Alt-Fuel Vehicle Incentives Could Increase Fuel Consumption & Emissions In Short Term

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A new study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University has found that the federal laws incentivizing the sale of alternative-fuel vehicles (Corporate Average Fuel Economy/CAFE standards) could lead to a short-term increase in the total fuel consumption and emissions associated with new vehicles from major auto manufacturers.


“Recent updates of federal policy for model years 2012 through 2025 include incentives that allow automakers to meet less stringent fleet efficiency targets when they sell AFVs (alternative-fuel vehicles) — so the more alternative fuel vehicles an automaker sells, the dirtier its overall vehicle fleet is permitted to be,” stated Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy and professor of mechanical engineering.

An associate professor of engineering and public policy, Inês Azevedo, commented as well: “With the binding federal policy in place, other federal and state policies that encourage or mandate alternative fuel vehicle sales as well as individuals who purchase AFVs in an effort to reduce petroleum use and gasoline consumption may be creating exactly the opposite effect — at least in the near term.”

The press release for the study explains:

The study finds that each time an alternative fuel vehicle, such as an electric vehicle, is sold, US fleet-wide emissions increase by 0 to 60 tons of carbon dioxide and gasoline consumption increases by 0 to 7,000 gallons, depending on the vehicle and year of sale.

“This effect peaks for electric vehicles in 2017, when the policy has its largest incentives,” stated Azevedo. “When one consumer buys an electric vehicle, it enables other consumers to buy higher-emitting vehicles than they would have been able to otherwise. In total, we estimate about 30 to 70 million metric tons of extra carbon dioxide emitted.”

That said, the researchers caution that these findings shouldn’t be used to disparage alternative-fuel vehicles (all-electrics, plug-in hybrids, etc) themselves — but, rather, current policy.

“A transition of the vehicle fleet away from petroleum and toward low-emission energy alternatives could produce an enormous amount of good in the long run,” continued Michalek. “So, depending on what you believe about how AFV adoption today will influence adoption patterns beyond 2025, it’s possible that encouraging adoption now might be worthwhile in the long run despite the short term disadvantages.”

Details on the new research findings can be found in a paper published in the March 2016 edition of Environmental Science & Technology.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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12 thoughts on “Alt-Fuel Vehicle Incentives Could Increase Fuel Consumption & Emissions In Short Term

  • To be used as soundbite for Koch industries, no doubt.

  • This coupling via the fleet mileage is annoying and silly but fairly harmless if it does not go on for too long. Maybe what is needed is a limit or sliding condition not on the Average but on the Total fleet emissions. Then the auto companies could also benefit by selling fewer ICE autos, the automotive equivalent of the Negawatt.

    • Yes, it’s just bad policy design. However, will it really have the full effect the researchers claim? The argument assumes that sales of gas guzzlers are fully constrained by the CAFE targets. In that case, selling more AFVs allows sales of more ICE pickups and SUVs. Do they have evidence for this? If sales of gas guzzlers are constrained by demand instead, then adding AFVs lowers fleet consumption.

      • There certainly has been enough evidence in the past for the manufacturers gaming the emissions standards as needed to sell what they are selling, but EVs haven’t play much of a role in this, except in California, so far as I know, so I expect that the evidence is pretty weak.

      • US average new vehicle fuel economy has been dropping for the past few months.

        I suspect the largest factor is the price of fuel, making larger vehicles affordable to the masses once again.

        More “better than ICE” EVs are needed, Tesla can’t do it all themselves.

        • This doesn’t happen with Tesla though. The solution is simple, start steadily increasing the price of gas/diesel and use the funds to transition to sustainable transportation and also to rebuild our rapidly aging infrastructure.

        • Back when CAFE standards were first implemented US automakers started making (crappy) small economy cars that they sold for little or no profit just so that they offset their low MPG cars on which they made good money.

          Now with low prices SUV and pickup sales seem to be rising. Manufacturers may find themselves in a bind later in the year when their fleet average is running high.

          If they had some desirable EVs to sell they could pull those average right down. ;o)

    • So what to call an NV (non-existent vehicle)? A nill-icle? A no-mobile? 🙂

      • It doesn’t matter what they are called. Let’s just get more of them on the roads!

  • A bit of gobbledygook. They incentivized zero emission vehicles, but didn’t change the overall emission math for automakers. The result is that they get credit for clean cars and use it to produce dirty ones.

    A dumb policy that needs to be changed. It doesn’t mean 400,000 Tesla Model 3 owner, or owners of the X, S, and Leafs, iMieVs, Focus EVs, eGolfs, etc. are running out to buy Cadillac Escalades or Diesel Suburbans.

  • Instead of a fleet fuel efficiency standard, we should have a carbon fee-and-dividend so we wouldn’t have the problem noted by this article. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has done everything possible to derail the Bernie Sander’s campaign, which is proposing to implement a carbon fee-and-dividend. It looks like we will have to choose between a global warming denier (Trump) and a politician who shills for the fossil fuels industry (Clinton). I don’t expect either of them to fight for the kind of policy we need to save the planet. Rather depressing.

    • What’s depressing is how some Bernie Bros lie.

      If your favorite candidate can’t win on merit then he can’t win. Tearing down the other candidates with lies does not help move our country forward.
      Or perhaps you really want Trump to be President of the United States….

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