What Do Ice Cream and Electric Vehicles Have in Common?

July 10, 2014 | 12:52 pm
Jeremy Martin
Senior Scientist and Director of Fuels Policy

It’s a big day on the road to Half the Oil, and a celebratory ice cream cone is in order. Why? Two reasons. First, it’s summer in DC, and it’s hot and muggy. Second, in announcing late last week that they were allowing several new biofuel production methods, known as “pathways,” to qualify under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) included electric vehicles charged on biogas made from dairy waste (yes, cow manure) as well as other sources of waste based fuel. It’s further proof our biofuels policy is about more than just corn ethanol.

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I am encouraged to see the agency using the flexibility in the RFS to include an ever-widening range of fuels. New credits will come from charging electric vehicles with electricity generated from biogas or from garbage trucks fueled with methane captured from the landfills where they take our trash.

That last bit is critical. Up to now, the RFS has been primarily about liquid fuel. With this decision, the EPA is opening the door to alternative sources for electricity to power electric vehicles (EVs). Everyone knows we here at UCS love EVs, but electricity isn’t carbon neutral and there are good and better ways to get it. Electricity from a coal fired power plant obviously has a higher carbon footprint than that produced by a solar panel. Methane digesters are a clean source of fuel both because they don’t require any additional land to grow crops, and because they reduce methane emissions that would otherwise come from the manure if it was not digested.

While EVs are a clean choice, even if the electricity is just average, the best way to make electric vehicles even cleaner is to charge them from clean sources, which this rule promotes. Not long ago we examined EV performance based on where the electricity comes from if you would like to explore further.

An Incentive for Business Innovation

The EPA is also creating concrete incentives for people to generate more renewable energy, and to get that energy into transportation. I asked Karen Glitman, Director of Transportation Efficiency at Vermont Energy Investment Corporation about this, and here is how she put it:

“The adoption of these new rules enables utilities to market on-farm generation of electricity with a new revenue stream coming from [renewable fuel credits] and the deployment of more EV charging stations to fulfill this pathway. It’s a win for farmers and for EV owners and provides strong encouragement for utilities to support EVs.

In Vermont we have more biogas capacity than we do EVs. Our existing capacity could support more than 30,000 EVs, about 40 times the number of we currently have registered. The ability to develop a new revenue stream changes the economics for farmers and utilities and under the right frameworks for EV owners as well.”

Cream of the Crop 2As any well-studied fan of Ben & Jerry’s will tell you, Vermont is home to a significant dairy industry. Some Vermont dairies are already using digesters, but beyond generating methane and electricity, manure contains nutrients which should be returned to the land to build soil, reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers, and reduce pollution associated with concentrated animal feeding operations. For example, my colleague Jeff O’Hara recently profiled 180 organic dairy farms in Vermont, which contribute more than $100 million to the state economy.

Using manure wisely — sometimes as part of pasture-based dairies, sometimes to power EVs — is a smart way for Vermont to cut oil use, reduce emissions from transportation and agriculture, and contribute even more to the state economy. And since we all love ice cream, the opportunity extends from coast to coast. My colleagues in California tell me that Straus Family Creamery makes excellent organic vanilla ice cream but they also make renewable energy from biogas as well.

Beyond Food vs Fuel

As I’ve discussed and confirmed with national experts, ethanol is an important part of our fuel mix and will remain an important part of our renewable fuel future, but when cutting oil use and carbon emissions from transportation, we need to explore every avenue.

It’s good to see the EPA establish additional pathways for biofuels that don’t compete with food. The new rule expands the opportunity to make fuel from a resource that might otherwise be treated as mere waste, creating pathways for methane captured at landfills or digesters to be used to power heavy duty vehicles, or to generate electricity and power electric vehicles.

Whether it’s ethanol, biodiesel, methane, or electricity, the road to a clean fuel future requires us to make our clean fuels cleaner. This EPA action helps lead the way. It’s exciting stuff. Heck, why not. Today I’ll have two scoops.