Senate Explores Different Roads to Decarbonize Transportation

Electrification May not be Quickest Way to Reduce Emissions, Experts Say

By K Kaufmann

Unlike General Motors and other U.S. carmakers, Toyota is not going all in on electric vehicles.

“Maximum GHG reductions can be achieved with consumers having more access to technology, not less,” said Robert Wimmer, the company’s director of energy and environmental research, speaking before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday. “Consumer needs vary greatly. Some live in urban areas with short commutes; some need room for families; some live where weather or terrain mandate four-wheel drive. If we tie our horse to a single approach, many consumers will simply opt for an internal combustion engine.”

transportation decarbonization
Toyota’s Robert Wimmer talked up the automaker’s hydrogen vehicles — including its heavy-duty truck — at the Senate ENR Committee’s hearing on transportation technologies March 16. | Toyota

Wimmer was one of five industry and government leaders speaking to the committee on the need to accelerate development of low- and no-carbon transportation technologies, in addition to vehicle electrification. Led by Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the hearing sounded a shift in the legislative narrative on clean transportation, from a primary focus on electrification to an all-of-the-above approach to decarbonization.

“Whether electrolyzers that produce hydrogen from water or the batteries that power electric vehicles, we’ve got to advance the technologies needed for the vehicles of the future and their supply chains,” Manchin said in his opening statement.

transportation decarbonization
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) | U.S. Senate

“I believe that innovation, not regulation, is the best way to improve our country’s mobility,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the committee’s ranking member. “We should encourage a variety of technologies that reduce costs for consumers, lower emissions and take advantage of the vast energy and mineral resources that we have in the country.”

The hearing’s focus on domestic supply chains, manufacturing and jobs also provided potential common ground for future bipartisan legislation. For example, Manchin pointed to his recently introduced American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act, which he said would carve out $4 billion “for exclusive use in coal communities, driving jobs into areas that have seen the biggest economic impact of the transition to a cleaner energy future.”

Echoing Wimmer, other experts at the hearing said electrification may not be the quickest or most efficient way to reduce emissions for different forms of transportation, especially for heavy-duty equipment used in the industrial and shipping sectors.

The Department of Energy’s “sustainable transportation strategy to decarbonize transportation includes all modes: air, sea, rail and road,” said Kelly Speakes-Backman, principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. “It encompasses activities in fuel streams of electrification, hydrogen and fuel cells and biofuels.”

Tony Satterthwaite, vice chairman of industrial truck and equipment manufacturer Cummins, said the path to clean transportation “must capture all the benefits from all the technologies, including internal combustion, natural gas and alternate fuels, range-extended electric vehicles, battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.

Electric vehicle
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) | U.S. Senate

“Hydrogen technologies are particularly ripe for government and industry investment,” Satterthwaite said. “It is one of the most effective enabling technologies for broad and deep decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors like rail.”

Wimmer also pitched for hydrogen in light-duty vehicles, talking up the Mirai (Japanese for “future”). Toyota’s mid-size hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is currently available in the U.S. but only in California, which has 50 hydrogen refueling stations. About 6,500 Mirais are on the road in the U.S., and 10,000 worldwide, he said.

But the company remains bullish on its hybrids, Wimmer said. With 16 different models, including two plug-in hybrids, the company has 4 million hybrid vehicles on the road in the U.S. and will roll out another plug-in hybrid and two new EVs next year, he said.

“Recent data shows that plug-in hybrids can achieve nearly the same or better GHG reductions than [battery electric vehicles], depending on your daily driving patters,” he said.

Supply Chains

The supply chain for lithium-ion batteries is one of the thornier issues surrounding EVs. Both Democrats and Republicans at the hearing raised concerns about U.S. dependence on foreign sources for lithium, cobalt and other rare earth minerals, particularly in countries where labor and environmental standards are lower than in the U.S.

Battery recycling could provide a domestic supply chain but is still in the early stages of development in the U.S., said Adam Muellerweiss, president of the Responsible Battery Coalition and chief sustainability officer for Clarios, a battery manufacturer.

“A very small percentage of lithium-ion batteries are being recycled today. There is a significant amount of diversity [in battery chemistries]; there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. That’s why it’s so important to understand the full life cycle of these materials, from mining to manufacturing to end of life and recycling,” Muellerweiss said.

He noted that the Responsible Battery Coalition is working with DOE’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research to create “a platform for the battery industry to assess the full life-cycle attributes of various battery technologies before they go into production. By modeling the complete life cycle in advance, a manufacturer has the opportunity to compare and contrast different battery chemistries,” Muellerweiss said.

In addition, he pointed to the DOE’s Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize, which is providing grants to industry teams developing new recycling technologies with the goal of profitably recycling 90% of lithium-ion batteries in the U.S.

Janvier Nkurunziza, international trade and commodities analyst for the U.N., argued that beyond developing domestic supply chains, the U.S. should leverage its financial and technological expertise to help new business models take root in emerging economies where rare earth minerals are mined.

“These countries need a win-win, joint venture model based on impact investing,” Nkurunziza said. “In this model, investment is judged not only by rate of return but also its impact [on] where it takes place, especially its impact on the environment. The U.S. can be a champion; [it] can go in with a better model, better standards.”

The Policy Pitch

While no proposals for specific legislation were discussed at the hearing, some of the expert witnesses offered suggestions.

Muellerweiss closed his testimony by stressing the importance of a life-cycle approach to battery recycling. “Over the next 20 years, more than 2 million metric tons of used lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles will reach end of life in the U.S. alone. These batteries must be considered a critical resource, not a waste,” he said.

Wimmer asked for consumer purchase incentives. “They should be structured to promote all electrified vehicles, and these incentives shouldn’t sunset too quickly, or they won’t provide the investment certainty manufacturers need,” he said. “Similarly robust incentives for infrastructure and fuel production are needed.”

Scaling up green hydrogen also means scaling up and cutting the costs of electrolyzers, Satterthwaite said. “We believe tax credits are an effective way to spur demand and investment. The current challenge we see with electrolyzer costs is essentially that [need for] further technology development and increased volume.”

The U.S. should consider adopting “significant incentives” like those now moving green hydrogen forward in Europe, he said.

But, like Wimmer, Satterthwaite said U.S. efforts to decarbonize transportation should remain technology neutral. “In our experience, performance-driven standards allow us to reduce emissions today and continue to innovate and improve as infrastructure challenges are addressed,” he said.

When technology is pushed into the market before it is ready, Satterthwaite said, costs are higher, reliability and consumer confidence are lower, and consumers keep their older vehicles longer.

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