables Case.

Linking this grid up to a fleet of electric or hydrogen vehicles gives us the emissions outcomes we want and need for light-duty vehicles, which is about a 50x reduction in emissions per mile (at an all-in per-mile cost that looks about like today's).

We have to effect this transition to achieve deep decarbonization in the US. It is one of the most robust outcomes of our analyses. Can it be done? The truth is, we don't know. Technically, almost certainly yes. Financially, it certainly makes sense to try - transitioning the light duty vehicle fleet is a primary cost-saver in deep decarbonization scenarios when factoring in huge savings from avoided gasoline.

But the New York Times article illustrates a key challenge in this sector, which is changing attitudes and perceptions about these game-changing technologies. Time will tell. Autonomous vehicle technology may change the entire market for personal vehicles and certainly would be a huge boon for zero-emission vehicle adoption (more on this later), betting against technological progress is generally a fool's errand, and consumers are fickle, but we can't say for sure. Because when it comes to the future of light-duty vehicles, we know far more about where we need to go than what we'll be driving.

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