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Kiss EVs Goodbye?

Has ARB abandoned its fight for clean vehicles or adapted a more sensible approach?

By Bill Moore

I was disappointed to learn this week that California's Air Resources Board voted 8 to 3 to adapt its staff recommendation to offer carmakers their choice of how to meet the state's air quality goals. [Official ARB press release]. But I also have to add that I wasn't entirely surprised.

It has been pretty obvious that the Air Resources Board has been caught on the horns of a dilemma for sometime now. It's mission is to oversee the quality of the state's air, which in itself is a bit preposterous since we all breath exactly the same air regardless of artificial political boundaries. The pollution generated by coal-fired utilities in China or Ohio eventually reaches all of our lungs.

However, since the UN hasn't the clout to enforce global clean air standards and the current occupants of the White House and its EPA secretary seem more interested in relaxing what national standards the US currently has in place, it is left to states like California, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut to fight for clean air.

California, whose smog problems date back to the 1940's, has been the leading driver for improved auto emissions standards, a worthy effort that has lead to real reductions on automobile-generated pollution. The effort culminated in 1991 with the passage of the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, which required 10% of all vehicles sold in the state by 2003 be zero emission. In 1991 that meant battery electric vehicles since practical automotive fuel cells where still only a distant gleam in Geoffrey Ballard's eyes.

The mandate was to take effect in 1998 with a modest 2% ZEV sales quota. But a series of hard-fought compromises and lawsuits with carmakers -- along with technological brick walls and breakthroughs -- led to this week's decision.

What ARB has now decided is this. Starting in 2005, carmakers have their choice of meeting their ZEV requirements either by sticking to the original requirements of the revised 2001 mandate. This pathway still requires a 2% pure ZEV (i.e., battery electric) sales quota, along with a 2% AT-PZEV and 6% PZEV (see the above ARB press release for definitions).

The alternate pathway, and the one assumed by many to be the one most carmakers will choose -- barring more legal battles -- would require carmakers to build 250 fuel cell-powered electric vehicles to meet part of their sales-weighted ZEV obligations. They would then make up the remainder of their quotas with 4% AT-PZEVs and 6% PZEVs. No pure battery electric vehicles (BEV) would be required, effectively snuffing out further BEV production, which has pretty much evaporated anyway, with the exception of Nissan who has built a handful of Altras.

If the assumption that carmakers will choose the fuel cell pathway is correct, then it would appear that ARB has bought into the carmakers' arguments that fuel cells are the wave of the future despite some significant technological, financial and infrastructure obstacles. What isn't clear from ARB's press release is does the 250 vehicle quota apply to each individual manufacturer or to the originally-proposed voluntary consortium of manufacturers.

Since the current scheme is to steam reform natural gas or use gasoline reformers to produce the hydrogen used to fuel the cell, either on-board the vehicle or at the service station, ARB's decision also assumes that supplies of both fossil fuels will remain stable for the foreseeable future, a very risky assumption that requires a far more politically-stable world than the one in which we currently live. One wonders if ARB has looked at the price of natural gas lately.

Both Honda and Toyota are demonstrating every day in California that fuel cell EVs -- and that's what they are, electric cars powered by a refuelable "battery." -- do work. Their range is relatively short, about that of battery electric car, and the fuel is expensive and available in only in a few places. And because most of their components are hand-made, they are unbelievably expensive at more than $1 million a copy.

ARB's decision also assumes that there will be no significant advances in battery development or cost reductions, an argument recently challenged by EPRI.

By including AT-PZEVs and PZEVs in its mix, ARB also appears to be hedging its bet. If it is discovered that fuel cells simply aren't practical for any number of very valid reasons from limitations on the amount platinum available globally to consumer acceptance of hydrogen as a fuel to a lack of refueling infrastructure, it will have met at least part of its clean air objectives by encouraging the introduction of a large number dramatically-cleaner, if not necessarily zero emission vehicles.

None of this, however, precludes the development of BEVs. Pure ZEVs -- and no ZEV is entirely pollution-free unless its electricity was originally generated by non-polluting windpower, wavepower, hydroelectricity, or solar energy -- are still required under the original 2001 mandate. At present, carmakers wouldn't have to build any new vehicles until sometime after 2005, and considering the credits they've already banked, perhaps not until 2008 or later.

ARB's decision does weaken the business case for smaller BEV developers -- and there are a number in the works -- since they won't have a large, regulation-driven market to sell into. It doesn't necessarily mean there is NO market to sell to. But they will have to rely far more on market forces than previously. For "free-market" advocates, this is a good thing. Others, including EV World, would argue that there is no such thing as a "free-market", that the table is steeply tilted towards fossil fuels and the status quo. (Be sure to read Forbes' expose, "Dangerous Liaisons", on the oil industry and third world corruption and repression).

Still, if a small but stable manufacturer can come up with an affordable -- over the lifespan of the vehicle -- battery electric vehicle with a practical commuting range, there shouldn't be any reason why they couldn't sell those vehicles, especially if consumers see them not only as a way to reduce their costs, but also lessen the nation's dependence on imported oil and the burden that exacts on the nations under whose sand and seas that oil resides.

In effect, EV owners become active patriots in the war on terror, doing more than just sticking cheap flags on their gas-sucking SUVs.

Reduced air pollution then becomes the icing on the cake and EV owners become good stewards of the earth.

ARB's decision to offer carmakers their a choice may prove prescient or myopic, only time and technology will tell. But EVs are inevitable. They will become the dominate mode of transportation in the 21st century. Getting there won't be easy or bloodless, but it will happen. Geology and time are in our favor.

Times Article Viewed: 3880
Published: 27-Apr-2003

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