Navigant Research Blog

‘Costly’ Amtrak Payments Dwarfed by Parking Largesse

— December 16, 2014

Rail service company Amtrak posted its annual financial report on November 25, and progress was reported all around.  Revenue ($3.2 billion) and ridership (31.6 million passengers) are up over the previous year, and the operating loss of $227 million was the lowest since way back in 1973.  However, the loss would have been much greater if not for payments from states and the federal government, which pony up nearly $2 billion annually to support infrastructure upgrades and other costs.

Amtrak is profitable in the Northeast, where it is viewed as indispensable for commuting along the I-95 corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., but runs far in the red elsewhere, especially on long-distance routes.  For fiscal year 2015, Amtrak has requested a federal grant of $1.6 billion, and the number gets higher each year to counter the tunnels, bridges, and tracks that continue to fall into disrepair.

No Free Parking

Perpetually deficit-running Amtrak is a favorite target for fiscal conservatives, such as Mitt Romney, who frequently spoke of defunding the service during the 2012 presidential election.  However, the federal government is actually funding the parking of private vehicles at a much higher level.  According to a new report by the TransitCenter and the Frontier Group, employers providing tax-free parking allowances costs the federal government $7.3 billion annually in lost revenue.

The Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS’s) tax code allows parking allowances of up to $250 per month sans taxes, which is nearly twice the amount allowable for taking public transit ($130), and more than 10 times the allowance for bicycle commuters ($20).  The study claims that the tax abatement adds approximately 820,000 commuters who would otherwise find other means of getting to work, including motorists who increase use of roads, another hidden cost to taxpayers.

The True Costs

According to Streetsblog.org, Congress is violating the IRS maximum parking allowance by providing free street parking to staffers in pricey downtown D.C.  So we have CAFE regulations aimed at reducing transportation emissions by requiring carmakers to invest billions to produce increasingly fuel efficient vehicles, while at the same time, we subsidize the use of private vehicles in congested urban areas at a cost more than 3 times the total spent to support Amtrak.  Taken together, these policies can be viewed as somewhere between inconsistent and outright contradictory.

 

The Dutch Blaze an EV Trail

— November 12, 2014

With the most recent alarming report on climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), governments are once again faced with the question of how to develop policies to address the climate crisis.  The IPCC says that the unrestricted use of fossil fuels must be phased out by 2100.  For some governments, like in the United States, the challenge lies in just getting the public to agree there is a problem.  But even in the European Union (EU), where there is broad consensus on the need for action, it can be challenging to convert this into policies that will successfully drive down greenhouse gas emissions.

One challenge is setting appropriate and achievable targets based on clear-headed analysis, not wishful thinking.  Another challenge is then devising the right mix of carrots and sticks to allow the goal to be met.

The Right Place

The Netherlands’ electromobility initiative is one example of how to develop and implement an environmental policy effectively.  I recently had the chance to talk with a delegation from the Netherlands about the country’s push to promote plug-in vehicle (PEV) adoption and its successes to date.  The first and most critical step was recognizing that the country had the right conditions for PEV adoption.  The Netherlands is a small country, densely populated and highly urbanized.   The Dutch tend to be environmentally conscious already, and the country has an extensive and stable grid network (fueled mostly by fossil fuels but with around 15% renewables).  The country also has some of the highest gas prices in Western Europe, thanks in part to the highest fuel tax in the EU.

Given these conditions, the government’s belief that PEVs could find success was well-founded.  The government has set a goal of having 200,000 PEVs in the Netherlands by 2020.  According to Navigant Research’s report, Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts, total light duty vehicle (LDV) parc (i.e., vehicles in use) in the country will be 8.6 million in 2020.  Two hundred thousand PEVs would be 2.3% of the total vehicles on the road.  That may seem small, but it’s actually an aggressive target, requiring PEVs to average more than 5% of annual LDV sales over the next 6 years.   According to Navigant Research’s PEV forecasts, only Norway, Estonia, and the Netherlands have broken 1% annual PEV sales as of 2014.

Tax Relief

The Dutch government offers significant tax incentives for PEV purchases, PEV leasing, and EV charging equipment installation.  The PEV purchase tax rebate amounts to around €7,000 to €10,000 ($8,700-$12,500).  Perhaps more important, however, is the income tax relief on private use of a company car.  A significant number of cars in use in the Netherlands are company cars or cars leased for company use.  PEVs were exempt from the income tax, saving drivers as much as $5,000 annually.

At the same time, the Dutch government provides incentives for EV charging station deployment, for public and workplace use especially.  As of October 2014, there were more than 9,500 public charging points in the Netherlands.  The effort to roll out infrastructure is supported by Dutch energy and grid companies.

The policies have worked: as of 2014, annual PEV sales in the Netherlands amount to 4% of total LDV sales, and there are a total of more than 32,000 PEVs on Dutch roads.  Moreover, Navigant Research forecasts that the country will actually reach the 200,000 PEV goal by 2019, a year early.

The next phase for the electromobility initiative will see it moving beyond the early PEV adopter phase and promoting further EV charging station workplace and public deployments.  The country’s next target – 1 million PEVs by 2025 – will be a challenge to reach.  But the Dutch have proven that progressive policies can truly shift the vehicle market.

