Zero Emission Vehicles: Not Really

By Don Siefkes, Executive Director, E100 Ethanol Group, Debbie Baron, Secretary, Mendo Alcohol Fuel Group, and Eileen Broderick, Board Member, Mendo Alcohol Fuel Group

Special to the Digest

Net, new CO2 emissions from burning gasoline in the U.S. are currently 3.486 trillion lbs per year and rising due to increasing gasoline usage (141 billion gals in 2015). This is a massive amount of CO2 second only to burning coal to produce electricity.

To help combat this, Toyota will start to sell their new hydrogen (H2) fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, in California next month (October 2015). As this date approaches, California Governor Jerry Brown and other Governors, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and much of the major media are continuing their unnerving habit of referring to H2 fuel cell vehicles and electric vehicles as Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs). They are not.

It takes a large amount of fossil fuel to produce the H2 and electricity for fuel cell and electric vehicles. ZEVs are zero emission only at the tailpipe and should be referred to in that way in all communications both oral and written by Governors, CARB, and major media.

If we are serious about lowering CO2 emissions, we should take into account the entire life cycle of CO2 generation during fuel production, shipping, distribution and combustion in the engine, not just at the tailpipe of a vehicle after combustion. The best way to do that is to specify maximum life cycle CO2 emissions per mile.

As the following table shows, ZEVs emit significant quantities of CO2. The numbers in the following table were developed using the accepted world standard for calculating life-cycle CO2 emissions, Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy in Transportation (GREET), v1.2.0.11425 from Argonne National Laboratory, and EPA data from window stickers of vehicles for sale. A range of 275 miles for the Mirai, a Green Car Reports estimate, was used since the EPA has not yet officially measured the Mirai’s range.

                                                                                      Life-cycle Lbs. CO2/mile

Chevy Equinox – 26 average mpg gasoline engine……………. 0.950

Toyota Mirai – H2 Fuel Cell …………………………………………… 0.488

Tesla Model S – 85 kWh battery (U.S. mix electricity)……….. 0.411

Tesla Model S – 85 kWh battery (CA mix electricity)…………. 0.255

26 average mpg cellulosic ethanol engine……………. 0.012 – 0.019*

*(Depending on the type of waste cellulose used)

As can be seen, an optimized cellulosic ethanol vehicle cuts CO2 emissions by anywhere from 13 to 21 times more than the Tesla S, even assuming the California mix for making electricity. It is estimated that a new car with an optimized ethanol engine would cost only $85.00 more than a car equipped with a conventional gasoline engine. This is dramatically lower than spending tens of thousands of dollars more on the Mirai or the Tesla S.

After that, all that would be needed would be a blender pump at the fuel station sporting a yellow-handled, ethanol fuel nozzle which is much less costly than retrofitting a fuel station with hydrogen fueling equipment and battery array terminals. Consumers using cellulosic ethanol would also pay at least $.30/gal less per gallon for the same power and mileage as a gasoline engine.

So what should be done? Our three groups, the E-100 Ethanol Group, the Fort Bragg Grange #672, and the Mendo Alcohol Fuel Group, would suggest a Congressional bill that says something like this:

50% of all new, light duty vehicles sold in the U.S. after January 1, 2018 must be equipped with carbon-neutral fueled engines with at least the same mileage and power as the corresponding gasoline engine. 

Define carbon neutral as < 0.1 lbs. of life cycle CO2 emissions per mile as calculated by GREET.

The trouble with cap and trade systems such as California’s AB32 program and increased carbon taxes is that they don’t lower CO2 emissions directly. These proposals raise prices for continued CO2 emissions, but, as long as the increased prices are paid, it permits CO2 emissions to continue at the same rate.

After all, when we decided to restrict DDT and leaded gasoline, we didn’t say you can keep using DDT or leaded gasoline if you pay more money. The government simply mandated those bans, and the mandates worked. Admittedly, CO2 does not pose an immediate, acute danger as DDT or leaded gasoline did, but the principal is the same. A mandate is needed, and needed now.

Stipulating less than 0.1 lbs. CO2/mile life cycle emissions for half of our vehicles will permit gasoline, electric, and H2 vehicles to continue to be sold and researched, but will cut CO2 emissions much more rapidly and at far lower cost than any carbon tax or cap and trade system. It will also permanently assure the future of the biofuels industry and make the U.S. absolutely and truly independent of imported oil.

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