Personalities Plugged In: Sperling’s Low-Carbon High Standards

By Published On: April 13, 2007

Developing technology to solve the energy and environmental problems created by clogged freeways in and outside California is the newest California Air Resources Board member’s oeuvre. Dan Sperling, founder and director of the University of California, Davis, Institute of Transportation, was appointed to the air board in February. The board is charged with implementing the state greenhouse gas reduction law, AB 32. Sperling is also the governor’s leader on the low-carbon transportation fuels standard. As a leading UC Davis professor, Sperling’s projects have been funded by both public and private patrons. Now he has the job of sculpting new public policy to turn the art of less polluting vehicle and fuel technology into a reality to improve the lives and prospects of Californians. “This is a watershed year,” Sperling said of climate change amelioration efforts. He pointed to the passage of AB 32, as well as the November elections, which shifted the congressional power from Republican lawmakers to Democrat legislators; last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions on regulating carbon emissions from cars and power plants; and the state’s low-carbon fuel standards. “They provide a legal and regulatory framework that we have never had before,” he explained. I interviewed Sperling the morning when the highest court of the land held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can no longer refuse to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. In a second decision, the court held that power plant upgrades allowing units to run more intensely must comply with the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review rule. While he viewed the ruling on greenhouse gases as positive, he declined to speculate on how it might affect the lawsuit over the legality of the state’s 2002 landmark tailpipe emissions law for greenhouse gases, AB 1493. For that rule to be implemented, a pending case brought by the auto industry against the air board must be resolved. And the federal EPA must grant a Clean Air Act waiver to California. On April 11, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the EPA to expedite California’s request for a waiver to enforce the tailpipe emissions reduction rule pursuant to AB 1493. The automobile manufacturers’ suit against the state standard is before a federal district court in Fresno, with a decision on trial dates expected soon (Circuit, April 6, 2007). Sperling insists that plug-in hybrids, fuel cells, various biofuels, hydrogen, and coal-based fuels will all be part of our carbon-constrained energy future. However, he could not estimate how big a role the various fuel sources may play, or their costs. Earlier, Sperling was an advocate of the Hydrogen Highway. In 2003, the governor envisioned a green dream of hydrogen-powered cars and hydrogen filling stations as a means to slash fossil-fuel use and reduce CO2 and other pollutants. The goal was to have 100 hydrogen fuel stations up and down the state and 2,000 hydrogen vehicles by 2010. In July 2005, lawmakers allocated $6.5 million a year to the California Energy Commission to set up a pilot project (Circuit, July 22, 2005). There was considerable controversy over the source of the hydrogen – whether it would come from natural gas, renewable energy supplies, coal, or nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, the touted Hydrogen Highway has fallen far short of its mark, and little has been said about it of late. Sperling, however, maintains that it may be too early to write off the Hydrogen Highway. He said politicians’ and the public’s “patience for changing things is not very good,” which undermines investments in new technologies. The low-carbon fuels standard announced in January and created via executive order is expected to create a market for alternative transportation fuels (Circuit, Jan. 12, 2007). The standard seeks to cut the carbon content of those fuels by 10 percent. It is also the Schwarzenegger administration’s key move for slashing carbon gases from motor vehicles to meet California’s greenhouse gas reduction law’s mandates because imposing a carbon cap-and-trade program on this sector would be ineffective, according to Sperling. He said gasoline prices are not a major consideration for drivers. In spite of high gas prices, “fuel consumption keeps going up.” He also says the drop in large SUV sales and the increase in small car sales were small in the context of overall sales. They are only partly attributable to higher gas prices, he said, adding that the shift in car tastes occurred prior to price increases at the pump. A recent study, however, shows that a rise in public transit ridership is attributed to higher gas prices. According to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, public transit use rose by 29 million riders last year, a nearly 6 percent increase and twice the national average. According to Sperling, electricity generators and many industrial users are much more responsive to high energy prices because they are a large part of their overall cost of doing business. In addition, he noted, there are a variety of feedstocks for electricity. Unlike motorists, utilities and other stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions can create electricity from natural gas, wind, biomass, coal, or nuclear power plants – all commercially proven technologies. Thus, creating a cap-and-trade program for utilities and other nonmobile sources of CO2 would be an effective means of curbing carbon emissions from these sources. When it comes to transportation, Sperling has considerable faith in plug-in hybrids, saying that they “will be part of the transition, and just may be the end game.” A week after we met, Pacific Gas & Electric displayed its plug-in hybrid known as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, which can draw from or feed the grid or a business or home. PG&E and other utilities, private and public, began firing up their V2G programs months ago. The UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies recently received a $2.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission for research and development on plug-in hybrid vehicles. The institute also receives corporate money – including oil and utility funding – to support its research and development. “No one company controls the agenda,” Sperling asserts, noting that the institute makes a point of ensuring balanced funding for its research projects. He acknowledged that the source of funding does affect research. The good part of that is that it makes academics more responsive and leads to more efficient research. Furthermore, he noted that getting public money from agencies also has strings attached. Sperling sees little reason at this point to criticize the controversial $500 million, 10-year deal between UC Berkeley and BP to create a new biofuels institute at the university, noting that the amount the university would receive every year would be only a small part of its total annual funding. “The biggest scientific and technological challenges require huge amounts of funding,” he said. “The real issue is how the contract is implemented,” specifically, “whether the public university protects its independence and commitment to the public.” It is noteworthy that public funding for public universities has dropped steadily for years, making these institutions far more dependent on private money. Sperling is no fan of corn-derived ethanol because of the small benefits – if any – of using it as a substitute for traditional fossil fuel. It relies on fat subsidies, about $1 per gallon, does not currently mix smoothly with gasoline, and provides no air-quality benefits, he noted. Moreover, producing and filling up with ethanol does not create a big dent in carbon emissions. Studies estimating ethanol’s carbon reductions do not take into account the full range of greenhouse gas impacts arising from growing corn, including the displacement of rain forests, planting on formerly fallow fields, and other land conversions, said Sperling. Like many other alternative fuels experts, Sperling believes cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass or biomass wastes holds more promise. The yield per acre is much greater, and the amount of energy needed to grow, harvest, and process is much less, as are the levels of greenhouse gas emissions, he said. He acknowledged environmental justice concerns in land displacements, particularly in developing countries, but added that studies assessing those impacts – in terms of either carbon emissions or social and economic impacts – are lacking. The biggest challenge, he noted, is getting everyone in our society to change the way they use and think about energy. “Trends are going in the wrong direction,” he said, pointing to sprawling vehicle-dependent developments of huge homes filled with energy-consuming gadgets. Key to changing behavior at the professional and personal levels is “to change market signals, and for our leaders to emphasize that we all have a responsibility, and it is important.” The good news, he concluded, “is there are lots of things we can do, if we have the will and institutional commitment.”

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