 

A Better Way to Extract Shale Oil

— November 5, 2014

Last month the Colorado Fuel Cell Center (CFCC) at the Colorado School of Mines hosted the first public demonstration of IEP Technology’s Geothermic Fuel Cell (GFC).  This innovative technology uses the waste heat produced by fuel cells to convert the kerogen in oil shale into unconventional hydrocarbons onsite.

Using standard fuel cell technology, the GFC flips the application on its head by taking a heat-first, power-second approach.  The system uses solid-oxide fuel cells, manufactured by Delphi Automotive, in tubular modules that can be linked end-to-end to create a long string of fuel cells encased in a steel cylinder.  The long-term plan is to insert vertical stacks that are up to 1,000 feet long into oil shale formations, spaced 10 to 15 feet apart in a grid pattern.  In this configuration, the fuel cells can generate temperatures of up to 1,200°F, which will be used to heat the formation and drive pyrolysis (thermal decomposition of the oil shale).

Giving Shale Oil a Better Name

Currently, shale oil is most commonly extracted ex situ, or offsite.  The oil shale is mined and taken to an above-ground processing facility where it is crushed, heated to temperatures suitable for pyrolysis (500-1,100°F), and the unconventional hydrocarbons (shale oil and natural gas) are collected, cooled, and refined.  This process is expensive, inefficient, and extremely damaging to the environment, and it has earned shale oil extraction a bad name.

IEP’s technology, on the other hand, performs the processing in situ, or onsite, by applying heat underground and extracting the shale oil and natural gas via wells that sit among the boreholes, leaving the formation intact.  The only byproducts are electricity that can be sold back to the grid, small amounts of clean water, and CO2.  It may seem odd to think of the electricity as a byproduct, but that’s the beauty of IEP’s approach.  If a single 1,000-foot stack contains 100 to 300 of Delphi’s 1.5 kW fuel cells, you’re talking 150 kW to 450 kW of baseload power per stack over a projected 5-year lifespan, which is no small thing when you consider the potential revenue.

IEP estimates that the gross capital and operating costs of a GFC installation will be less than $30 per barrel of shale oil when the revenue from the sale of electricity and surplus gases is taken into consideration.  This would give GFCs a significant cost advantage over the competition.  More significantly, IEP’s technology allegedly has an energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 22:1, which would be a monumental improvement on the current best-in-class EROEI for oil shale, which is closer to 5:1.  The technology seems easy enough to replicate, but IEP has patented its idea, which should give it some protection from competitors.

The Real Cost

However, a couple of questions come to mind.  First, what will the actual installed cost of the systems be?  It could take thousands of fuel cells to develop a single formation.

Second, you have to run a fuel source out to the site, which is probably fairly remote, in order to run the GFC.  You also have to run transmission lines out to the site and build a substation in order to sell power back to the grid, and the fuel cells will only be running at that site for 5 years, so it’s a temporary installation.  How many utilities would be interested in doing that?  These questions must be addressed, and we won’t know how the economics and EROEI shake out until mid-2015, when the GFC is expected to be field-tested.  But this appears to be a very promising technology.

 

Finally, Germany Makes Progress on Coal

— November 2, 2014

For critics who scoff that Europe’s carbon emission reduction goals are unachievable, Germany has become Exhibit No. 1.  Since Chancellor Angela Merkel decreed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that Germany would phase out its nuclear power industry, coal use in Germany has been on the rise, and the country’s carbon emissions have remained stubbornly high.

Now it appears that tide may be turning.  According to AG Energiebilanzen (“Working Group on Energy Balances”), an energy research firm, total energy consumption in Germany is projected to fall by 5% in 2014, compared to 2013, to the lowest level since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Coal consumption for the year is expected to be down more than 9%.

Those declines are due mostly to the mild winter in 2013-2014, but clean energy is expanding as well: Renewable energy use grew by 1.6% over the first 9 months of 2014, compared to the previous year.

The Brown Stuff

Germany’s coal use carries particular importance not only because it is Europe’s biggest economy, but also because Germany burns mostly lignite or “brown coal,” the dirtiest form of coal, and because Germany’s green energy program, known as the Energiewende, is among the most ambitious in the world.  While renewable energy production has expanded rapidly in Germany – accounting, at times, for 100% of the country’s power demand and forcing utilities to pay customers to consume electricity from conventional power plants – the nuclear phase-out has led to a rise in the burning of coal for baseload power supply.

Now, the government is at least considering shutting down coal plants.  German minister Rainer Baake of the Green Party told reporters in late October that the government could come up with a plan as early as December to eliminate coal-fired capacity and boost energy efficiency programs.  Earlier Der Spiegel reported that the government wants to eliminate as much as 10 GW of coal capacity.  A decision will likely not come until next year.

Please Exit

Getting rid of coal is critical if Germany is to reach its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020.  The environment ministry has said that if current trends continue, the country will fall short of that goal by 5 to 8 percentage points.

Meanwhile Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest operators of power plants, said it will seek to sell off its coal-fired plants in Germany.  Vattenfall’s coal operations in Germany produce some 60 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – more than Sweden’s total CO2 emissions.

Like a drunk uncle at a wedding, Germany’s coal industry is an embarrassing and unwelcome guest that everyone would like to usher to the exit.  Getting it out the door, though, remains a tough task.

 

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