Navigant Research Blog

New EPA Proposal: An Environmental Victory?

— March 29, 2013

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced a proposal to lower tailpipe emissions levels from passenger cars and trucks.  To be phased in from 2017 to 2025, the proposed rule also calls for average sulfur content in gasoline to drop to 10 parts per million by 2017.  Meanwhile, the Obama Administration appears to be giving up on a carbon tax and there are warning signs that the EPA will retreat on its power plant greenhouse regulations.  This new announcement thus seems like a return to the EPA’s comfort zone – regulating criteria pollutant emissions from passenger cars.

However, the proposed regulation does in fact support the EPA’s efforts to limit carbon emissions.  The timing for these proposed standards is clearly aligned with Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which will begin to ramp up from 35.5 mpg in 2017 to 54.5 mpg by 2025.  The automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are going for an “all of the above” approach to complying with the 2025 regulations.  They know they cannot get there just with alternative fuels, so they need to squeeze everything they can out of conventional gas cars.  Low-sulfur fuel allows them to do that by using technologies like direct injection engines.

Indeed, it is clear from the auto industry’s response to today’s announcement just how on board they are with the proposed regulation.  The Association of Global Automakers and Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers both expressed support, citing the benefits of a single, national low-sulfur fuel standard.  Automakers will not only be able to improve fuel economy, they will also be able to sell the same cars in all 50 states – since the EPA rule harmonizes with California’s more stringent standards.

It’s good that the Administration has Big Auto in its camp, because Big Oil is not happy with this proposal.  In fact, the rule will force major investments in refinery upgrades in the United States.  Petroleum refineries are already engaged in a battle with the EPA over its cellulosic ethanol blending mandates, so this new ruling will add more fuel to their argument that the EPA is placing an undue burden on the oil industry.

Another aspect of the proposed requirements that may cause controversy is that the EPA is in favor of changing the emissions “test fuel” from gasoline with no ethanol to an E15 blend.  While most gasoline in the United States is close to an E10 blend (i.e., with 10% ethanol), the new test fuel will actually leapfrog over this level to the more aspirational E15 target.  As such, this proposal could face blowback from both automakers and refiners.

If I had to make a prediction, the broad rule on emissions and fuel sulfur will stand, though some details such as the E15 test fuel may be tweaked, since automakers can more easily meet stricter CAFE standards with the new rule in place.  If the proposal does stand, the White House would gain an early environmental victory in its second term.  Such a victory would also buttress the ambitious fuel economy goals set in the Obama Administration’s first term by giving OEMs more options for compliance and thus holding off potential challenges to the regulation.


In France, EV Innovation Hits la Rue

— March 29, 2013

You might have guessed that the United States, Germany, or even Israel would be the proving ground for the latest innovations in electric vehicles (EVs), but, in fact, France is where the technology is becoming part of everyday driving.

Carshare programs featuring EVs have expanded rapidly on the streets of Paris.  The Autolib program is now nearly 2,000 cars strong, as both locals and tourists are becoming comfortable with electric drive and short term vehicle borrowing.

Recently, Autolib auto provider Bollore Group announced that it will begin retail sales of its EVs.  Bollore is offering the innovative business model of selling the vehicles and leasing the batteries separately, becoming the second French company (after Renault) to do so.  Battery leasing is more of a psychological marketing tool that splits up the upfront cost of the vehicle and the monthly operational cost (i.e., the battery lease) to make it easier to compare EVs with conventional cars and their fuel costs, but if it continues to be popular with customers, other companies may adopt the strategy.

Think Small – Really Small

Renault offers battery leasing on the tiny Twizy, which has been hailed as the best-selling EV in Europe.  Getting consumers to buy into a smaller-than-smart-car are feats of both engineering and marketing.  Renault and ally Nissan have developed the strongest EV maker partnership, and the tandem recently crossed the 70,000 mark in EV sales.

Renault, Peugeot Citroën, Nissan, and other players from across Europe will be presenting at the eCarTec Paris conference and trade fair on April 16-18, where I’m looking forward to learning more about other upcoming developments in e-mobility.

