From a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, it’s not the fuel that we put in our car that matters – it’s the system that produced the fuel. Based on this simple formulation, University of Michigan energy researcher John DeCicco argues forcefully in a new paper that policies that emphasize rapid deployment of electric vehicles are misguided.
“While the rush to get alternative fuels on the road has become dogma in many policy circles, such haste cannot be justified by careful analysis,” DeCicco, a professor at the university’s Energy Institute and professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, says in a statement.
“Higher fuel economy—that’s one good track the country is already on, and we should stay the course on that,” DeCicco says. “Reducing the demand for car travel makes sense in urban areas, where policymakers can do more to encourage efficient land use, better mass transit and making it easier to walk and bike or otherwise minimize traffic congestion.”
DeCicco acknowledges in his paper that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) “are roughly three times as fuel efficient as conventional, non-hybrid gasoline cars.” But because the grid “is on an average about twice as carbon intensive as gasoline,” reaching bold GHG goals like an 80 percent reduction by 2050 would require a much, much cleaner grid – “about 85% less carbon intensive than it was in 2005,” DeCicco says.
So at this point, battery electric vehicles, DeCicco says, don’t make sense if reducing GHG emission in the transportation sector is truly a matter of urgency.
“The missing link for really cleaning up cars is not about the car at all,” he said. “It’s about limiting net carbon impacts in the energy and natural resource sectors that supply motor fuel, whatever form that fuel may take.” To do that, DeCicco says, policy should be focused on cutting emissions from things like oil wells and power plants with conventional energy sources, and from farms and forests for biofuels production.
But wait; even if electric cars don’t deliver big benefits now, don’t we benefit from pushing their deployment in order to develop an infrastructure that will smooth their adoption later, when (presumably) the grid is cleaner? DeCicco addresses that question in his paper:
Another common rationale for policies to deploy alternative fuel vehicles is urgency. Developing new technologies and supporting infrastructures takes years of lead time, confronts many barriers and faces high transition costs (Singh and Mintz, 1997). Thus, the argument goes, it is essential to “get started now”, i.e., for policymakers to initiate efforts to commercialize AFVs well before private actors would make such investments on their own. However, a different view follows when realizing that what really matters is the GHG impact of the energy sectors supplying the fuel. The true urgent need is to start controlling emissions in energy sectors. Success in that endeavor is prerequisite for any AFV to have significant climate benefits and is also consistent with the need to focus on the locations of actual GHG sources and sinks.