Decarbonizing the Elephant in the Room – Combustion Vehicles

  John Eichberger |  September 2022

The pressure to decarbonize the transportation sector continues to gain momentum.  Governments throughout the world (and within the United States) are enacting policies to transition away from traditional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) operating on liquid fuels towards what they have defined as zero emission vehicles (ZEV), most often defined as battery electric vehicles (BEV), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). Financial institutions have banned together to incorporate climate mitigation and decarbonization into their decision-making processes. (Example, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, comprised of investment firms managing $130 trillion in assets, has stated one of its objectives is to ensure that climate considerations are included in every financial decision.) And while there has been tremendous growth and investment in new vehicle technologies that can utilize potentially lower carbon energy sources, there remains a very large elephant in the room that must be addressed as well – the significant global and U.S. inventory of ICE vehicles.

That is One Big Elephant

How large is that elephant?  Enormous…and growing. Many of those focused on new vehicle technology don’t want to talk about combustion and liquid fuels, which they hope to eliminate in short order. Their theory is that the new technology is the best and fastest way to eliminate carbon emissions. Yet, as I point out often in my presentations – if one believes we are facing a climate crisis, then waiting for new technology vehicles to replace the 1.4 billion ICE vehicles in the world is tantamount to not even trying to avoid the iceberg lying in wait for the Titanic - the transition will simply take far too long to mitigate a pending crisis.

A more practical and effective solution would be to encourage the development and availability of lower emitting vehicles (by the way, on a life cycle basis there is no such thing as a zero emissions vehicle, and it is on a life cycle analysis-basis we should be evaluating our options) while seeking to reduce the emissions of existing and new-to-market ICE vehicles and the fuels they consume.  Why?  Because, according to S&P Global Mobility in a recent Fuels Institute publication, as of July 2021 there were more than 284 million light duty vehicles in operation in the United States, of which only 0.4% were not equipped with a combustion engine. Add to that another 12 million or so medium and heavy-duty vehicles also equipped with combustion engines.

If that is not a compelling enough reason to pay attention to this sector, take  into consideration vehicle sales. Since 2013, the United States has sold more than 150 million new ICE-only vehicles, plus an additional 5.4 million ICE-hybrid vehicles. And, even though BEVs have really gained momentum recently, even this year through August, the U.S. has sold another 8.6 million vehicles equipped with a combustion engine. Finally, even when considering the potential of aggressive forecasts for BEV sales, ICEVs are likely to remain the dominant powertrain sold in the U.S. and the world for many years and will remain the dominant powertrain in operation for decades.

LVD-Sales-since-2013.jpg

LDV-Sales-Jan-Aug-2022.jpg

Those seriously concerned about the risks of climate change should not ignore the elephant in the room while anxiously waiting for new technology to save the planet. We must develop pragmatic solutions for the entire fleet.

What do We Feed It?

The big question is how do we reduce carbon emissions from ICEV?  And this presents a couple of different challenges – 1) how do we affect the emissions profile of new-to-market vehicles over the coming decades? and 2) what do we do about the legacy fleet that is not likely to undergo any mechanical modifications?

The primary focus should be on the fuel these vehicles consume. According to the Fuels Institute’s life cycle analysis report, nearly 73% of greenhouse gas emissions in the life of an ICE vehicle come from the operating cycle (tailpipe) when fuel is being consumed. So, if we want to reduce carbon from ICEVs we have to look at the fuel.

LCA-Graphic.jpg

Currently, our primary option for lowering the carbon intensity of liquid fuels is to maximize the utilization of biofuels. Ethanol, biodiesel, renewable diesel and other products can help displace higher-carbon fossil fuels and contribute to lower carbon emissions from ICEVs. In addition, improved extraction and production methods in the petroleum supply chain, combined with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), can reduce the carbon intensity of the base fossil fuel. Combined, these can dramatically lower the emission from the existing fleet as well as new-to-market ICEVs.

There are some who object to CCS, expressing concern that it will result in additional investment in the petroleum sector and extend the life of that market. While I do not disagree with their conclusion, I challenge their objection – in a world in which ICEVs are going to be around for decades to come, should we not encourage and support investments that lower the carbon intensity of the fuels they consume?  I think the answer should be yes, and I don’t believe such investments will materially slow the adoption curve for new technology vehicles. I also am of the opinion that, at least in the foreseeable future, there are many vehicle applications that may not be as easily served with the new technologies and will continue to rely on ICE and liquid fuels for a very long time.

Further, there are options for other fuels that can be used in ICEVs. E-fuels, renewable natural gas and hydrogen are options that should be further developed and utilized to better incorporate into the US fuel supply.  It would be irresponsible to not continually seek new solutions.

A Path Forward

Of course, none of this is easy. For years, the petroleum and biofuels sectors have battled over market share, over policies and in the public arena blaming each other for anything and everything. I cut my teeth in these political debates as a congressional aide for an Iowa congressman, advocating in Congress for corn farmers and ethanol producers. The animosities between the industries run deep and some have asserted that reconciliation may not be feasible. I can tell you that those who believe this are wrong.

Maybe I have been out of the political game for too long and my cynicism is not as acute as it once was, but I believe there is an opportunity for the two fuel sectors to collaborate and find a path forward to provide a low carbon fuel option that can provide consumers with a viable and affordable option. The Fuels Institute Board of Advisors includes several representatives from both industries and we have seen them engage in very meaningful, collaborative discussions which gives me tremendous hope for progress.

I also believe that the engineers, chemists and scientists who have ushered in the modern transportation energy sector over the past 100-plus years are capable of great innovation, if we enable and support them. That is why I believe new liquid fuels and blends can be developed that deliver meaningful emissions reductions in an affordable and reliable way.

To that end, the Fuels Institute has just commissioned a study to evaluate the various options that could result in lower carbon emissions for ICEVs and, most importantly, how they can be brought to market and deliver actual results. We are keenly aware that a great “solution” that cannot find its way into the fuel tank of a vehicle is not a solution – we must identify those options that can actually work in the market. We are also exploring research into the feasibility of e-fuels and hydrogen as well as potentially evaluating the core economics and implications of increased biofuels production.

There are significant hurdles that must be overcome, but the elephant in the room is not going away anytime soon and, if you have ever been around an elephant, you know its emissions are significant. We must not ignore it – we must continually seek lower carbon solutions for all transportation needs. This will necessarily include new technology vehicles like BEVS and FCEVs, and we continue to work on research relative to these technologies. But it also requires a broad perspective to evaluate any and all practical options simultaneously and to create an environment in which innovation has an opportunity to shine.