Any EV solution should consider a combined approach of the available alternatives and technologies. It is important to remember that vehicles powered by ethanol are already among the best performers in the world and are helping to reduce GHG today.
California has long been a harbinger for cultural and environmental innovations that eventually move across the nation. The trend continues with Gov. Gavin Newsome’s late-September announcement that only zero-emission electric cars can be sold in the Golden State beginning in 2035.
This attention-grabbing mandate overshadows the tremendous progress California has made in reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) in its transportation sector. Much of that success is due to the state’s embrace of biofuels like ethanol.
Carbon emissions from ethanol are already one of the lowest among all powertrains in use around the world, and hybrid and flex ethanol score even better than electric vehicles. While not as sexy as electric vehicles, ethanol is a proven GHG weapon and part of a broader strategy helping California meet its climate goals today, not 15 years down the road.
Relying on biofuels has worked remarkably well in Brazil. Its near-complete adoption of the biofuel has significantly reduced GHG emissions and cleaned the air of pollutants. The air quality in São Paulo drives this point home. In 2019, the fourth most populated city in the world ranked 1,210th globally in pollution levels—in large part because nearly 80% of all cars and light-duty trucks in Brazil run on pure sugarcane ethanol or an ethanol-gas blend of 27% (E27).
California will continue to lead the nation in reducing GHG in its transportation matrix, but its focus on electric cars will empower critics who point out that an all-electric fleet alone may not be the most effective solution.
California’s electric grid is already groaning under the pressure of an ambitious mandate that 60% of electricity come from renewables by 2030 and 100% 15 years later. Even today, the grid’s reliability is tenuous as millions of Californians endure regular power outages. Without an overhaul of the grid, millions of electric cars will drain the state’s capacity even further.
The appeal of electric vehicles is real and understandable, but if the goal is decarbonization, a strong case can be made that cars powered by biofuels do more to reduce GHG and they are doing it today.
For electric cars to have a real impact on emissions, countries will have to undertake a complete makeover of their energy supply infrastructure. In the U.S., more than 60% of the energy comes from natural gas or coal and an increased dependency on electric cars makes weaning the country off non-renewables even more difficult.
Also missing from the conversation is the fact that nearly all cars on the road today rely on internal combustion engines. The only way to power them in a low-carbon way is to use efficient and clean biofuels like ethanol.
There are national security implications as well. Despite its vast natural resources, the U.S. relies on China for lithium and other elements required for electric car batteries. China is the world’s largest producer of lithium and provides more than 60% of the world’s supply.
Any innovation that helps reduce GHG is welcome, but a vast deployment of electric cars will take decades or more and we must acknowledge there is no single solution to tackle the challenges currently facing the transportation sector.
As usual, California is leading the way on environmental protection. It was the first U.S. state to embrace biofuels like sugarcane ethanol—a low-carbon fuel that reduces GHG emissions by at least 61% compared to gasoline—on a large scale and it is pushing the envelope on electric cars. Any solution should consider a combined approach of the available alternatives and technologies. It is important to remember that vehicles powered by ethanol are already among the best performers in the world and are helping to reduce GHG today.
Author: Leticia Phillips
North American Representative
Industry Association, UNICA