Sandia LabNews

Exploring the intersection of biofuels and electric vehicles

Biofuels and electric vehicles don’t appear to have much in common, other than both being alternative transportation technologies. They don’t have the synergy of biofuels and combustion engines, for example — biofuels won’t power an electric vehicle — and could even be considered competing technologies.

Last October, a Sandia-led workshop, Transitioning the Transportation Sector, held in Crystal City, Va., examined the intersection of the two technologies and the evolving opportunities and challenges found there. Organized by Sandia, the workshop brought together leaders from industry, government, nonprofit organizations, and the R&D community and explored technical, economic, and environmental considerations that provide context for the development of these alternative transportation technologies in tandem.

“Many reports highlight the need for a portfolio of technologies to address our national goals for clean, secure, and sustainable transportation. These reports tend to examine the challenges associated with each technology independently, without considering how they will intersect as they evolve. The goal of this workshop was to probe this intersection of seemingly parallel technologies,” says Dawn Manley (8114), one of the workshop’s organizers.

The 36 workshop participants spanned the automotive, fuel, and electric power industries; federal and regional government agencies; academia; investor and legal communities; biofuels research and development; and climate and environmental organizations. The discussion was framed by two questions:

  • What is the outlook for biofuels and electric vehicles given technology, resource, and carbon challenges and opportunities?
  • How will regional issues and consumer preferences influence the evolution of biofuels and electric vehicles?

As biofuels and electric vehicles each come with their own set of policy and technology issues, the community has tended to address issues directly related to one technology separately from the other. The workshop group also struggled to discuss the evolution of the two different technologies. But the group did acknowledge the importance of having integrative conversations to consider the broader context of coevolution of multiple technology options needed to reach the nation’s energy objectives.

They also found that a broader systems approach with better analytical assessments — given the diversity of energy options — is needed to consider technologies in the context of one another and in the context of their entire production pathways. Longerterm budget cycles for research, development, and market stability will be needed to allow biofuels and electric vehicles to transition through early generations to mature market successes.

A diverse set of development paths

Workshop participants also agreed that it is too early to pick winners and losers. Narrowing the field prematurely might result in the loss of potentially successful and innovative technologies. Instead, the country should continue on a diverse set of technological development paths to develop the multiple options needed for success. Intermediate solutions, like hybrids and cellulosic ethanol, can serve as pathfinders for the nextgeneration technologies that have yet to be developed. Furthermore, stretching petroleum supply by moderating demand through more efficient technologies, like boosted engines, can provide more time for the transition to new technologies.

The group explored the concept of regional testbeds and pilots, such as electric vehicle charging infrastructure and large-scale demonstration projects for biorefineries. Consensus was reached that such activities should take place within the US, rather than in areas in which vehicle infrastructure is less entrenched, such as India or China, to maintain the country’s long-term economic prosperity and national security.

Investing in demand was another recommendation from the workshop. The group found that it is not enough to invest in technology development for electric vehicles and biofuels, that demand may also be fueled by lowering the cost of clean fuels, setting a price for higher carbon options, or creating other sources of value for these options. This was highlighted in the luncheon address by Dave McCurdy of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, A US and International View of the Evolution of the Automobile: How, Where, and When Will Biofuels and Electricity Substitute for Oil

Another recommendation was to consider global solutions. The global marketplace is large, with the US and China combined accounting for about half of new vehicle sales, and specialized markets may exist for some technologies, such as microelectric vehicles for densely populated metropolitan markets. Many in the workshop emphasized that the broader portfolio of vehicles will need to be adopted around the world since the large automakers will not tailor to numerous, diverse niche markets.

A separate issue is the potential for biofuels and electric vehicles to create marketplace fragmentation, which does not exist with a single, nationally deployed fuel. For example, electric vehicles may be more desirable in moderate climates because of temperature constraints imposed by battery performance. Regional biomass availability and powerful agricultural interests may make biofuel use more likely in the Midwest and possibly the southeastern US.

Joe White, automotive editor for the Wall Street Journal, gave the concluding remarks. He addressed the challenges facing both electric vehicles and biofuels in competing with cheap gasoline, which he described as the enemy of all alternatives. He pointed out the mutual self-interest that has evolved between fuel companies and automakers.

“Shifts toward biofuels and electric vehicles will require new relationships with potentially unfamiliar partners,” said White. He also cautioned that automakers are risk-averse and will be reluctant to experiment with untested technologies given the tremendous investments needed.

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Read the full report at: publications/white-papers/BiofuelsEvTransportationWorkshopFinalReport.pdf.