Reeser Pic smile croppedFrom Tim ReeserPresident and Co-Founder of Lightning Hybrids
A report about the air quality impact of alternative fuel vehicles generated a lot of buzz this week. The basic conclusion of the report: all-electric vehicles can actually make the air dirtier than their internal combustion counterparts.

With the world-wide asthma and lung cancer epidemic, I am happy to see a study focused on air quality and its impact on human health rather than the climate change discussion. This study is one of only a few published reports to take a holistic well-to-wheels approach to transportation and fuels, rather than the short-sighted and incomplete tailpipe-only assumption of many of the other reports. Well-to-wheel studies account for the impact of the entire life cycle of a vehicle, including manufacturing of the vehicle and its power-components (i.e. engine, motors, and battery), where the energy originates and how that energy is transported to the vehicle.  Here are a few things that I extracted from the report:

  • There is no panacea, except for hybrids. Regardless of the fuel, hybrids make sense. Downsized engines on vehicles that recover braking energy and use it for their next acceleration event save fuel and reduce emissions across the board. “Hybrids and diesel engines are cleaner than gas, causing fewer air pollution deaths and spewing less heat-trapping gas.”
  • Plug-in electric vehicles are actually more harmful to the air quality in many cities than traditional gasoline vehicles. “Unfortunately, when a wire is connected to an electric vehicle at one end and a coal-fired power plant at the other end, the environmental consequences are worse than driving a normal gasoline-powered car.”
  • Ethanol is not a good option, even though it is the one that the U.S. spends billions on every year. “Ethanol showed 80 percent more air pollution mortality, according to the study.”

A million dollars a day: this is what just one of the package delivery companies is saving in fuel due to the present low fuel prices. In fact, large fleets are saving $10 to $30 per day per vehicle in fuel, compared with what they were paying just two months ago.  While this doesn’t sound like much, when you multiply it by the number of vehicles large fleets run every day – UPS alone has 101,000 delivery vehicles – it amounts to nearly $30M in savings for the holiday season alone. And if fuel prices continue in this trend, one company alone could experience over $200M in fuel cost savings for the year.

Every time I pass a gas station, I get a knot in my stomach because I feel manipulated.  And I know that American transportation fleets are being manipulated. Manipulated into thinking and investing based on temporary bargain basement fuel prices.  Manipulated into taking our eye off of the goal of reducing the impact of fleet trucks and buses on human health.

The opportunity presented by these low oil prices is tremendous: we can take this savings and spend it on emissions and fuel reduction technologies that will make a large impact on air quality as well as future profitability. Or we can bow to the manipulation and spend the savings on current dividends and bonuses, all while sacrificing future profits and leaving the health costs of coal emissions for future generations to cope with.

Middle-Eastern sources have admitted to maintaining oil production to suppress prices temporarily in hopes of forcing U.S. drillers to stop drilling since most U.S. drillers are now losing money at the current price of oil. Once the higher-priced U.S. wells stop producing, the prices will go back up. And when the dollar falls again as we end quantitative easing, the prices will go up further.  The last 20 years of history has proven that these are not hypothetical scenarios, but rather inevitable outcomes of the economic cycle.  Fuel prices will go back up, and when they do, what will we have to show for all the money saved during this boom time? Instead of being manipulated into building business around the assumption that fuel prices will remain low, fleets should take the savings and make investments.  Here is my list of not-necessarily-politically-correct investments that fleets and the US government need to make:

  • Raise the gas tax. A $1 increase per gallon is at least $250B per year which could pay for thousands of high-quality jobs across the US building roads and bridges and installing mass transit. Not only does it create jobs—but it creates the right alignment of behavior—in the end reducing road miles driven, emissions, and ultimately resulting in cleaner air and better human health. Take a look at this article from the Eneref Institute.
  • Invest in hybrid trucks and buses for urban and suburban routes. Over 30% of fuel and 50% of the emissions spent in heavy traffic areas comes from the start-stop of trucks and buses.  Saving the emissions, fuel, and brakes makes sense, especially when Lightning Hybrids’ systems pay for themselves in fuel savings in half the life of the buses and trucks that use them AND then actual makes money for the second half of the vehicle life compared to conventional vehicles. In addition, Lightning Systems have been shown to reduce NOx emissions – the key ingredient in ugly and harmful smog – by up to 90%, and carbon emissions by over 30%.
  • Invest in LNG infrastructure for long-haul trucks. Liquefied Natural Gas has proven to be an effective fuel for over-the-road vehicles and the infrastructure to make the change from diesel to LNG is quickly coming into place.

I encourage you to read the report that sparked my musings. In addition, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please feel free to comment below and I will respond.


Full report from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences