So much has changed in the transportation energy space since we founded the Fuels Institute 10 years ago. When I look at our first report, “Tomorrow’s Vehicles – What will we drive in 2023?,” I find myself scratching my head and wondering – what happened? (For that answer, be sure to keep an eye out for a new report this summer that looks back on the major events of the past 10 years that affected the 2013-assumed trajectory.) Then, I started thinking about everything I read today about what tomorrow’s market will look like and I started to laugh. The fact is this – no one knows what will happen next. We can plan, we can assume, we can endeavor, and we can aspire – but, as Yoda said, “Always in motion is the future.” The best way we can prepare is to engage with other experts who have some insight into what is being done, explore the various scenarios that might play out and try to be nimble and flexible. That is where we come in – exploring the various opportunities to deliver a sustainable zero-carbon transportation system and encouraging decision makers to preserve access to viable options.
How do we do this?
The Fuels Institute is led by a diverse and inclusive Board of Advisors representing perspectives of major oil companies, fuel and electric vehicle equipment suppliers, biofuels producers, hydrogen vehicle manufacturers, engine manufacturers, fleet operators, fuel retailers and distributors, technical experts, and everyone in between. They ensure that the research we do is relevant to the current issues facing the market and is balanced, objective and based upon available facts. Our current focus is to explore how we achieve meaningful and sustainable carbon emissions reductions in such a way that does not overly burden consumers and our research agenda reflects these priorities. However, even with this leadership and diversity of perspective, it is impossible to predict what will happen with any certainty. Therefore, we are exploring as many options to reduce carbon emissions as possible. This diversity will be showcased at our annual conference, FUELS’23, May 22-24 in St. Louis.
Priority Topics Worthy of Exploration
As we prepare for that event, finalize our list of speakers and help develop the content that will be presented and discussed, I realized it represents a full portfolio assessment of how we might actually reduce carbon emissions from transportation in such a way that does not impose an unsustainable economic burden on consumers – and that is critical, because any strategy that hurts consumers will ultimately fail.
To develop a market that satisfies both priorities, we need to explore and support all feasible options. Leaning on our research, FUELS’23 will feature discussions on the following priority topics:
- Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure – While media headlines, popular forecasts, global policies and corporate pledges would suggest that the path to a fully electric future is inevitable and will be a quick and smooth transition, the reality is that it will be very difficult. Beyond challenges vehicle manufacturers have encountered relative to their announced production targets, we must deploy the charging infrastructure that will be required to not only support the emerging market but to convince consumers that they will never struggle to find a charging station when and where they need one. Research commissioned by the Electric Vehicle Council, which is led by more than 60 organizations focused on charging infrastructure, is designed to support the development of a legitimate business market that will support investments in charging infrastructure. At FUELS’23, we will explore two critical elements of this effort, both of which are supported by upcoming research – 1) understanding charger operator and driver perspectives in both North America and Europe to ensure that deployment strategies meet expectations, and 2) understanding the economic realities of operating a charging station and what can be done to support a return on investment for both operators and electric utilities.
- Internal Combustion Engines Vehicles (ICEV) and Liquid Fuels – As the market transitions to incorporate more EVs, traditional powertrains will remain in operation for decades. As this blog showed last month, even in the most aggressive models for EV adoption in the U.S., ICEV may still represent as much as 40% of vehicles in operation in 2050. If we want to be serious about reducing carbon emissions, we must focus on this element. Fuels Institute will publish in May a new report evaluating the need to reduce carbon from this sector and the various opportunities that might reduce the life cycle carbon emissions of liquid fuels and the vehicles they power. Results of this study will be presented at the conference and a panel discussion will further explore the path to a potentially zero-carbon combustion vehicle market.
- Medium and Heavy-duty Vehicles – Last year, we launched a Medium and Heavy-duty Vehicle Committee focused on the issues affecting this critical sector of the market because uniform decarbonization solutions will not work across the myriad of vehicle applications and duty cycles that this sector serves. At the same time, the potential for innovative solutions is exciting because there are more options available for these vehicles than might be available to light duty vehicles. The annual conference will dive into these opportunities to raise awareness of what we might be able to do, how we might do it and what we need to better understand to successfully reduce carbon from this sector.
