One of the better Super Bowl ads was for GM’s electric vehicle featuring Will Ferrell. He played an over-amped American outraged by the fact that people in Norway were buying more electric cars than in the U.S. After he slams his fist through a globe, he drives his GM EV into a shipping container, which is then loaded up for the trip to Scandinavia. The twist in the story is that he finds himself in Sweden instead of Norway and so the ad ends with a text overlay reading, “We’re coming, Norway.”
It was an entertaining commercial reminding us that electric vehicles are going to be a big part of our decarbonization story – and should be. In 2018, the transportation sector was the largest (28%) source of emissions in the U.S., so vehicles need to be doing their part. By the way, that statistic about Norway is backed up by the country’s Road Federation.
The ad’s text overlay had me thinking about a recent talk I delivered at NASEO, the National Association of State Energy Officials, during their Energy Policy Conference. Per the title of this piece, afterwards, I found myself wishing I could improve upon the remarks, and you know what? I can! And I’ll do it here.
I’ll start by recapping a few of the points I made:
- A current view is that all fossil fuels are evil. I am sure that is not true. Fuels are not binary –only clean or only dirty. Some are much cleaner than others, and it is to our overwhelming benefit to use them wisely.
- A current view is that the one and only correct path to decarbonization – a narrow path at that – is all-electrification. I don’t think so. Electrification for passenger cars may be a good thing, but energy dense applications like medium-duty or heavy-duty transportation where range and payload matter, call for a much more efficient energy, especially where the grid is powered by coal and natural gas.
As you might expect, I put in a plug for propane at this point of my talk. A partnership we are in with Cummins is bringing a new medium- and heavy-duty engine to market that is 25% cleaner than the next best technology, 97% better when it comes to NOx emissions and 1/3rd the initial cost. Water heating and grain drying are two other examples where the inefficiency of electricity actually harms the environment more than it helps. It is hard to disagree with the idea that a wider path to decarbonization is better.
- A current view is that the obstacles to all-electrification are easy to solve. The complexities include: ramping EV production by 4X within three to five years, battery production by 16X, wind turbine build/installs by 12X and solar modules by 10X their current production. Plus, all of this new load requires expanding the size of the grid by 3X to 4X. The cost – $22-$25 trillion according to the Rewiring America Field Guide – doesn’t sound easy at all. It’s a massive undertaking; a WWII-scale mobilization. It’s also an unavoidable fact that an increase in the cost of electricity to pay for this narrow path can be nothing but regressive. It will disproportionally and negatively impact low-income people.
- Innovation is sure to occur at an amazing pace – and it should. Examples of how clean and renewable energies like propane accelerate decarbonization are easy to find. Using propane, we now have a forklift with an emissions profile the same as a fuel cell. Giant ocean-going container ships are now running on propane instead of diesel fuel. And, renewable fuels and fuel blends like renewable propane blended with dimethyl ether actually have a negative carbon intensity. All of these are real solutions in the marketplace or coming soon.
I wrapped up my remarks to the NASEO attendees with two requests:
- Be open to wider path, multiple path thinking. Parallel processing beats serial processing every time, all the time.
- Be careful when “silver bullet” solutions are being discussed. A rush to solutions that sound too good to be true, often are. Worse yet, they can yield unintended consequences that force a ‘heat vs. eat’ dilemma onto the very people we know cannot afford to pay more.
Those seemed like reasonable calls-to-action, but a day or so later, I felt a little like Will Ferrell winding up in Sweden instead of Norway. I wanted my remarks to be in a slightly different place than where I ended up, and so with this addendum, I’m coming back to NASEO (in my mind) to emphasize two more important points.
First, I did say that the propane industry supports renewable energy growth. What I should have added is that not only are we producing a renewable propane product, but in many places like areas served by microgrids, propane is a preferred partner with wind and solar. The same is true for net-zero homes that use CHP technology, pairing propane with solar and wind. These show the value of staying open to a wider path.
Second, it’s important to understand what clean or cleaner really mean. What makes a fuel clean is the energy it takes to find it, produce it, transport it, store it, use it and dispose of what is left over. This is called the “full fuel cycle,” and while the NASEO audience knows the concept well, it adds a lot of complexity to the decarbonization discussion. To understand it in the EV market, it’s worth revisiting Tilak Doshi’s takedown of Tesla. In that article, he said, “… about half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially in the mining and processing of raw materials needed for the battery. This compares unfavorably with the manufacture of a gasoline-powered car which accounts for 17% of the car’s lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions.” That should make us think harder about real versus perceived carbon reductions.
Finally, resilience and security are tangible benefits to a wider path. These seem to get brushed aside too often as decarbonization takes up the middle of most conversations, but let’s not forget them. As Will Ferrell discovered on his trip, it’s a big, sometimes disorienting world, and decarbonization is a big, complicated subject we all need to navigate using all the tools available to us.