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Earth & Sky interviews Joseph Romm about future cars
Mar 21, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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March 20, 2006 Earth & Sky--A Radio Network and Website Every day, over three million people learn about sustaining a vibrant and healthy planet at Earth & Sky.

Interview: Joseph Romm Posted: March 2006

Joseph Romm is author of "The Car and Fuel of the Future," a 2004 report to the National Commission on Energy Policy. He is also author of the book The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate. Earth & Sky's Jorge Salazar spoke with Romm in March 2006 about what the car of the future might be.

Salazar: Dr. Romm, thank you for speaking with me today. What is the car of the future?

Romm: I think we have two major, related problems that are going to drive transportation in the future. The first is oil. We're increasingly dependent on imported oil from dangerous regions of the world. And I expect that the price of oil and gas will, by and large, keep going up, with some bumps, over the next 10 to 20 years. And, perhaps more importantly, are the greenhouse gases that we keep pouring into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels like oil. These greenhouse gases are starting to cause rather serious impacts in terms of melting the ice caps and and raising sea levels and making hurricanes more intense and the like.

So I think that, over the next 10 years, it's going to become increasingly clear that we have to dramatically reduce our oil consumption. In the United States, about 2/3 of all oil goes to transportation, in the cars that we drive and the planes that we ride in, virtually all of transportation is dependent on oil and very few other forms of energy are used for transportation. We need to develop cars that use a lot less oil to get us where we need to go. The first and foremost strategy for doing that is to make our vehicles more efficient..

I think that the car of today is the hybrid gasoline electric. And I think that the popularity of those cars has become apparent to everybody, particularly Toyota and Ford have committed that virtually all of their popular models are going to be hybrid vehicles over the next 10 years. So I think that we're in the middle stage, or the beginning to middle stage of a transition of a transition to hybrid cars. And what I've argued in my book, The Hype about Hydrogen, and in a recent Scientific American article, is that the next stage is hybrid cars that can be plugged into the electric grid. So I see a two-phase transition. The hybrid cars that you buy today do not have to be plugged into the electric grid. And they get efficiency by this so-called regenerative braking, where when you slow down, instead of that energy being wasted heating up your brakes, the energy goes to charge a battery that can then be used to drive an electric motor that's on your car.

So I think that the hybrid cars are considerably more efficient, I'm talking cars like the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape, and in fact, a dozen or more models, by the end of this year, are going to be introduced with hybrid capability. And, the next phase, once you've got a battery and an electric motor onboard your car, the next obvious thing to do is to put in a larger battery, which can actually be plugged into the electric grid, so that you can replace oil with electricity. And so that's the car of the future.

I think, ideally, that plug-in hybrid, as it is called, would also be designed to run on alternative liquid fuels, particularly biofuels like ethanol, so that you could also replace gasoline with the liquid fuel that you use with ethanol. And just to be clear, the plug-in hybrid would still have a gasoline engine in it. This would be a car that would run all-electric, twenty or thirty miles, before reverting to being a regular gasoline-electric hybrid. The point is that most people don't travel very far everyday. You drive to work. You park at work for eight hours, you drive home, you park at home for eight to ten hours. So your car is sitting around most of the time, and it could easily be charged up, so that if you just have enough batteries on board to give yourself a small all-electric range, you might use very little gasoline, and you just use a gasoline engine for the time when you have long trips or don't have the time to do refueling. So it's kind of the best of all possible worlds in terms of combining electricity, which can be a very clean source of transportation, and it's much cheaper than gasoline, but you keep the benefits of the gasoline engine, which is speed of refueling and long range. So that is why I think that the plug-in hybrid is the car of the future, as I've called it.

Salazar: Just to be fair, what are some of the downsides to hybrids?

