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Interview: Joan Ogden

December 15, 2011

By Carl Smith

Dr. Joan Ogden is professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis and co-director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS ) Program at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.

As the culmination of four years of research by a multidisciplinary team, STEPS recently published the book “Sustainable Transportation Pathways: A Research Summary for Decision Makers.” Available for purchase in hard copy form, or as a free download, the book aims to help decision makers in industry and government evaluate the potential costs and benefits of existing fuel and vehicle pathways, and to offer insight into strategies for transitioning to a sustainable transportation future.

In an interview with Green Technology, she discusses the background of the book and the STEPS program and offers perspective on coming changes in the transportation sector.


What are the goals of the STEPS program?

The STEPS program was established in 2007. At that time there was a growing awareness that if we were going to meet long-term societal goals that were being discussed for things like greenhouse gas reductions, petroleum displacement and ameliorating air pollution, alternative fuels and vehicles were going to play a major role by the 2035-2050 time frame.

There were a lot of pieces of advocacy that were coming out at that point that were saying, “let’s do everything with EVs” or “we can do it all with biofuels,” or “hydrodgen is the way to go.” Although major players in the industry realm realized that they needed to address alternative fuels, there was a lot of confusion about which way to go.

In addition, U.S. energy policy around transportation fuels had suffered from what my colleague Dan Sperling calls the “fuel du jour” syndrome, a boom and bust enthusiasm for one fuel after another. Back in the early 1990s it was methanol, and then we had a lot of interest in battery vehicles when the ZEV [zero emission vehicle] mandates initially came out. Then when that turned out to be hard, there was a lot of enthusiasm for hydrogen, followed by ethanol and now back to batteries again.

In STEPS, we wanted to look at all the major fuel options being discussed: electricity, biofuels, hydrogen, natural gas, and advanced fossil – which would include things like fuels made from unconventional fossil or those made using carbon capture technologies. We wanted to look at these in an impartial fashion and see how these different fuels compared. How soon could we have them? What would they cost? What were the potential benefits in terms of things like green house reductions or petroleum displacement?

We put together an interdisciplinary team to look at this. We needed people from many disciplines; we have people with backgrounds in engineering, science and economics, people who study consumer behavior, people who look at environmental and other societal impacts and policy.

We built a team of about 30 people and went out to seek sponsors. STEPS was organized as a consortium of 23 different organizations that included many major car companies, energy and oil companies, and also government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, EPA and the California variants of those same agencies.

Was all the team’s work aimed at developing this book?

We communicated our results in a variety of ways. We held a number of workshops, we wrote a lot of papers and published them in academic journals. We held workshops for policy makers in Washington and Sacramento. A number of our researchers were on committees both at the state level and the national level, things like the National Academies, and even the international level – groups like the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.] We were very active across the board in the whole alternative fuel arena.

Our initial goal was to produce analyses that would help inform decision makers in industry and government about the potential for these different fuels and how they compared – but we found, as we went along, that it would be really worthwhile capturing what we learned in a book. So around 2009, we started writing this up with the goal of synthesizing what we had learned and writing it in a format that would be accessible for decision makers who were thinking about these problems.

How do you hope the book will be used?

The hope is that when people are looking at the potential for alternative fuels, they’ll be able to flip to various chapters in this book. It has sections; one looks at each individual pathway – we did a deep dive on electric vehicles, biofuels, hydrogen and so on.

We wanted to put all of the fuels in one book, and we found that there really weren’t any books out there that did that. We wanted to do this comparison and have it all in one place so that people could look at it substantively.

We’d hope that someone could use this as an introduction and a gateway to getting more in-depth knowledge. The chapters were really written like review articles, so that someone in or out of the industry could pick them up, read them and learn what some of the key issues are.

What is unique about the way this book addresses fuel and transportation issues?

We addressed multiple options and looked at many different aspects of transitions – we looked at vehicles, fuel supply, costs, environmental impacts. There are a number of good studies out there that look at one piece or another, but I think this one is unusually comprehensive.

The other thing that we found in our research that was rather unlike a lot of work that is out there is that we don’t think there is going to be one single car or vehicle of the future. We think it’s going to be a portfolio of approaches that will be implemented together – improving the efficiency of internal combustion engine vehicles while we’re nurturing the electric drive trains, in parallel with work having to do with reducing travel demand. If we’re going to meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals by 2050, we’re going to have to do a number of things at once.

We found a portfolio approach gave us the best shot. Contrary to the way that things have been playing out in transportation policy, where we put all our eggs in one basket, we found that it was really too soon to down-select and that playing this high-tech portfolio of options would give us the best chance of hitting some of these goals.

Do you see this as resource for policy makers nationally, or even internationally?

In fact, we’ve had feedback from people in national agencies in the U.S. that this will be very useful. A colleague in Sweden just wrote back to me and said it will be useful as they look at a renewable and sustainable future for the Nordic countries.

A lot of the material will transfer. In the book, we had some case studies from California, and some nationally in the U.S. In the future, we’d like to partner with colleagues in other places and see how the kind of analysis we did would play out in different settings.

Will it be updated regularly?

