Episode Preview with Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainable Transportation and Fuels Michael Berube (audio, 23s):
Full Episode (audio):
August 15, 2023Episode 64. Lofty Ambitions Are Fueling the Move Toward Sustainable Transportation.
FEATURING: Michael Berube
Decarbonizing the transportation sector—the single-biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions—won’t happen overnight. But the U.S. Department of Energy has a plan.
About Our Guest
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainable Transportation and Fuels
Michael Berube oversees the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy's Vehicle, Bioenergy, and Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies offices in the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation. This portfolio focuses on research and development to decarbonize the transportation sector and increase access to domestic, clean transportation fuels and improve the energy efficiency, convenience, and affordability of transporting people and goods to support U.S. energy security, economic productivity, and competitiveness.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Hello, and welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The United States Department of Energy is committed to making the U.S. economy net-zero for greenhouse gases by the year 2050. Realizing that vision calls for significant progress in decarbonizing the transportation sector, which is the single-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions across the United States. Much of the work toward that goal is housed in the Department of Energy’s Office of Sustainable Transportation and Fuels, which is led by our guest today, Michael Berube, who serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainable Transportation and Fuels in the Department of Energy. Michael, thank you so much for joining us.
Michael Berube (guest) (01:14):
Thank you so much for having me here today.
Bernie Fette (01:18):
Lots of our listeners know a bit about the Department of Transportation, but they may be less familiar with how the Department of Energy involves transportation matters. Can you begin by telling us just a little about what you and your colleagues do and how that work relates to people in the broader world of moving people and products?
Michael Berube (01:42):
Yeah, no, absolutely. This is a question I get, you know, my title, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainable Transportation and Fuels, but I’m inside the Department of Energy and probably the best way to think about that, we here at the Department of Energy have the responsibility to make sure that every part of our economy has the energy it needs and that it’s affordable, convenient for people, but that it’s also clean and working towards getting us towards our commitment to be a net-zero greenhouse gas economy by 2050. Transportation is the largest source of CO2 emissions, CO2 emissions in the country. So you can’t achieve net zero in the economy without decarbonizing transportation. It is a key part of it. So here at the Department of Energy, my job is really to focus on how do we get to net zero emissions, and that’s everything from doing early R&D, so the research and development. So developing new battery technology, developing new ways to make hydrogen at a low cost or new biofuel. So how do we actually do the R&D all the way out through how do we work ultimately with industry or with consumers on deploying these technologies such as EV charging? So we have a big role now in the rollout of the national EV charging network. Now, one other quick thing I would say, Bernie, is in the work that we do here at the Department of Energy in this space around transportation, we work really closely with the Department of Transportation, with the Environmental Protection Agency. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, As well as with other parts of government, USDA, the agriculture department or Housing and Urban Development who all have impacts in these places as well. So we do take a very much an all of government approach in the work we’re doing.
Bernie Fette (03:30):
Right. You’ve got overlap in a lot of different directions. Just a quick glance at your website shows that the Department of Energy is covering just about all the bases of transportation from cars to commercial aircraft, multiple fuel sources like hydrogen and fuel cells, and a pretty wide range of vehicle technology areas that includes batteries and lighter weight components for building cars. And what I said is just a sample list. <laugh>, I know it’s not fair to ask you to pick a number one or pick a favorite, but in which of those areas, in what applications of sustainable transportation and fuels do you see the greatest potential?
Michael Berube (04:11):
Yeah, so I would suggest for people listening, one of the things to do is look at the transportation decarbonization blueprint that we published earlier this year. It’s on our website. First, it’s done with multiple agencies. So it’s not just one, to my point earlier. And it lays out a comprehensive and strategic plan of how to decarbonize all of transportation. And it goes through exactly what you did, literally what needs to happen to cover every mode of transportation, whether from cars, trucks, planes, trains, et cetera. And it talks about what are gonna be the most important and most impactful technologies and approaches. Uh, so to answer your question about what do I see, it’s not gonna be one alone, it’s gonna be several. Clearly top of the list, battery electrification is going to be a critical element. So battery electrification of vehicles, including certainly personal cars, but also medium and heavy-duty trucks.
