Emissions reductions benefits from electric vehicles are poised to make a big dent in the US' carbon footprint over the long term, but the long lead time to overturn the fleet and other challenges demand that policymakers look to other complementary solutions to decarbonize transportation by midcentury, a biofuels advocate said Jan. 12.
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"And that's where agriculture comes in. Through increased production and use of renewable fuels like ethanol, the agriculture sector offers an effective and immediate solution for decarbonizing all segments of the transportation sector," Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper told members of the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing examining the implications of EVs on rural America.
Committee Chairman David Scott of Georgia praised the Biden administration's efforts to spur EV investment and adoption. He tasked his panel with ensuring that "rural America is not left behind as they were left behind in movements to electricity," plumbing, telephone service and broadband Internet, while also making sure that the needs of farming and agriculture are sufficiently met during the transition away from petroleum-fueled vehicles.
The top Republican on the committee, Ranking Member Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, questioned whether global emissions reductions from a national policy imposing EVs on drivers would be great enough to warrant potential disruptions to rural communities, implications for national security from a dependence on foreign nations for the raw materials that go into EV batteries, and the costs of new charging infrastructure.
EVs can't do it alone
The leading trade association for America's ethanol industry took the position that EVs would be an important part of the country's climate strategy, "but given the time needed to transition the light-duty vehicle fleet, continued reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, the difficulty of electrifying medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and other barriers, electric vehicles alone will not get our transportation sector to net-zero emissions by 2050," Cooper said.
He noted that with just 2.3 million of the more than 267 million light-duty vehicles on the road in the US being electric and Energy Information Administration projections that four out of five new vehicles sold in 2050 will still be internal combustion engines requiring liquid fuels, "it would take decades to turn over the fleet and that means hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid fuels will continue to be burned for decades to come."
The Department of Energy, Harvard University and others have found that corn ethanol already cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 50% compared with gasoline, and the California Air Resources Board has certified some ethanol as 70% better than gasoline. And RFA members have pledged to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint for corn ethanol by 2050 or sooner, as adoption of low-carbon farming practices and carbon capture technologies have increased.
Fairness, consistency lacking
But Cooper said a lack of fairness and consistency in how the carbon footprint of different fuels and vehicles is measured is hampering transportation policy decision making.
Regulators consider emissions from the entire ethanol supply chain as part of that fuel's carbon footprint, but often overlook the upstream emissions from power generation and battery manufacturing when determining EVs' carbon footprint.
Analysis by RFA found that Ford's F-150 flexible fuel vehicle running on a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% ethanol "will generate far fewer greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime than a new Ford F-150 Lightning electric vehicle running on fossil-generated electricity," Cooper told lawmakers.
Ethanol is "available now to immediately jumpstart decarbonization efforts, and the first step is getting more ethanol into the blend," he said, referring to E15 and higher blends that have not gained the same level of traction as E10, which uses 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline and is widely accepted and available from retailers across the country year-round.
Moving to E15 as the dominant ethanol blend nationwide would reduce carbon emissions by about 18 million to 20 million metric tons per year, and E15 is already legally approved for "virtually every car on the road today," Cooper said. Yet a regulation that prevents retailers from offering E15 during the summer months in about two thirds of the country has kept many retailers from offering the fuel.
The Supreme Court recently opted not to review a court order overturning an EPA rule that resolved the issue. Cooper advocated for bills that have been introduced in both chambers of Congress to rectify the situation, and also called on the Environmental Protection Agency to take steps to fix the problem.
He also pushed for more investment in infrastructure such as dispensers and storage tanks compatible with ethanol blends that would allow more retailers to offer the fuels and "allow consumers to capture the full benefits of low-carbon biofuels." Nearly a billion dollars of such funding is included in the stalled Build Back Better legislation.
Cooper also emphasized that future decarbonization policies must be technology neutral and performance based, with a focus on reducing GHG emissions and increasing fuel efficiency without dictating the use of specific fuels and vehicles to achieve those goals.
He pointed to RFA's support of a national low-carbon fuel standard as well as committee member Representative Cheri Bustos' Next Generation Fuels Act. The Illinois Democrat's proposed bill would establish carbon performance and minimum octane standards for liquid fuels without dictating what fuels would be used, Cooper said.