Issues in Science and Technology

June, 2012

Transportation: the California model

In “California’s Pioneering Transportation Strategy” (Issues, Winter 2012), two of its leading lights, Professor Daniel Sperling and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, highlight many of the key aspects of why it is not only possible, but logical, for California, which “only” emits about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, to set aggressive local goals to protect the climate.

First, climate protection is not a luxury but a necessity, for any entity, from individual to municipality to nation to region, that looks at the long-term economic and social viability of its community. The impacts we are already facing, and the damages we risk through inaction, are simply too great. Second, as the authors note, “the 80% goal cannot be met without dramatic change in driver behavior and transportation technology.” California’s approach is to recognize and then work to implement two key guiding principles:(1) Greenhouse gas emissions are waste that is currently largely unpriced, so clever sectoral strategies to reduce climate pollution can often produce economic and social savings and benefits that we should look to capture; and (2) energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are not limited to transportation to and from the electricity sector, so an integrated set of policies across the entire economy both makes the most economic sense and builds a foundation for innovative, job-creating, waste-reducing industries that can become central to a new model of economic growth. In my laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, we see this every day through the job-creation potential of energy efficiency and renewable energy (http://rael.berkeley. edu/greenjobs). We also observe that when consumers are armed with tools to cut waste, financial savings and carbon savings often go together in unexpected ways (http://coolclimate.

Transportation was for many years thought to be the tough nut to crack in this story, because “Americans like their cars big and powerful.” Several years ago, before the current renaissance of electric vehicles, Alan Alda and I hosted a track race at the Infineon Speedway in northern California, where electric cars raced and won against a series of gasoline-powered sports cars. The electric roadster won that day because the race was a sprint, and electric motors outaccelerate gasoline engines. Now, thanks in part to California’s commitment to an integrated climate strategy, electric vehicles are entering the market that could win both the sprint and the long haul. What is needed is large-scale production to bring the cost of these vehicles down.

For innovators there is always a next challenge, and for California it is how to decarbonize the driving we must do and avoid the driving we do not need or want to do. Here, too, California’s integrated strategy is useful. In a new high-resolution model of the electricity system across not just California but the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican west, my laboratory is looking at the value of not only electric vehicles to meet climate targets but of the distributed network of batteries that these vehicles represent, as a resource to put power back into the grid at times of high-cost power or when emergency power is needed. Although this work is ongoing, it already provides a clear lesson about the need and value of integrated planning.

Kammen, D. M.
RAEL Author: 
Daniel M. Kammen