Michael Berube (05:07):
Not all heavy-duty trucks, but those that are shorter distance. When you look at the air of emissions, and this is how we look at it, what are the total amount of CO2 emissions, CO2 equivalent across every mode of transportation. Battery electrification will be critical to address at least half of all emissions. That will be the core technology, but it’s only half. There’s another half or 40 percent that we gotta deal with. There, hydrogen fuel cell technology focused primarily on longer haul, longer distance, heavy duty trucks and some other heavy applications. Rail, for example, will be another key piece. And then the last one, so I’m giving you three, not one, but …
Bernie Fette (05:49):
Michael Berube (05:49):
The third one, sustainable aviation fuel. So bioenergy biofuels to make sustainable aviation fuel is going to be the critical path to decarbonize aviation sector. It’ll also provide some amount of fuel that’s, you know, if you wanna make aviation fuel, we can talk more about it. You get other cuts of fuel. Those other cuts of fuel might be available for certain heavy duty applications there. — maritime, mining, agriculture, things like that.
Bernie Fette (06:16):
Okay. You’ve touched on the great promise for sustainable transportation. I’m curious about the challenges. What are the biggest obstacles from where you’re sitting that we face in reaching the potential that you’ve described?
Michael Berube (06:31):
There are a number. I would say that one of the critical things, and this is a challenge that cuts across all of the technologies, is affordability, right? So in order to get to net zero emissions, we’ll never get there unless we have solutions that can really harness market forces and if you will have market forces propelling them, feel wind at the back, we can’t think about getting there with the magnitude of change we wanna achieve if we have things that cost radically more than today that people can’t afford, that businesses can’t afford. So that’s a challenge. I will also say it’s the challenge that I actually feel one of the most confident that we are addressing. Batteries are a great example today. Batteries are more expensive than an internal combustion engine. When you look at the total vehicle battery, electric vehicle versus comparable internal combustion engine, however, we have dropped the cost of those dramatically. And they are now at the point where people can see manufacturers, others can see we can get there. We can actually get this to be cost effective with internal combustion engines, it’s gonna take a little bit longer. There are really great tax incentives that have been passed by Congress, uhhmm, <affirmative> in the Inflation Reduction Act that help bridge that gap. But remember, my goal is getting us to net zero across the whole economy. That means that we have to get all of these vehicles to ultimately be at net zero or the vast majority of them. And we’ve gotta do it by about 2035 if we want to hit 2050. Because if you want, your new vehicles have to be there right? In order that fleet turnover can happen. Yeah. So we ultimately can’t have tax subsidies supporting things forever. They’re really a critical bridge strategy. They’ll get us to the point where these technologies can be more cost effective, but at some point the technologies do need to live on their own. So that’s why we are working to drive battery costs down even further. And that will lead to both better vehicles, longer range. ’cause you can put more batteries, it will lead to more affordable vehicles. And ultimately we believe that it is not just very likely, we believe it will absolutely happen that consumers will actually be saving money. Battery electric cars at the end of the day will cost people less money. Especially when you take into account not just the fuel, but the reduced maintenance and upkeep. So overall, this is a good example and we just talked about one particular transportation mode, but getting ultimately people to something that’s more affordable and also net zero on emission. So that’s the type of approach. There are a number of other challenges I could talk about and would love to, but that’s probably one of the biggest.
Bernie Fette (09:11):
Yeah, I appreciate what you mentioned about the vehicle fleet turnover, because I think that that’s something that a lot of us tend to forget is that many of us keep our cars 10, 12 years maybe even more. And I’m guessing there will always be those cars out on the road that are the hobby cars, if I can call ’em that. You know, if you were particularly fond of a ’57 Chevy in your earlier years or something like that, we’ll probably always have at least a few of those on the road, won’t we?
Michael Berube (09:40):
You know, I lived 23, 24 years in Detroit. I was a transplant, you know, my wife was from there, brought me there. And you don’t spend time like that in Detroit without knowing a lot of people and a lot of friends with those cars. They don’t get driven very many miles. It might only be five, 10 miles in the summertime on occasion. But yeah, some of those will always be there probably. But this fleet turnover is not just a light duty vehicle, right? When you think about heavy duty trucks, you think about maritime ships, really anything where you’re fundamentally shifting over mm-hmm <affirmative> to a, a whole new mode, you, you gotta do that. One place where it’s gonna be a different strategy is on aviation. So aviation, the core strategy there is utilizing drop-n what we call a drop-in sustainable aviation fuel. In other words, a liquid fuel made from bio resources or other waste, CO2, but that otherwise can basically be burned in the same airplanes we have today. And so that’s important because it’s gonna take between now and 2050 to make the 36 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel we’re gonna need by 2050, but we don’t need it all tomorrow. We need 3 billion by 2030 and then we need to grow and grow and you need to be able to mix it with the existing fuel and existing fueling infrastructure at airports in order to slowly grow it. This is where I mentioned we have a decarbonization strategy. We’re trying to be strategic. We’re thinking about every mode, every piece. How will it actually work? How will you get the new fuel out there? How will you distribute it? How will you blend it in? How do you make the economics work? And that’s the approach that is going to need to be taken to really achieve decarbonization.
