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Parsing The National Blueprint For Transportation Decarbonization

The Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization is a road map that shows how the US can get to a net zero economy by 2050.

Four federal agencies — the Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, and Housing and Urban Development — agreed last fall to come up with a unified strategy for the decarbonization of the transportation sector. This week, those agencies unveiled their Blueprint For Transportation Decarbonization. Here’s the preamble to that document.

“The transportation sector — which includes all modes of travel through land, air, and sea to move people and goods–accounts for a third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions, negatively affecting the health and well being of millions of Americans, particularly those in disadvantaged communities. Transportation costs are the second largest annual household expense in our country and for the poorest Americans, the financial burden of transportation is disproportionately and unsustainably high.

“A well-planned transition to a decarbonized transportation system can address these and other inequities and provide equitable, affordable, and accessible options for moving people and goods. Further developing and deploying clean-energy technologies such as electric vehicles and hydrogen and sustainable fuels, while also building out the supporting infrastructure for clean transportation will create good paying jobs across all segments of the transportation sector and strengthening America’s energy independence.”

Digging Into The Decarbonization Blueprint

The key here is that there are many kinds of transportation. There are private cars, those magic carpets that take us wherever we want to go whenever we want to go there. There are also the trucks that deliver our goods, pick up our trash, and support most businesses, both large and small. Then there are mass transit vehicles like airplanes, trains, and boats that can be operated either by public agencies or private carriers. Below is a chart that summarizes what the Blueprint thinks will be the most appropriate fuel for all use case going forward. Study it carefully. Anything shown in that graphic may be part of the quiz at the end of this article.

transportation decarbonization blueprint

Image credit: US Dept of Energy

Astute readers will notice the Blueprint suggests there is no role for hydrogen in light duty vehicles — something Akio Toyoda would definitely disagree with. It does think hydrogen could be part of decarbonizing long haul heavy duty trucks and might play a role in reducing emissions from medium duty trucks and off road vehicles.

Emphasis On Liquid Fuels

What may surprise you is the role the government sees for so-called “sustainable liquid fuels,” which it says would reduce the carbon intensity of ethanol (that won’t play well in Peoria). Such fuels are a direct replacement for current fuels made from petroleum or methane. The plan calls for using them primarily in marine applications and to power airplanes.

What constitutes a sustainable liquid fuel is a matter of some debate. According to Transport & Environment, some rely on animal fats from slaughterhouses or used cooking oil. The problem is that those sources are already used in a number of commercial and industrial processes, leaving not much left over for the voracious appetites of the aviation and marine industries. Another concern is that they may use palm oil, a product that has a number of harmful impacts on the environment. Recently the European Union stopped classifying such bio-fuels as “sustainable.”

Synthetic fuels can be made from hydrogen and carbon dioxide, but once again the devil is in the details. So-called grey hydrogen or blue hydrogen has carbon emissions problems of their own. The supply of green hydrogen — made by using renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen — is limited and is more costly. In addition, while carbon dioxide us abundant in the atmosphere, capturing it at reasonable cost is still an issue. More research focused on green hydrogen production and creating a distribution network is part of the Blueprint.

Other Decarbonization Initiatives

The 88-page National Blueprint addresses more than decarbonization strategies for transportation. According to Car &  Driver, it includes rethinking how local communities are laid out so that “job centers, shopping, schools, entertainment, and essential services are strategically located near where people live. Communities like this will reduce the amount of time people spend commuting, among other benefits. Making public transportation and trains more reliable and affordable is also in the plan, but the biggest carbon reduction improvements will happen in cleaning up the transportation options themselves.”

The decarbonization plan provides a range of policy initiatives that stretch forward until the middle of this century and includes an outline for milestones that are planned for the coming decades as the US moves to a net-zero economy. Between now and 2030, the focus is on research and investments to support deployment. In the 2030s, the clean transportation solutions will scale up, and in the 2040s, it will focus on completing the transition to green transportation.

“This Blueprint is the first comprehensive, whole of government approach to decarbonizing the transportation sector that aligns decision making among agencies and identifies new and innovative opportunities for collaboration that are critical to achieving our shared vision of a future decarbonized transportation system,” the Blueprint says.

“Achieving meaningful reductions in emissions this decade is essential in reaching the near-term emissions reductions goals and enabling a pathway to reach a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

“We envision a future mobility system that is clean, safe, secure, accessible, affordable, and equitable, and provides decarbonized transportation options for people and goods. This transformation is already underway, and consumers and businesses have started to adopt new clean technologies, but the trend needs to accelerate dramatically both in scale and scope.”

This Blueprint provides a comprehensive, system level perspective covering the entire transportation sector across all passenger and freight travel modes and fuels, and lays out a three-pronged strategy for a transition to a sustainable transportation future, as presented in the graphic below.

Blueprint For Transportation Decarbonization

Image credit: US DOE

The Takeaway

Such a degree of inter-agency cooperation is remarkable in Washington, where agencies often spend as much time battling each other as they do working toward common goals. Is some of this pie in the sky stuff? Of course it is. But it is a policy initiative, one designed to craft a strategic vision. The tactical components to complete that vision will come later. There are billions of dollars in federal tax credits and other incentives waiting to be unlocked. This Blueprint creates pathways that will allow those credits and incentives to be fully utilized.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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