Another EV car share program will launch next year in Grenoble, France, where Toyota is partnering with the City of Grenoble, Grenoble-Alpes Métropole, Cité Lib, and EDF.  The “last-mile” project looks to use shared emissions-free cars to close the gaps around public transport while reducing the overall use of personally-owned vehicles.  The project will feature 70 EVs, including Toyota’s COMS vehicle and a new model based on the i-ROAD concept that recently debuted with much fanfare at the Geneva Motor Show.

Thinking small – in vehicle size, cost of personal transit, and emissions footprint – is catching on rapidly in haute couture Paris, and this trend is not likely to go out of fashion anytime soon.  The lessons learned in the marketing and logistics of EVs in France are becoming the blueprint for sustainable transportation everywhere.


Brutal Solar Market Benefits Consumers

— March 28, 2013

The imminent bankruptcy of Suntech, based in Wuxi, China and formerly the No. 1 manufacturer of solar PV modules in the world, may please many Western manufacturers that suffered from the company’s below-cost selling strategy.  But schadenfreude offers scant comfort for the dozens of solar PV manufacturers, Chinese and Western, that have been driven into failure in the past few years by China’s 5-year strategic plan to dominate solar PV manufacturing.  Suntech was one of the largest of the army of unprofitable Chinese manufacturers that have topped rankings of annual production for the past 3 years.

Despite ambitious domestic installation targets for solar PV, more failures are yet to come in China as the country becomes a victim of its own success and the Chinese market continues to consolidate.  As with European and American companies, Chinese manufacturers will likely enter into a number of “strategic partnerships” that result in more vertically integrated providers, including some with project development operations.  This is a strategy that has enabled FirstSolar and SunPower to ensure markets for their own modules.

The brutal fact is that no individual solar (or battery, or any other) manufacturer can compete with Chinese state capitalism.   Many policy makers and analysts would love to see an expansion of solar manufacturing in this country.  Yet, we are in this situation today because consumers, as always, have spoken with their dollars.  There is a reason that DVD players, digital cameras, and cell phones are not manufactured in the United States.  Solar PV cells and modules are now also rapidly commoditizing.

Still, even though the below-cost Chinese market flood has contributed to manufacturing job losses in the United States and Europe, the number of solar PV installation jobs has increased considerably.  Ultimately, the result is better value for consumers and a growing overall market.  The Chinese government is effectively subsidizing the cost of solar PV for consumers in the United States and around the world – and that’s not a bad deal, unless you’re a failing solar PV maker.


National Carbon Tax Likely to Fail Again

— March 28, 2013

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said he would take unilateral action to limit climate change.  He declared, “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”  Obama’s new resolve raised hope that the United States will finally move forward to address climate change by regulating greenhouse gases (GHG).  So, what are the prospects for meaningful legislation?

So far, efforts in Congress have focused on a carbon tax, which some Democratic legislators describe as a win-win proposal that would reduce carbon emissions while generating significant additional revenue to reduce the federal budget deficit.   In February, Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Democrat Barbara Boxer of California proposed a bill to tax carbon emissions and raise $1.2 trillion in revenue over 10 years, most of which would be returned to consumers.  And on March 12, four Democrats from the House and Senate – Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) – introduced a related draft bill to put a price on carbon emissions by charging the nation’s largest polluters a fee for each ton of GHG they emit.  The latter proposal attempts to minimize the compliance and administrative burden and costs by leveraging the resources of existing U.S. agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Treasury.  Predictably, a few days later 105 Republican members of Congress introduced a resolution opposing a carbon tax, citing increased energy prices and a negative impact on the U.S. economy.

Small Ball

Acknowledging that the passage of a carbon tax is unlikely, Obama apparently has given up on pushing for a comprehensive climate change policy and is pursuing smaller-scale projects that won’t require new sources of revenue.  For example, he is proposing to divert $2 billion over the next 10 years in oil and gas royalties to fund alternative fuel research as part of the administration’s Energy Security Trust.  Obama is also expected to set new guidelines for all federal agencies to follow as they consider the effects of major federal projects on air, water, and soil pollution.  These guidelines are currently being reviewed by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and may require agencies to consider the impacts of global warming – e.g., increases in GHG and the potential for flooding, drought, or other extreme weather – before approving major projects such as the development of new pipelines and highways.

While lawmakers wrangle about climate change, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) continues to rise.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, global CO2 levels jumped in 2012, increasing to 395 parts per million – the second biggest increase since record keeping began in 1959.


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