Well see. We’ve just started a new program at the beginning of this year, which we’re calling Next STEPS. That will also be a four-year program and what we’re doing in that one is building on all the tools and data that we’ve put together and looking at various scenarios for the future that can meet the goals of very low carbon emissions and diversifying energy supply. That’s going to be a lot of the work of Next STEPS and we are partnering with folks in China and, hopefully, in Europe and other places as well.

To what extent is infrastructure development on pace with vehicle development?

That’s a fascinating question. I would say that infrastructure is a challenge for any of the fuels that we’re looking at – I’ll give a couple of examples.

With respect to biofuels, we have a renewable fuel standard in the U.S. that requires quite a bit of biofuel use by 2022. Building all the capacity to make those biofuels is going a bit more slowly than people had anticipated. The cars are pretty much ready; we can use biofuels fairly seamlessly as mixtures in current cars. That’s not so much of an issue on the car side, but it is an issue on the infrastructure side.

On the electric vehicle infrastructure side, you do have the capacity to charge in many homes – not all, but something on the order of one-third to one-half of homes have a private space to charge. It still does cost something to put the chargers in, and there is a lot of debate back and forth about how much that is. That is going forward, though maybe at a higher cost than it will be eventually for home charging, but the fast charging is certainly an issue. With current battery cars you might be looking at a range of something like 100 miles and many people would like to have the option of being able to pull over and charge up in 15 minutes or a half an hour and get back on the road. That infrastructure is starting to be put in, but again it’s lagging a bit.

There’s always this kind of tug between the infrastructure and the vehicles; partly it’s because the systems are put in by different companies. Probably the case where the infrastructure is most stalled in the United States is hydrogen. We do have really good demonstration vehicles that have a range of over 300 miles, and you can fuel them up quickly. But there are a limited number of hydrogen stations available and there’s a big discussion going on in California right now about how to get those first stations out there so that the vehicles can be served. The vehicles are regulated by the Zero Emission Vehicle regulation requiring auto makers have to make a certain number of ZEVs. Most of them are doing some hydrogen vehicles, but the fuel supply side is not regulated. That’s been a really interesting issue – in other parts of the world, that’s coming together as consortiums of companies partner up, but it’s still gelling in California and the U.S.

For each of these fuels, infrastructure is an issue; maybe it’s the most difficult for hydrogen, not technically, but getting the logistics together.

How attainable is the federal goal of one million EVs on the road by 2015?

That’s going to be interesting to see. This year the number of EVs – meaning large battery, plug-in hybrid or pure battery cars – is in the 10,000-20,000 range. Could it ramp up to million by 2015? Maybe not impossible. Some of the questions will be whether we can we ramp up and get consumer-ready products and have enough of them, and have the infrastructure issues in place by then.

What’s the relative importance of better vehicles versus things like increasing the availability and use of mass transit, changes in urban design?

We’re going to have to push on reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled, through changes in urban design and the use of mass transit. Ideally, we’d be doing that alongside improving the energy efficiency of vehicles and introducing various electric drive options. To the extent that we can reduce VMT [vehicle miles traveled] we take some of the heat off of having to convert the fleet quite as fast to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We’ve done a study that was one of the chapters in the book, where we looked at some futures where we posit we can reduce VMT by 25 percent. If you do that, then you don’t have to be as extreme on some of the other dimensions to hit the goal. You might not have to completely electrify the light-duty fleet, or you might not have to push efficiency quite as hard.

How will California’s love affair with the automobile change by 2050?

It’s hard to project out that far. If I dialed back 40 years and tried to guess that every secretary would have a computer on his or her desk, and a lot of other things that have happened, I probably would have missed a lot.

A lot of people think that information technology is going to have a huge impact on how we drive, how we transport things, and how we accomplish what we want to do in life. It may be that we won’t travel in the same ways. There’s certainly a lot of interest in so-called intelligent transportation systems, which would automate the driving process. Maybe there will be a personal rapid transit module that will get moved around – there’s certainly scope for things to be very different than the way we do things now.

We’ll see a switch from current sources of transportation fuel, which is about 97 percent petroleum at present, to a much more diverse palette and more regionalized fuel systems.

It could be very different. There are some fascinating books about the first cars. They looked liked buggies, they had the wheels, the spokes, they looked just like “horseless carriages.” But pretty soon the technological possibilities of the car began to dictate what they looked like, and it may be that with alternative fuels and electric vehicles, we’ll see a lot of things that are different than what we have now. It will be fascinating to see.

Are we approaching a tipping point for transportation? If so, what changes are needed in this sector?

We are at a tipping point in the sense that we have to stop playing the “fuel du jour” game and jumping from one alternative to another. We need to address quite a variety of new technologies and fuels and vehicles, and approaches to transportation. We’re at a point where we can try out a number of fairly radical options at a city scale. That’s the important next step, and that will take a bit more funding than we typically see for one-off R&D projects. Not everything we do is going to work, but we’re at a point where we need to be trying these things seriously.

One of the stumbling blocks is that for most of these technologies, there is a 10- to 15-year transition period where people are not really making money yet. There’s a role there for policy to support the transition or, perhaps, for some new kind of entity to support these kinds of demonstrations so that we get through the barriers.

The technology is coming along great. We need to stay the course and get it out there.

Thank you.

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