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California's Two-Lane Highway
Jamais Cascio, 17 Jun 04

Jamais' HybridClinton didn't try to get Kyoto passed. Bush's opposition to environmental rules is legendary. And, even if Kerry wins, he'll very likely face a hostile Congress unwilling to give an inch. The willful inability of the American federal government to adopt meaningful carbon emissions reductions is dangerously short-sighted, but it does not necessarily mean that Americans won't be reducing CO2 in the coming years. In the American federal system, state governments also have the power to enact emission regulations, and to encourage the development and implementation of new technologies. California has a long history of being a leader in attacking air pollution. California is now becoming a leader in attacking CO2 emissions from vehicles.

What makes the California approach particularly notable is that it is pushing for change in two seemingly very different ways: a near-to-mid term set of specific changes to standard automobile (and light-duty truck, including SUV) designs explicitly intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and a mid-to-long term initiative to kick-start a transition to hydrogen-based vehicles by supporting the installation of H2 fueling stations throughout the state, the so-called "Hydrogen Highway" plan. In the extended entry, I'll take a closer look at both of these approaches, and what they mean for the nation as a whole. Pardon the length, but this is important.

I mentioned in a QuickChange last week that the California Air Resources Board -- CARB -- was about to unveil a proposed set of regulations to mandate "maximum feasible and cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles." They did so late on Monday, and I've spent the last couple of days going over the proposal. It is, in short, impressive.

CARB has long had a mandate to regulate air pollution in California, whether from vehicles or buildings. California's smog problem is well-known, arising from an unholy combination of abundance of vehicles, urban sprawl without urban centers, and a peculiar atmospheric effect called an "inversion layer" which tends to trap airborne particulate matter relatively low to the ground (the Los Angeles basin was known as the "smoky valley" to local natives prior to Spanish colonization for this reason). Because California's attempts to control air pollution pre-dated federal efforts, California is specifically exempted in the Clean Air Act from having to adhere to federal guidelines, and is allowed to exceed them; other states have the right to adopt either the federal rules or the California rules, and northeast states in particular often adopt the tougher California regulations.

In 2002, California passed a law asking CARB to come up with a set of guidelines to lower vehicular greenhouse gas emissions in a way that would have maximal results while still being cost-effective and technologically feasible. In addition, the law specifically prohibited:

  • New fees or taxes on vehicles, fuel or miles traveled
  • A ban on the sale of any vehicle category
  • A required reduction in vehicle weight
  • A limitation or reduction in the speed limit or
  • A limitation or reduction in vehicle miles traveled
  • That is, CARB had to seek out ways in which to reduce greenhouse gases without asking Californians to change their driving habits. While this would clearly not result in the maximum possible reduction in greenhouse gases, it would stand a better chance of being politically acceptable. The new regulations would have to be passed into law by January 1, 2005, and implemented by 2009. On Monday, CARB came up with its proposal (PDF).

    The report is a 192-page examination of precisely what auto manufacturers can do to reduce carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) produced by cars and trucks, using real-world technologies and well-understood design changes. The result, implemented incrementally from 2009 to 2015, would cut average CO2 emissions from both autos and light-duty trucks by 29.8%. Some of the news reports about the CARB proposal make it sound as if CARB expects car manufacturers to come up with solutions out of pixie dust and good wishes. Not so. The CARB proposal looks in detail at around two dozen different vehicle technologies, including low-resistance tires, electrically-assisted turbocharging, continually-variable-transmission, alternative fuels, variable displacement air conditioning compressors and more, and examined how they could be applied to a wide assortment of vehicle types.

    The advances were split into three categories: near term, technologies which could be found in vehicles today (and could be used for the 2009-2012 improvements); mid term, technologies a bit more on the cutting edge, although nothing more radical than clean diesel HSDI engines and hybrid-electric systems (suggested for the 2012-2015 period); and long term, the truly experimental/laboratory advances (2015+, and hence not part of the new regulations).