- Hydrogen – For many years, the industry has been talking about the prospects of using hydrogen to power vehicles. Implementation has not gone as quickly as some would have predicted years ago and this has led some to question the viability of the opportunity. But with time comes more opportunity and the emergence of hydrogen as a transportation fuel gaining momentum. Whether through fuel cell vehicles or through hydrogen powered ICEV, the opportunities to leverage this fuel to dramatically reduce emissions are closer to market reality than ever before. How we take advantage of these opportunities and deliver a potentially zero carbon fuel to the market will be another key topic addressed at FUELS’23.
- What else can be done? – The transition to a new transportation energy system will take a very long time and there is a very real possibility that the future solutions that are dominating our consideration today will be replaced by improved solutions down the road. Scientists and engineers continue to work on innovative technologies and energy sources that may deliver a zero-carbon society at a lower price than the options we are currently working so hard to deploy today. We must continue to leave the door open for innovative solutions, support research and development and not get so locked into one path that we limit our overall potential. This will be a keynote topic at the conference and a theme that will resonate throughout the event.
- Measuring and Reporting Progress – As emissions improvements are implemented, it is important to have a consistent method for measuring and reporting reductions. This will enable strategies to evolve and capitalize on successful innovations. In addition, it is important that industry stakeholders effectively communicate their emissions reductions goals and their efforts to improve the communities in which they operate. Not only is this critical in the path to decarbonizing transportation, increasingly it is being required by customers, lenders and regulatory bodies. Last year, in response to the Fuels Institute Board’s request for tools and guidance to assist the fuels industry, and more recently fleet operators, satisfy these obligations, the Fuels Institute launched ESG Integrity, a tracking and reporting application designed specifically for those sectors. FUELS’23 will take a close look at what is being required of industry stakeholders, the motivations behind the decarbonization efforts and how the data industry can present can better inform decisions going forward.
- Access and Affordability – The topics listed above represent the core issues driving the transportation energy market into the future. Our Board is committed to exploring opportunities to deliver a lower carbon transportation sector in a responsible way, to ensure that consumers in all communities have access to affordable and reliable transportation energy. This priority, to protect consumers, has to be foremost in our consideration of decarbonization options otherwise our pursuit a zero-carbon market will fail. For evidence, just look at how plans for low-carbon energy were questioned and amended throughout the world last year to protect consumers when energy prices spiked. FUELS’23 will include a panel discussion on this topic, exploring the needs of disadvantaged and rural communities in particular whose transportation needs can be vastly different from those of more affluent urban and suburban communities.
Why we must balance our priorities and support innovative options
I recently read Bill Gates’ book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” as well as Steven Koonin’s book, “Unsettled.” What became clear to me from those publications was that the need to reduce human activity-related carbon emissions is real; whether it represents a crisis or is more manageable over time is a serious question that I will leave for others to debate.
What resonated in both books was this – whatever we do to reduce emissions from society (not just transportation, but all aspects) must continue to support people throughout the world with the ability to improve their standard of living – and this extends far beyond transportation. Here are some facts from the United Nations that demonstrate the need to balance our approach and prioritize the welfare of people:
- 733 million people in the world still do not have access to electricity
- 31% of the global population relies on inefficient and polluting cooking systems
- 26% of the global population lacks access to safe drinking water
- 46% of the global population lacks access to safely managed sanitation
- 892 million people still do not have access to a working toilet system
Gates presented an argument that we are facing a climate crisis and need to take immediate action but acknowledged that achieving our goals will be very difficult, will require substantial progress in energy innovation and that various options must remain on the table so that the best ones have the opportunity to deliver results. Koonin pointed out that some of the policies and strategies being developed are based upon political interpretations that do not always match the results of scientific research and could lead to economically unsustainable policies that will not dramatically reduce emissions.
My takeaway is that a balanced approach between urgent emissions reductions and supporting people’s needs throughout the world must be reached. Since I started working on energy issues 25 years ago, I have been involved and witness to significant changes – some initiated by industry, others forced by policy. What I am consistently impressed by is the ability of the market to evolve, of engineers and scientists to discover new ways of doing things, to achieve the seemingly impossible in a more efficient way than ever expected. This is an asset that should be leveraged as we try to transition to a new transportation system. That requires us to remain open to new ideas, to share perspectives and experiences, to collaborate on innovative concepts and push the boundaries of what might seem feasible today, because tomorrow may unveil tremendous opportunity.
I hope you are able to join us in St. Louis for FUELS’23 – the conference will foster a collaborative and inclusive environment in which everyone is encouraged and welcome to engage in discussions that can help uncover opportunities for the future.