Hydrogen filling station at NREL

Transport energy efficiency in the USA – is that an oxymoron?

FEHRL and Maple Consulting recently organised and participated on a scanning tour to the USA focussing on energy efficiency in transport. Eight European organisations and a partner in the USA visited a range of research institutes, State Departments of Transport and operators to get an understanding of the research, development and implementation of technologies, policies and initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector.

Given the USA’s love affair with the private automobile, not to mention some of the policies of the current administration, it might not seem the obvious location to look for the latest developments in energy efficiency. Dig a little deeper though, and there is a range of leading research being undertaken at various organisations.

The tour visited the National Renewable Energy Laboratory NNREL) in Colorado, the Colorado Department of Transport, University of California Davis, Caltrans (California Department of Transport), the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the METRANS Transportation Center, a collaboration between the University of Southern California and California State University, Long Beach.

Rather than focus on the individual locations, this outline covers some common themes identified.

Electrification
There is a large amount of work being undertaken on electric vehicle development and implementation. A significant amount of research is being undertaken on the charging infrastructure requirements for electric vehicles to become more mainstream, improvement in battery technology and the development of new battery types made from earth abundant materials. Research is also being undertaken on user behaviour around charging, particularly for plug-in hybrid vehicles. California is promoting electric vehicles generally (50% of all electric vehicles in the USA are in California) and Caltrans are looking to electrify its own vehicle fleet with a 2025 target of 50% and 15% for light and heavy vehicles respectively.

Both Colorado and California have received ‘Electrify America’ funding from the VW diesel emissions settlement.
The Ports of Los Angeles (POLA) and Long Beach (POLB) cooperate on a range of electrification and clean air initiatives on vehicles and plant within the port and on vehicles travelling from the port to the warehouses in other parts of the state. They report that there have been huge advances in battery technologies in recent years
Alternative Fuels

There is research underway on biofuels such as ethanol and particularly on hydrogen, which is seen as offering advantages for range and infrastructure. There are currently 36 hydrogen filling stations in California, whilst Caltrans have a number of hydrogen vehicles in its fleet.

NREL have developed the Alternative Fuel Data Centre and corridors. This identifies the biodiesel, electricity, hydrogen, natural gas and propane filling stations in the USA, and identifies alternative fuel corridors, to encourage the uptake of alternative fuel vehicles, giving confidence around station availability. This is provided as an online tool, whilst identified corridors also have on-road signage. Such has been the success of this initiative, that Canada has also developed its own version in collaboration with NREL.

New mobility
Various institutes are investigating the potential (positive and negative) effects of new mobility concepts such as connected and automated vehicles, shared mobility and mobility as a service. In some scenarios, the predictions are that it could adversely address public transport and add to vehicle miles travelled, whilst others point to improved fuel efficiency, through smoother driving.

New mobility technologies have been used to investigate alternative routing strategies at a regional level to even out traffic flow, even exploring the potential to reward drivers who accept taking a slower route, to free up network capacity on congested highways. This concept has been taken further in some studies by estimating the equity and cost of opportunities (such as employment, shopping and leisure) to residents in various cities and regions using various modes. Another area of research concerns equity issues relating to land use planning and the prevalence of warehouses and the associated noise and emissions in low and middle socio-economic areas.

Conclusion
There are cultural differences between Europe and the USA, particularly regarding the use of public transport, walking and cycling, although California amongst others have plans to increase these levels as part of an overall strategy of reducing vehicle miles and reducing greenhouse gases. Despite these efforts, there is a large research focus on the reduction of emissions of road transport, rather than modal shift.

Nonetheless, there is very high-quality research underway in a number of areas, and high uptake of low emission vehicles, in California in particular. Here, the power of the individual states is relevant in terms of how they set their own laws and strategies, despite federal policies. It should be recognised that California has a population of around 40 million and an economy of a similar size to the UK or France.

There are various opportunities for shared learning and potential collaborative research in future. A European version of the alternative fuels corridor could be a really useful tool in encouraging the uptake of alternative fuels, especially for long distance and cross border issues.

The information on this blog covers only a small section of the findings of the tour. A full report, slide deck and links are available on the FEHRL website – www.fehrl.org