Bernie Fette (11:28):
You mentioned actions by Congress a few minutes ago, which leads me to ask you about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was enacted close to two years ago. Can you help us understand how sustainability fits into that legislation?
Michael Berube (11:44):
Yeah, absolutely. That piece of legislation, let’s call it for short, IIJA, ’cause it’s a mouthful. Okay? It is game changing. It has literally billions of the 62 billion here at DOE alone, even more Department of Transportation focused on infrastructure. And some key parts of that are, for example, there’s $7 billion to help build out the supply chain for batteries. So that would’ve been my second big challenge. We have, you know, challenges mm-hmm. <affirmative>, how do we make sure we have the supply chain that’s a secure supply chain, domestic supply chain for all the batteries that are gonna be in these vehicles. So that law provides a big amount of money there, provides nine and a half billion dollars for hydrogen. And how we build out the hydrogen economy here in the United States. That’s building literally these large scale hydrogen hubs as well as increased R&D to help drive the cost down that I mentioned, it has seven and a half billion for the EV charging infrastructure build out. So building out a national network of EV chargers so consumers can be confident driving coast to coast with chargers covering the whole country. And there’s more, right? Those are just like three big marquee ones in the transportation space, right?
Bernie Fette (13:00):
Not everything that you need perhaps, or everything that you would like to have perhaps, but certainly a pretty good start.
Michael Berube (13:05):
Oh yeah, for sure. And the other big piece of legislation that I mentioned, so there’s that infrastructure law that you said passed several years ago, but then a little bit after that the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, which included a suite of tax credits that cover a broad range of clean energy technologies and those tax credits, people are just now fully appreciating how much they will help jumpstart our clean energy world. So there are tax credits in there that will help jumpstart battery reproduction. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuel, this consumer tax credits for EVs and not just new vehicles. One of the new pieces of that law is there’s $4,000 consumer tax credit for used EV as well. There’s a lot of things there and between both laws, the infrastructure side, the tax credits to really help, again, like I said, jumpstart this economy and this move, which it is just at the right time because the technology that I will say we at DOE will take some credit for, not alone, but we’ve done a lot to develop these new technologies. They’re now at the point where they actually meet people’s needs. They work. First, it’s gotta work, it’s gotta be cost effective. They’re now in the realm of getting close to cost effective, but not quite there. We need volume and we need a little bit of a bridge. And that’s what the IRA will help do. It does both of those things and then ultimately gets us on a path to these being fully sustainable on their own.
Bernie Fette (14:36):
Okay. You’ve mentioned batteries a few times, which I was hoping we could talk just a little about the unintended consequences of such an ambitious pursuit like the one we’ve been talking about. For example, the issue of batteries for electric vehicles and the elements and the mining that’s required for those. The problem of toxic waste. How do we square those environmental impacts with the broader goal of sustainability?
Michael Berube (15:07):
Now this is a critical question. I think one thing that’s interesting to think about, someone framed it for me this way, which I thought was helpful, is in general we are going from an economy, like an energy economy that was about consuming a fuel, right? Fossil fuels, it’s something you have this fuel, it’s in the ground take out and then you consume it and to a consumer it’s consumed, it’s gone. Right? But in reality, like the CO2 in the air is the problem. Uhhuh <affirmative>, well we are moving towards, as we think about solar and wind electric vehicles, right? You’re now building these energy things and at at the end there’s something there. There’s solar blades, there’s solar panels, there’s wind blades, there’s batteries. Right? When we do that, core to our thinking has to be the general idea of a circular economy. How do you take these elements and basically not have ’em be waste, but have them be valued. So what we’re doing in we, and this is, you know, really the, not just in government, we industry is taking, in the case of batteries, we have two challenges. I mentioned supply chain, right? Uhhuh, <affirmative>, we need the critical minerals. And as you mentioned, this is now a whole new opportunity getting these critical minerals. It’s also what’s the impact of that, right? So one of the things that we believe will happen is, and we’re working to make happen is that batteries will almost completely be recycled. Just like today’s batteries are 99 plus percent recycling cars, these electric vehicle batteries, they’re gonna be recycled. And in doing that, we think that at least 40% of the future critical mineral needs for batteries will come from recycled batteries. Okay?