Romm: I think that hybrids cost more today, and there's a tax credit, and you get some return on your money from a lower fuel bill. But I think that people need to understand that hybrids have a lot of benefits in terms of less visits to the gasoline station and greater acceleration. And the extra cost of hybrids are coming down in price. So I expect that hybrids are just going to get more and more popular over the next five to ten years. And I also very much believe that the price of oil is basically going to rise over the next ten to twenty years. It might have some dips, but fundamentally, we're not going back to $1.50 gasoline, and I think that ten years from now, $3 or more is going to be very common for gasoline. As the extra costs of the technology drops, and the price of gasoline goes up, the car becomes more attractive and economical.

And, obviously, anybody who cares about the environment, who cares about global warming, is going to want to buy one of these cars, because it's the best way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The plug-in hybrid requires a much bigger and more advanced battery than a regular hybrid. So there aren't any that you can buy today, and I'm expecting that you will start to see some commercial introduction of these vehicles for the consumer market by 2010, maybe a little after that, and that they will start to become, start to, early introduction of models in that time frame. But it may be ten years or more before you really start to see a lot of plug-in hybrids on the road.

Salazar: Can we step back a minute and look at the big picture, what sort of footprint are hybrid cars making, worldwide now and in the near future?

Romm: Well I think that the key thing to realize is the path that we're on, in the transportation world, worldwide, is not at all sustainable. India and China are industrializing and urbanizing and building up a middle class very, very rapidly. And the number of cars on the road by 2050 is projected to triple. And the world today uses about 83 million barrels of oil a day. It's getting harder and harder to find cheap oil. That's why the price keeps spiking up every time there's a crisis in an oil-producing part of the world like Russia, or the Middle East, or Nigeria, or Venezuela. We are running up against constraints imposed by rapidly increasing demand. And the fact that we've drilled out all of the easy to find oil.

At some point, people are going to have to make a very major and substantial transition to far more fuel-efficient vehicles and to alternative fuels. There's two ways to do this transition. There's the smart way, which is that we start now, with the government really increasing fuel economy standards, something that we haven't done in 25 years, and pushing alternative fuels. That's the smart way to do it, if we start doing that now. I'm afraid that we're not going to do it the smart way, and that we're going to wait until the situation becomes untenable, until we really start seeing very high prices for gasoline, or far more serious evidence for climate change. And then, rather harsh and rapid change will be forced upon Americans, and I think that's rather the stupid way to do things, but our current government policy doesn't do anything to reduce the oil demand in the United States.

Salazar: Hybrids haven't quite caught on yet, and part of that might be coming from resistance by the automobile industry to change. In the eyes of industry, are hybrids now a charity case or a sure way to make a buck?

Romm: Let me disentangle two different aspects of this. One, whether these cars are a good value fort the consumer. And the second is whether they are an opportunity for the auto industry or a challenge for the auto industry. Let me start with the second question. When I was with the Department of Energy, in the 1990s, we had a program to develop hybrid vehicles with the big three automakers. And, the ironic outcome of that was that the big three, particularly Ford and GM, kind of walked away from hybrids right after President Bush took office. But the program had the effect of making the Japanese quite nervous about what we were doing, and they launched their own hybrid program and introduced their own hybrid vehicles in the late 1990s. The U.S. auto industry has been playing catch-up. Ford has caught up, and I think is a leader in hybrids, but General Motors has really been lagging behind. It's kind of sad, because many of us ten years ago had warned the industry that oil prices were going to rise in the future, and that they needed to develop fuel-efficient vehicles that didn't compromise performance, and that is the beauty of hybrids. Because I think that people have long thought that if you wanted a more fuel-efficent vehicle, you were going to have to have a small, lightweight "econo-box." And that wasn't what people wanted. So, I personally think that General Motors made a very serious mistake by not pushing hybrids earlier. They're now playing catch-up, and they will be introducing some hybrid models.

