Green Car Journal Perspective:  What Happened to Bridge Technology?

Late last year the editor of the Green Car Journal contacted me after he came across my Pragmatic Environmental Principles while doing research on pragmatic environmentalism.  He said that he realized we share similar ideas and asked if I would like to share my perspective on GreenCarJournal.com.  This post provides documentation for my perspective.

Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies.  Pragmatic environmentalism is necessary to balance environmental impacts and public policy. This means that evidence-based environmental risks and benefits (both environmental and otherwise) of issues need to be considered. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.

What Happened to Bridge Technology?

This section provides context and documentation to the quoted sections in the article. 

I usurped the concept of a bridge fuel to describe the need of technology that provides demonstrable air quality and CO2 reductions while a “zero-emissions” technology is developed.

Not so long ago, it was generally accepted that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles could be used as bridge technologies until ‘zero-emissions’ vehicles could perform like existing vehicles, at similar cost.  Unfortunately, politics in New York and elsewhere demand net-zero by 2050 with policies that preclude their use. 

I have spent a lot of time the last three years evaluating New York’s net-zero by 2050 target mandated by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) from a pragmatic point of view. Pragmatic environmentalism is all about balancing the risks and benefits of both sides of issues. Most troubling in the quest for net zero is the lack of consideration for tradeoffs.          

I recently wrote that the Climate Act and the transition plan embodied in the Draft Scoping Plan is full of examples where the perceived risks of fossil fuels are comprehensively addressed but none of the risks of the proposed alternatives are addressed.  The most glaring Climate Act example is the requirement that the full life cycle and upstream emissions associated with fossil fuels must be considered.  The same consideration of the life-cycle issues with battery electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles is not considered. 

In New York the mandated technology is ‘zero-emissions,’ either battery electric or hydrogen fuel cells.  PHEV and CNG vehicles have direct emissions and so will be banned.  The Climate Act fossil fuel accounting requirements inflate the global warming effects as compared to all other jurisdictions and mandate that upstream and life-cycle emissions also be considered.  On the other hand, the life-cycle emissions and impacts of the ‘zero-emissions’ technologies are ignored.

I submitted Climate Act Draft Scoping Plan comments on the electric vehicle transition schedule.  The analysis presumes an unprecedented adoption rate for light-duty electric vehicles. The biggest problem in the analysis is that the device costs for zero-emissions charging technology and the vehicles themselves is presumed to decrease significantly over time.  Home EV chargers and battery electric vehicles both are claimed to go down 18% between 2020 and 2030.  The overall cost decreases are so large that the total costs for the zero-emissions vehicles adoption is cheaper than using existing technology which I believe is a major reason that they think the transition will be so fast to a technology that is so inconvenient.

The Climate Act’s net-zero by 2050 transition is extraordinarily ambitious. The Scoping Plan that outlines the framework to implement this transition projects that in order to meet the net-zero schedule, over 30 percent of all light-duty vehicles sold will either be battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) in 2025, and 100 percent by 2035. For medium- and heavy-duty truck sales, the Scoping Plan projects that at least 10 percent sold will either be BEVs or FCEVs in 2025, and 64 percent by 2035.

It’s wishful thinking to presume that large percentages of people will choose BEVs and HFCVs, forgoing the flexibility of a personal car that has much greater range in all seasons, can be refueled quickly on long trips, and does not require expensive charging equipment at home.  PHEV technology eliminates range anxiety, refueling, and home equipment concerns. It also reduces fuel use and air pollution emissions significantly and uses a smaller battery pack than a BEV, which reduces the environmental impacts of rare earth mineral supplies and disposal that the Climate Act ignores.

There are two options in the Climate Act Scoping Plan for personal transportation: hydrogen fuel cells and battery electric vehicles.  Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have two overcome two technological hurdles: the fuel cells themselves and providing the hydrogen necessary as fuel.  I have never bothered to research the feasibility of fuel cells because I think that a hydrogen economy is a fantasy.  There so many obvious issues with battery electric vehicles that just thinking that the State presumes that they can all be overcome because they say so, makes me ill.

When all the physical, cost, and logistical issues associated with hydrogen use are considered, it will not play a major role in the future. BEV technology doesn’t appeal to a majority of car owners because of nuisance constraints, but the technology could work. The same cannot be said for battery electric heavy-duty vehicles since range, refueling, and charging infrastructure constraints are deal breakers that prevent heavy-duty trucks from meeting the 2050 net-zero target. 

While there is no question that reduced levels of air pollution have benefits, I believe that there are thresholds to those impacts where further reductions have little beneficial value.  Nonetheless, air quality health benefits are touted as one of the primary benefits of the net-zero transition, especially related to disadvantaged communities.    One example of those impacts is related to the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in South Bronx, New York that is the largest food distribution center in the country.  Diesel exhaust emissions are primarily inhalable particulates that are targeted as a primary air pollution health factor so eliminating diesel truck emissions is an activist priority.  Compressed natural gas trucks greatly reduce particulate emissions and lower the pollutants that create ozone.  However, instead of advocating for the CNG technology that has proven to work in heavy duty trucks, the activists want to use zero-emissions technology that might work sometime in the future.

There are serious inhalable particulate air pollution issues associated with diesel truck emissions at freight terminals in New York City. The Scoping Plan claims that replacing these trucks with zero-emission alternatives provides significant benefits. However, the plan’s zero-emissions aspirations ignore technological tradeoffs and the reality that CNG heavy-duty trucks are a viable alternative that would markedly reduce inhalable particulate emissions.  The problem with CNG is not technology since we know it works, but a problem with the development of fueling infrastructure and vehicle fleet turnover. It is not pragmatic to insist that heavy-duty trucks use unproven battery electric technology over other alternatives that can markedly reduce the air quality issues. 

The pragmatic response is obvious.

The use of PHEV and CNG vehicles for personal and freight transport offers the opportunity for significant air quality benefits, at a cheaper societal cost, with less impacts on personal choice, and sooner than the ‘zero-emissions’ alternatives. Failing to consider those benefits while insisting upon a riskier technological approach is not good social policy. Someday, there may be a better alternative, but in the meantime bridge technologies that provide most of the benefits are the more appropriate policy approach.

Conclusion

In the transportation sector, there are two choices: technology that gets significant emission reductions with the associated benefits, at a lower cost, has fewer implementation downsides, and has proven results or technology that has limitations in every respect but has “zero-emissions” if it can be deployed someday.  From a pragmatic standpoint the rational approach is use what makes an improvement, continue research and development for “zero-emissions” technology, and deploy that only when we know it will work as advertised.  Unfortunately, that option has been pulled off the table.  A friend describes the situation well: these morons are apparently fully at ease with the equivalent of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane without an upgraded parachute assuming that an even better parachute will be developed, proven technically and economically feasible and delivered to the imbecile that jumped out of the airplane in time to provide a soft landing.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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