Decarbonizing ICEVs and the Quest for Zero – A conversation with John Eichberger of the Transportation Energy Institute

July 6, 2023 By ,

June 21, 2023

Several members of Stillwater’s Carbon Crew recently chatted with John Eichberger, Executive Director of the Transportation Energy Institute (formerly the Fuels Institute). The conversation covered the Institute’s mission and dove into a report they recently commissioned – authored by Stillwater – concerning the decarbonization of internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). We thought our readers might find this conversation enlightening, so we’re publishing it here. (We’ve edited John’s answers for clarity and brevity.)

  1. For the benefit of our readers: What is the Transportation Energy Institute, and what is your mission? Also, why the recent name change?

The Transportation Energy Institute started in February of 2013 as the Fuels Institute. We are an objective, non-biased, non-advocacy organization. From day one, our focus has been on any fuels that powered surface road vehicles. Our board is diverse and includes folks involved with electrification, hydrogen, biofuels, diesel, natural gas, petroleum, and more. Our mission is to help policy- and decision-makers make informed decisions, but in today’s political charged environment the term “fuels” has taken on a particular meaning such that some of those we were hoping to reach assumed that the term “fuels” in Fuels Institute meant we were mostly focused on petroleum (which wasn’t actually the case). Since the name of the organization was getting in the way of being able to successfully achieve our mission, we decided to change our name to align with a proper understanding of our vision. The organization is the same; the name has just been updated.

Our recent focus has been on reducing carbon emissions in a way that’s sustainable long-term. By sustainable, I mean feasible, economically workable, pragmatic, and functional (i.e., it will actually reduce carbon). The board has also expanded the stated purpose to include criteria air pollutants in addition to carbon. So the key question is: How do we help evolve the transportation sector to reduce its impact on the environment while benefitting consumers? We try to steer clear of taking an “ivory tower” approach; any research we publish must take into consideration all stakeholders and consider global diversity of needs and solutions.

  1. Stillwater recently authored a report for the Transportation Energy Institute concerning the decarbonization of ICEVs. Why commission a report on this topic, and why now?

Over the past several years we were hearing feedback that not enough research was being done around ICEVs – everything was focused on electric vehicles (EVs). Given that at least 40% of vehicles on the road in 2050 will be ICEVs, if we don’t focus on reducing emissions from those vehicles, we aren’t doing enough to protect the planet. Plus, if we can eliminate a ton of CO2 today, the climate benefits are stronger than waiting 10 years for increased ZEV adoption. So, we wanted to dive deep into the opportunities to reduce carbon emissions from the legacy fleet and the new ICEVs sold over the next 20 years. Bottom line: If you can reduce GHGs now, the impact long term is powerful; zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) and ICEVs can all be part of the solution. As such, we wanted to explore and provide a portfolio of options for policymakers to be able to choose from to help reduce GHGs going forward. The goal was to kick into gear a resurrection of the discussion around ICEVs as part of the solution and to help people understand that being pro-ICEV solutions is not the same as being against EVs. That’s a false dichotomy. Highly efficient engines running on renewable natural gas (RNG), biodiesel, or renewable diesel can have zero or near zero carbon emissions, but those options are being shunned because they involve combustion engines. We have to avoid being so myopically focused on one solution (EVs) and instead look at the comprehensive approach that would benefit everyone and at the lowest cost.

  1. What were your key takeaways from this report?

First – Fleet turnover takes time, and GHG emissions today remain in the atmosphere for decades. We can’t just wait for ZEVs to replace ICEVs. We have to do what we can now as well.

Second – Even with ICEVs, there is not a “one size fits all” solution. We need a portfolio approach to provide options for all sorts of communities and situations. And we need a variety of fuels paired with appropriate vehicle technologies.

Third – Biofuels are the best opportunity to reduce GHGs in the short term given the existing fleet. As such, we need more low-carbon biofuels and ways to get them to market and utilized by the driving public. Even low blend rates of increasingly lower CI biofuels can make a difference in mitigating climate change. If we were to combine higher blend rates of increasingly lower CI biofuels with a hybrid vehicle, for example, we will see considerable improvements for the planet! In this way, we can take advantage of the solutions that already exist (e.g., biofuels and hybrids) even as we develop new ones (ZEVs).

  1. How can the conclusions from the report be put into action for your board members?

Our goal at commissioning was to have a peer-reviewed, objective report that demonstrates the need to have this conversation about solutions beyond just EVs. The report Stillwater authored helps inform industry stakeholders and policymakers in their efforts to expedite the GHG-reduction of the U.S. fleet. Finally, a lot of the Transportation Energy Institute’s audience is in government relations, and those stakeholders will be able to use the report as a reference in comments to policymakers (including the Environmental Protection Agency) to help inform policy around the energy transition.

  1. What do you hope policymakers and industry decision makers will do with this information?

I’ll answer that with an anecdote. I was recently contacted by legislative staffer for a state senator working on lowering GHG emissions from ICEVs. Her problem is that she has to frame the argument in a way that her colleagues in the statehouse can accept since conversations around solutions that aren’t EVs don’t “fit the narrative.” This report opens the conversation around EV adoption being paired with increasing volumes of low-CI fuels used in ICEVs. The goal is not to attack EVs, hydrogen, ZEVs, etc. Instead, we are pointing out that those solutions can be paired with additional GHG reductions from ICEVs in the interim. Hopefully, this report will break down some barriers for those who have difficulty considering options beyond the traditional ZEVs which are part of the most common narrative today.


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