    The discussion of just how these different technologies work, how they could be combined, and (critically) how much they'll cost makes up the bulk of the document, and if you're at all a green/auto tech-head, you'll find it fascinating. This is not pie-in-the-sky hand-waving; the CARB researchers did their homework. Auto manufacturers who claim that they don't have the technology to meet the guidelines, can't figure out how to make it all work, or that the results would be too costly/too small/too underpowered for the American market should be smacked with a rolled-up printout of this document.

    Impressively, the report doesn't just list technologies and prices, it looks at the economic impact of the regulations on California as a whole and on low-income and minority populations in particular. Too often low-income and minority communities bear the brunt of both industrial pollution and environmentalists too caught up in the cause to remember that real people have to pay for these decisions, and not everyone can afford a hybrid. The report concludes that the net economic impact will be small but positive, with the lower operating costs offsetting increased vehicle costs, and the reduced refining and transport of petroleum a small but important community-environment improvement.

    While the proposal is in many respects quite conservative -- the Union of Concerned Scientists, while supportive of the proposed 30% reduction guidelines, argued that a 40% cut in the same time period would have been equally feasible -- it is also a textbook for demonstrating how the intelligent application of existing technologies to existing systems can still have a dramatic effect.

    But 30% or 40% reductions, while certainly welcome, only get us part of the way to a sustainable transportation system. Even the cleanest-burning hydrocarbon-fueled engines still put out CO2. One option would be wholesale conversion to biodiesel, which would make individual cars net carbon neutral (but may still add carbon during the harvesting of biomass and fuel production); a more radical choice -- and the one picked by California -- is to move to hydrogen.

    A few months ago, California Governor Schwarzenegger -- who has, much to all of our surprise, turned out to be pretty green -- announced the "Hydrogen Highway" initiative.

    If you've followed any of the articles and arguments about hydrogen vehicles, you'll have come away with at least one solid conclusion: H2 cars are a classic "chicken and egg" problem. Nobody will buy hydrogen cars if they can't fuel them up on the road, and nobody will invest in the installation of hydrogen fueling stations without the certitude that there will be buyers. The "Hydrogen Highway" plan is an attempt to solve that dilemma.

    Under the "Hydrogen Highway" plan, by 2010, there will be H2 fueling depots located approximately every 20 miles along major freeway corridors in California. this would amount to nearly 200 stations, including the ones already in existence or being built. (See map at right, from the California Hydrogen Highway site.) With these stations in operation, drivers of hydrogen cars -- whether hydrogen fuel cell or hydrogen internal combustion engine -- can be assured that they'll never be out of gas (as it were) on any major road.

    As visions go, it's actually a pretty smart move. They're not picking winners, beyond the initial choice of supporting hydrogen. They're not trying to mandate a conversion to H2 cars, only make it possible. If the hydrogen vehicles take off, then the state-supported stations will soon be overwhelmed by commercial competitors; if H2 cars never quite make it big, overtaken by biodiesel hybrids or somesuch, the hydrogen stations can be quietly mothballed, like the electric-car-recharging stations that appeared briefly in grocery store parking lots around the state in the late 90s.

    The main downside to the plan is, ironically, the aggressive timetable. By pushing for hydrogen fueling stations and vehicles by 2010, we will almost certainly be using hydrogen reformed from hydrocarbons like natural gas or ethanol (or -- shudder -- gasoline). While the carbon emissions from the reforming process are arguably less severe than those from using coal or natural gas power plants to crack hydrogen from water, they are still far worse than the zero emissions from using renewable power sources to do so. A hydrogen vehicle infrastructure without the larger push towards renewable energy sources still ties us to non-renewable sources of fuel.

    Although they were not conceived as a pair, the combination of the CARB greenhouse gas emissions reduction and the "Hydrogen Highway" plan is compelling. The CARB proposal, on its own, moves us forward, but really only to a place we should have been already. It requires little in the way of real innovation, putting its emphasis on implementation of existing technologies to get maximal results at minimal economic impact. It's a plan for getting us pointed in the right direction, not for changing the world.

