Not so long ago, it was generally accepted that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles could be used as bridge technologies until ‘zero-emissions’ vehicles could perform like existing vehicles, at similar cost. Unfortunately, politics in New York and elsewhere demand net-zero by 2050 with policies that preclude their use.
I have spent a lot of time the last three years evaluating New York’s net-zero by 2050 target mandated by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) from a pragmatic point of view. Pragmatic environmentalism is all about balancing the risks and benefits of both sides of issues. Most troubling in the quest for net zero is the lack of consideration for tradeoffs.
PHEV and CNG vehicles banned by Climate Act.
In New York the mandated technology is ‘zero-emissions,’ either battery electric or hydrogen fuel cells. PHEV and CNG vehicles have direct emissions and so will be banned. The Climate Act fossil fuel accounting requirements inflate the global warming effects as compared to all other jurisdictions and mandate that upstream and life-cycle emissions also be considered. On the other hand, the life-cycle emissions and impacts of the ‘zero-emissions’ technologies are ignored.
The Climate Act’s net-zero by 2050 transition is extraordinarily ambitious. The Scoping Plan that outlines the framework to implement this transition projects that in order to meet the net-zero schedule, over 30 percent of all light-duty vehicles sold will either be battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) in 2025, and 100 percent by 2035. For medium- and heavy-duty truck sales, the Scoping Plan projects that at least 10 percent sold will either be BEVs or FCEVs in 2025, and 64 percent by 2035.
PHEVs a Logical Bridge Technology
It's wishful thinking to presume that large percentages of people will choose BEVs and HFCVs, forgoing the flexibility of a personal car that has much greater range in all seasons, can be refueled quickly on long trips, and does not require expensive charging equipment at home. PHEV technology eliminates range anxiety, refueling, and home equipment concerns. It also reduces fuel use and air pollution emissions significantly and uses a smaller battery pack than a BEV, which reduces the environmental impacts of rare earth mineral supplies and disposal that the Climate Act ignores.
When all the physical, cost, and logistical issues associated with hydrogen use are considered, it will not play a major role in the future. BEV technology doesn’t appeal to a majority of car owners because of nuisance constraints, but the technology could work. The same cannot be said for battery electric heavy-duty vehicles since range, refueling, and charging infrastructure constraints are deal breakers that prevent heavy-duty trucks from meeting the 2050 net-zero target.
CNG Trucks a Viable Alternative
There are serious inhalable particulate air pollution issues associated with diesel truck emissions at freight terminals in New York City. The Scoping Plan claims that replacing these trucks with zero-emission alternatives provides significant benefits. However, the plan’s zero-emissions aspirations ignore technological tradeoffs and the reality that CNG heavy-duty trucks are a viable alternative that would markedly reduce inhalable particulate emissions. The problem with CNG is not technology since we know it works, but a problem with the development of fueling infrastructure and vehicle fleet turnover. It is not pragmatic to insist that heavy-duty trucks use unproven battery electric technology over other alternatives that can markedly reduce the air quality issues.
The use of PHEV and CNG vehicles for personal and freight transport offers the opportunity for significant air quality benefits, at a cheaper societal cost, with less impacts on personal choice, and sooner than the ‘zero-emissions’ alternatives. Failing to consider those benefits while insisting upon a riskier technological approach is not good social policy. Someday, there may be a better alternative, but in the meantime bridge technologies that provide most of the benefits are the more appropriate policy approach.
Roger Caiazza, a retired Certified Consulting Meteorologist who has worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years, is a blogger at Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York