The Technicalities Part 2: How We Move Stuff

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

This Op-ed is part 2 in a series on decarbonizing and electricity — to read Part 1, click here.

Transportation is how people move. Like electricity, access to reliable transportation is necessary for society to function properly, especially in the era of globalization. And as is the case in the electric power sector, we have traditionally blown things up to propel ourselves from point A to B (we’re obviously talking about the very well-studied and controlled internal combustion engine here, but explosions they are). That’s why transportation is a huge contributor to climate change.

In 2016, transportation was the cause of nearly 30% of all of the United State’s greenhouse gas emissions, and globally that number is about 20 percent. Policy or technological breakthroughs notwithstanding, projections show that we will continue to rely on fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas just as much in the future, as the number of people who want the luxury of personal transportation grows (remember: not everyone owns a car). It’s worth noting projections like the estimate above only take into account incremental improvements in technology that are statistically likely to happen, without accounting for any radical breakthroughs.

The transportation sector is due for some serious breakthroughs that advance decarbonization.

While people in some parts of the world will be scoring their first vehicles in the next thirty years, we’ll also be seeing a huge shift towards urbanization. By 2050, sixty percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Besides making you feel claustrophobic immediately, this seems like a huge opportunity for public transportation to help save the day, no?

In fact, the choices that humans have in front of them when it comes to building the next-generation, “smart” versions of cities will play a HUGE role in determining the footprint of our lives on the environment in the coming years. If we can get public transportation right, we will likely change the landscape of those projections that predicted an ongoing diet of gasoline until eternity. Or until it’s too late to address the climate crisis. Either way, thumbs down.

Trains and buses represent a great pathway forward for emerging zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) technology, in part due to their size and capacity requirements, which lend themselves to batteries and fuel cells, but also because of their predictable and predetermined routes, which allow for super-efficient charging or fueling infrastructure. The future of public transportation is electric, and will depend on our ability to deploy next-generation batteries and other electric propulsion. Of course, it matters where those electrons come from, which we address in our first op-ed. The best part is, we largely already have the infrastructure in place and a culture adapted to using trains and subways — we need only the will and investment to seriously overhaul aging legacy locomotives. No need for fancy car tunnels when subway cars can hold vastly more people.

But despite our need for public transportation, cars will always have a place in the transportation mix, especially in America. To that end, passenger electric vehicles are probably the most obvious change we can make to decarbonize transportation. We assume that we talking about things you already know when we say, “but did you know there are different types of electric vehicles?” Not all electric vehicles are created equal.

Hybrids combine batteries and traditional combustion engines to improve mileage and reduce emissions. A nice bridge technology, but not far enough. Plug-ins, on the other hand, run 100% on electricity. This is great, assuming the source of that electricity is also renewable. This is where transportation closely intersects with the grid. Electric vehicle charging also places new and unique strains on traditional electric grids as adoption increases, but we won’t get into that here.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the enormous potential of autonomous vehicles, working in concert with electric vehicle technology to increase ride sharing efficiency in terms of people moving in suburban and rural areas.

The takeaway: moving people is an evolving endeavor and there is an opportunity to disrupt it in a good way, with public transportation that optimizes efficiency and minimizes the number of cars needed, and light duty vehicle technology that, when adopted, makes the cars that are left clean machines that emit very little to no greenhouse gas.

But what about moving other things?

Heavy duty trucks, aka the eighteen-wheelers that bring us everything, accounted for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Seventy percent of freight across the globe is carried by trucks. Unfortunately, electrification of trucks and other freight carriers using battery technology is not yet viable, simply because the batteries would have to be too big, and too heavy, to move these types of vehicles. As we’ve talked about before, for this reason, it could be ten to twenty years before the most energy intense forms of travel are electrified.

Running through that again: the worst emitters of greenhouse gases in the transportation sector are precisely the ones that are going to be the most difficult to transition to clean alternatives. This underlines the need to do all that we can to accelerate development of innovative methods of electrical power delivery that can break through the limitations of battery technology. These include hydrogen-powered fuel cells and flow batteries, as well as new battery chemistries. In the shorter term, solutions that can improve the efficiency of heavy duty engines and utilize renewable fuels can have a major impact on emissions.

Need an example or two? The city of San Fransisco is planning to shift its ferry fleet to renewable natural gas this year, and is testing out a ferry that runs on hydrogen fuel cells. There are companies developing groundbreaking technologies to reduce emissions from diesel engines, which power trucking fleets, including a few early-stage startups.

Overall, transportation is one area where regulations on pollutants — including gaseous emissions and particulates — would directly drive the force of innovation forward, by making more technologies economical. Regulations would render the otherwise ignored costs of pollution a real part of doing business. Without lawmakers pulling on policy levers, the only way innovations will get to market is if they do the job better AND save money; that is to say they reduce emissions and fuel consumption or reduce the need for maintenance at similar cost to incumbent technology. There are startups out there with the technologies we need, and if we can help them reach their full potential, we can help have an outsized impact in fighting global warming.

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