California Charts a Course for Clean Air: Can We Get There from Here?

September 11, 2012 | 11:24 am
Don Anair
Deputy Director & Research Director, Clean Transportation

Imagine that 8 out of 10 cars on California roads release no tailpipe emissions, that the telltale exhaust plumes of soot from ships sailing into our ports are no longer visible, and that freight trains run on electricity. These are a few examples of what California air quality regulators, including the Air Resources Board and the air districts of the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast regions, envision in the recently released Vision for Clean Air.

The report analyzes how California might achieve the pollution reductions needed to meet present and future health-based air quality standards as well as an 85 percent reduction in climate change emissions by 2050. The results are sobering. To ensure that the air we breathe (I’m a Californian) — and that our children and grandchildren breathe — is healthy, we need to transform the way we move people and freight in a relatively short amount of time.

While seemingly an overwhelming challenge, by making further advances in the fundamental technologies solutions we have today, we can succeed in cleaning the air, reducing oil consumption, and tackling climate change while improving the quality of life for current and future generations.

What might a future of clean air and lower climate emissions in California look like?

A growing population means more cars and trucks, more freight, and more air travel. Consequently, no stone can go unturned when it comes to reducing emissions. That means not just cleaning up our cars and trucks, but also ships, planes, trains, construction equipment, and just about anything that relies on combustion of fuel to provide energy or transportation.

The Vision for Clean Air considers greater efficiency, cleaner fuels, zero tailpipe emission technologies, and better planning to reduce miles traveled, as well as continuing rapid growth of renewable electricity beyond California’s current 33 percent by 2020 renewable electricity standard.

Here’s a snapshot of 2050 from one of the scenarios modeled showing the level of technology that may be needed to achieve clean air and global warming emission reductions in the Los Angeles area.

  • Roughly half of all medium- and heavy-duty trucks have zero tailpipe emissions using either electricity or hydrogen fuel cell technology. Electricity comes from a cleaner electric grid or clean hydrogen.
  • About 80 percent of passenger vehicles are zero tailpipe emissions, either battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell.
  • Freight trains operate on electricity when in the Los Angeles area through hybridization or electric grid-based systems.
  • Ships transition from burning dirty bunker fuels to cleaner alternatives including low sulfur diesel and liquefied natural gas, with the vast majority plugging in to clean electricity when at the dock.
  • 90 percent of off-road equipment, such as construction equipment, is low-emission hybrid-electric or zero tailpipe emission battery or hydrogen fuel cell powered.
  • Port trucks are powered by overhead electricity lines in urban areas.
  • Long-haul tractor-trailers have double the efficiency of today and are powered by increasing amounts of sustainable biofuels and equipped with more advanced emissions controls.

Sound  fanciful?  To achieve these types of changes in to our transportation and energy systems in less than 40 years would be a remarkable achievement.

But consider that many of these technologies are already being demonstrated or are even available commercially. Frito Lay just boosted their California electric delivery truck fleet to over 100 vehicles. California ports are increasing the capacity to plug in ships at the dock. And hybrid construction equipment is already on the market. And there are numerous other examples as well.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a long way to go before these technologies become the norm. A recent Los Angeles Times article on electrification efforts of port trucks highlights some of the challenges. Research, development, and demonstrations need to continue in earnest and be sustained. But the fact that many zero-emission technologies are being proven out today gives me some comfort that we’ve got the tools and technology know how to meet our clean air and climate challenges. So can we get there from here?  I think so.

The Vision for Clean Air is quick to point out that the scenarios included in the analysis are not predictions or representative of any policy positions, but rather what-if scenarios based on certain technology assumptions to help inform decision making in the coming years.  Even so, it is helpful to demonstrate to businesses, regulators, planning agencies, policymakers, and the public the magnitude of the challenge ahead.

I applaud California for putting forth this bold vision to tackle both climate change and unhealthy air in coming decades. Now that we know the challenge that lies ahead, we can prepare to meet it.

Tell ARB what you think about the Vision for Clean Air by submitting a comment on their website prior to September 21.