    The "Hydrogen Highway" plan, while short on specifics and long on vision, really does get us moving towards something revolutionary. As a big vision on its own, though, it could founder against changing political whims, never quite catching on with the California citizenry. A greater concern would be the time required to transition to H2 vehicles, particularly those which would serve as replacements for popular sport and heavy-duty vehicles, would leave us spewing out still more carbon as we figure out how to make the switch. Together, the CARB plan and the H2 plan give us an elegant pathway out of the fossil-fuel trap. As a linked pair, over the next two decades, these plans could revolutionize the automotive world.

    And not just for those of us in California. The size of California's automobile market means that some -- probably most -- car manufacturers will choose to build the same car for the rest of the nation that they build for California, an even more likely outcome should New York and the other northeast states also adopt the California regulations. People in Oregon, Kansas, and Georgia may not have asked for 40-60 mpg, cleaner cars, but I'm certain they'll be happy to get them. The result would be the functional equivalent of the US adopting these standards at the federal level, without any effort on the part of the federal government.

    The extensibility of the hydrogen vehicle plan is less clear. Unless other states follow suit in promoting hydrogen refueling stations throughout their transportation networks, the cutting-edge H2 vehicles promoted by the "Hydrogen Highway" initiative may be limited to travel within the state. This would limit the acquisition of H2 vehicles, at least at first, to early-adopers and official vehicle fleets -- still a substantial result, to be sure, but not a green vision of everyone driving clean cars. The demonstration effect would be substantial, however, especially if changes to the climate (and continued growth of petroleum prices) change national attitudes towards energy efficiency.

    Regardless, the "Hydrogen Highway" is a useful test-bed, a potentially-compelling experiment in infrastructure transition. California will suffer the inevitable setbacks arising from any experiment, the bugs from new technologies and unexpected results from new systems. But California will also be the first to learn the lessons necessary to bring about the hydrogen economy. And in doing so, California may just succeed in bringing the rest of the country to a greener, more sustainable future.

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    Nice article.

    I'm glad that CA does stuff like this. If they can pull it off, the rest of the think-above-the-waistline states will follow.


    Posted by: Stefan Jones on 18 Jun 04

    What is the big vision for how hydrogen will be made from renewables in the future? Wind? Hydro? If not by 2010 whats the long term vision.

    Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 18 Jun 04

    In cal I expect wind solar wave and tidal power near term nuke and fuson mid to long term along with more tidal wave and solar of course.

    Posted by: wintermane on 18 Jun 04

    I'd quibble on the use of nuclear power, but wintermane has it pretty much right. I'd also add the use of bio-generated hydrogen, such as the H2-from-algae-swamps worked on at UC Berkeley (it's a few years old, but I don't think we've blogged it, so I'll do that today).

    Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 18 Jun 04

    If bio-generated hydrogen works out, there's a lot of pig manure in the Carolinas that could be put to good use...

    Posted by: Stefan Jones on 18 Jun 04

    The reason I expect nuke power to come back is somewhere in the 6th or 7th gen nuke plant designs they have modular designs based on a system that never gets all that hot and is never actauly opened.

    The entire reactor is about the size of a standard cargo container and when the fuel is used up wich I belive was 50 years or so the entire thing is shiped for disposal.

    Now the main reason its likely to come is its factory made and they are working on a permit structure such that basicaly they would plop and run instant nuke plant. Thus no lengthy permit process no design blah blah blah so forth and so on. Its still making the rounds in the fiddle and tweak stage but its expected the nuke industry will push it by the 2010-2015 timeframe.

    They are likely just waiting for the lights to go dark again or the air conditioners to go off during the summer... In short when power gets scarce they will be ready.

    Posted by: wintermane on 18 Jun 04



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