Personally, I continue to think that the U.S. auto industry can continue to build cars very well and should be able to compete with the Japanese or anyone else in building these cars, and that they represent a very good opportunity for the auto industry. It's suicidal for the auto industry to oppose more fuel-efficient vehicles because the trend, over the next 10-20 years, is going to more concern about oil prices and more concern about greenhouse gas emissions from burning gasoline. From the consumers point of view, every consumer has to decide for themselves what features they want in a car. I think that sometimes, and I subscribe to Consumer Reports, and I read the articles online, and I think that a lot of car reporters mistakenly think that hybrids only make sense if the extra cost gets paid for quickly by the gasoline savings. I just don't think that's why most people buy cars, why most people ask for car features, is because of payback. I mean, people get leather seats, and people get XM radio, and they get sun roofs, and they get Onstar and whatever else, all of these features, and no one asks whether they pay for themselves.

The question is, do the features provide value for the consumer. The nice thing about hybrid technology is that you can have greater fuel efficiency and greater performance in terms of acceleration, because electric motors, when you put them on a car, can give you very good acceleration. And you also get other features that people care about. One is that you go to the gas station a lot less often. And I own a 2004 Toyota Prius, and it replaced a 1994 Saturn from GM that I owned. And I go to the gas station about half as often. And that's a nice thing,, to not have to waste one's time and hassle with going to the gas station. So I view that as a very nice feature.

And also, I do care about my personal contribution to global warming. I think that we're now starting to see more and more evidence of the changing climate. We're seeing more severe weather, we're seeing freakier heat waves in the wintertime, huge tornados, more destructive hurricanes, sea levels rising. Phoenix just had a record 140 days without rain. We're seeing massive wildfires from drier conditions in the west. The science is getting stronger, and frankly scarier, on global warming, and I don't think that there's much question that we're going to be taking action, not as long as our current President is in office, but shortly thereafter, the United States is going to start taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Anybody who wants to reduce their own greenhouse gases in the vehicle arena, one of the easiest ways to do it is to go out and buy a hybrid.

So I do think that hybrids are going to become the primary platform for vehicles by say 2015. Ford and Toyota have already made that commitment, that they're going to offer hybrid versions of most of their popular cars over the next 5-10 years. I think that trend is a good trend, and I think that it's inevitable. I do want to say that if the goal is to reduce oil imports, I think that it's kind of absurd that we're now sending 200 billion dollars a year for imported oil. It's a huge trade deficit, a lot of this money is going to countries such as Iran, and others, who are not allies of ours and who use it to strengthen their military. Some of it gets diverted towards supporting radical, anti-American governments. I think that as a matter of national security, and the environment, we should do everything to increase the fuel efficiency of our vehicles. But that requires the government to increase fuel efficiency standards. I think that has to become a priority.

I think it would be useful for the government to help the auto companies do this. I think there are some very good proposals out there. One is to help auto companies with their health care legacy costs, in return for the car companies increasing the fuel efficiency of their vehicles. I think that's a pretty good bargain. And then we need alternative fuels. We want to shift toward renewable fuels. The President, in his State of the Union, talked about biofuels. One of the major biofuels is ethanol. Right now most of our ethanol is made from corn, which is not that great from an energy-environmental perspective, because it takes a lot of energy to make corn. But the President mentioned making ethanol from other forms, other crops, switchgrass, dedicated energy crops that don't require as much intensive agriculture to grow and harvest.

So I think that you're going to hear more and more about this so-called celluoisic ethanol in the coming years. And I think that a combination of the switch to hybrids, and then gradually a switch to plug-in hybrids, and renewable biofuels, is the ultimate strategy. I see it as inevitable, because we are going to have to replace oil over the next 50 years, substantially, in this country.

Salazar: One thing that you haven't mentioned much is the development of hydrogen cars. Why aren't they going to be the car of the future?

Romm: Well, I think that one of the reasons that I am bullish on advanced hybrids and biofuels is that I am very bearish on hydrogen. I did run the hydrogen and fuel cell program when I was at the Department of Energy, and we increased funding for it. But after the president gave his 2003 State of the Union Address advocating hydrogen cars, I began to write and research a book, which started out as a primer, but the more I talked to people and did my own research and analysis, the more it just became increasingly clear to me that hydrogen cars are not the car of the future. There's just been a lot of misconception about that. I think that it's safe to say that most independent analysts today do not think that hydrogen cars are going to pan out over the next two decades.

And I do think that, by the way, the president's State of the Union Address was a concession of that fact, because, after all, in 2003 he said that hydrogen cars were the solution. And then three years later, he said that we're addicted to oil, but we'd better pursue things like electric cars and biofuels, and maybe we can still keep doing hydrogen. It's just not panning out quickly. Hydrogen cars, fuel cells are very expensive devices,, and they have been very slow to come down in price. Hydrogen is a diffuse gas, so storing enough of it onboard your car to give you the kind of range that you want has proven to be an exceedingly difficult technical challenge. Hydrogen itself is quite expensive, particularly if you want hydrogen from pollution-free sources, and that's what the president had said in 2003, that the point was to have a pollution-free car, and that means the hydrogen has to come not from hydrocarbons, like natural gas, which is where most hydrogen comes from, but hopefully from renewable sources.

But today, hydrogen from renewable sources would probably cost an equivalent of $8 a gallon for gasoline. And so it's very expensive, and there aren't any hydrogen stations. I mean there's just a handful, and it's very expensive to build them, and it's unlikely that the fuel providers would build a lot of stations until they see that the cars are successful on the consumer market. On the other hand, it's unlikely that the cars will be successful on the consumer market if someone doesn't build enough stations to give consumers confidence that they can fuel up whenever they want to. And that's sort of the famous chicken-and-egg problem, which is going to come first, the cars or the infrastructure? So, I think what we are witnessing now is a sobering up of reality, that hydrogen cars are many decades away.

One of the points that I make in the Scientific American article is that if you've got renewable electricity, a much better use for that renewable electricity is simply to charge up a battery on board your car, and use that battery to run an electric motor. The hydrogen strategy is to take the renewable electricity, and buy an expensive device too convert the renewable electricity to hydrogen, and buy an expensive infrastructure to ship the hydrogen to a fueling station, and squeeze the hydrogen onboard your car, and run it through an expensive fuel cell, just to convert the hydrogen back to electricity to run an electric motor. Now, that process, which I've just described to you, throws away 75% of the original renewable electricity, and you've got too buy all of these expensive pieces of hardware. It seems to me to make considerably more sense to try to do this plug-in hybrid strategy, because then you can use the renewable electricity pretty directly. If you like nuclear power, it's the same thing. If you like coal gasification, it's called sequestration, where you capture the CO2 and bury it underground, whatever your favorite form of pollution-free electricity is, it's going to make a lot more sense to use it to run a plug-in hybrid than it is to use it to run a hydrogen car. And I do spell that out in the Scientific American article, and also in my book, The Hype About Hydrogen, which goes into this in great detail.

Salazar: Thank you for taking time out to speak with me. Is there anything else you'd like to share with the public today?

Romm: I think that the most important thing is for your listeners to become knowledgeable on global warming. I think that it is global warming that is going to transform this country and our transportation and the way we live our lives. If we don't act pretty soon, in an intelligent fashion, then change will be forced upon us by the radically changed climate. And, whether it's what car we choose, or the price we pay for energy, or just the climate that we live in, global warming is the issue of the century, and that's what should be driving U.S. transportation policy and decisions about which cars that we drive.

Joseph Romm is executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, "a one-stop shop helping businesses and states adopt high-leverage strategies for saving energy and cutting pollution." Romm served as acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy during 1997 and principal deputy assistant secretary from 1995 though 1998. He helped manage the largest program in the world for working with businesses to develop and use advanced transportation and clean energy technologies -- one billion dollars aimed at hybrid vehicles, electric batteries, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, renewable energy, distributed generation, energy efficiency, and biofuels. He has written and lectured widely on advanced transportation technologies, clean energy, business, and environmental issues, including articles in Technology Review, Issues in Science and Technology, Forbes, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, the L.A. Times, Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, Science and Scientific American. He co-authored "MidEast Oil Forever," the cover story of the April 1996 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which predicted higher oil prices within a decade and discussed alternative energy strategies. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from M.I.T.

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