Michael Berube (16:41):
And when you do that now, one, at the end of the day you’re recycling this battery, but you’re also now preventing all of that new mineral you have to get out of the ground, which does a few things. There’s the environmental concern or impact, but also there’s the cost. Because imagine if you’re taking lithium that is from a big evaporation pond or that’s gotta be crushed, then you gotta process, code it. You gotta do a lot of things to get it up to a battery. When we recycle it, you bring it back to about midstream, all of that first part, you don’t have to redo again. Right. And that’s a big cost savings. It’s an environmental improvement. Right. And it’s a supply improvement too, because now if you’re concerned about where do these minerals come from? Well you have ’em in the country here. And you’re recycling those batteries and then you still have ’em here and you’re getting it back in. So it’s helping on all fronts. I will say the other thing that you have to do is when we look at any new technology, battery, hydrogen, biofuels, you have to look at a full lifecycle assessment. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and every single thing we do at the Department of Energy and across government is we do a full lifecycle assessment. So we look at what’s the total, if it’s CO2, what’s the total CO2 greenhouse gas, I should probably say more generally, greenhouse gas from beginning to end of the lifecycle. If it’s an electric vehicle, you gotta start with the making the batteries. You gotta start with the, where’s the electricity coming from, what are the emissions from that all the way through? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s clearly zero emission at the car, but you gotta account for all the emissions upstream. And that’s what we do. You can compare that to an internal combustion engine car or another vehicle. Same thing with if you’re doing hydrogen. So you gotta look at the full lifecycle and measure it on that basis. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and drive it down to net zero on that basis.
Bernie Fette (18:29):
Yeah. Really important. And I appreciate you explaining that because our researchers in this area have talked to me before about the importance of considering lifecycle costs. So that’s very helpful. You mentioned this a little earlier, that the transportation sector in the United States is the single biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. And right now millions of people are suffering through one of the worst heat waves on record, ever. I’m guessing you probably saw the report this week from the organization, World Weather Attribution, the one that said that the extreme heat that we’ve experienced was made much more likely by climate change tied to the use of fossil fuels. That’s one organization and that was their read on things. Climate change, of course remains one of the most divisive topics of conversation in society right now. So I just wonder what you think about how we get past the polarizing nature of that topic to focus on solutions for, uh, current and future generations.
Michael Berube (19:37):
You know, as a scientist and engineer, right. Myself, right. This is a, a vexing question certainly to us here at the Department of Energy. We are a science-based agency, right? We had it far at core. You know, we run the national labs of the country, the data is clear and there some may argue about the level of impact, but to us it is clear, right? That climate change is happening that mm-hmm. <affirmative>, in order to solve that, we need to address the greenhouse gas emissions of which CO2 is a critical piece, but not the only piece. Mm-hmm <affirmative>. And we gotta think about all of it. There’s methane emissions, there’s other aspects, things that drive greenhouse gas emissions, but we actually have to address it. Getting past the divisive question there, I think there’s a few things. One, you know, we gotta just keep focusing on facts ,on science, right?
Michael Berube (20:25):
Trying to keep, keep the discussion centered there versus on polarizing issues otherwise. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, but I think also change is hard. And I talked about getting to net zero by 2050. That is big, right? Getting transportation there will impact every single person in every business between now and 2050. Now that’s not between now and next year or the year after. So there’s time, but there’s also, you know, not forever. So what we gotta recognize, we will impact everyone. So when we think about solutions, we gotta think about solutions that speak to everyone. It’s gotta address everyone’s needs. And the way I frame that for my team here is first and foremost talk about transportation. We have to develop solutions that work for people. It’s gotta get them to school, it’s gotta get ’em to work, it’s gotta get packages delivered. It’s gotta be affordable.
Michael Berube (21:21):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so it can’t break the bank. I hear people that live in more rural areas say, I’m concerned about the electrification. You say, look, we’ve actually done a lot of work about how this works and can work really well for people in rural areas. We’ve developed long range batteries. So it’s gotta work for all people. It’s gotta work for people that are in disadvantaged communities and historically left behind communities. So you think about people that are living next to existing factories or living next to corridors where a lot of heavy duty trucks are sitting idling, you know, waiting to go into ports, right? How do we address their needs, which are quite honestly more about local air quality than about mm-hmm <affirmative> greenhouse gas emissions. They’re concerned about the here and now right now. What my view is, if we think on all those things, then we have permission is the way I think of it, to address these deep decarbonization and climate goals. But if you don’t address those other needs so that at a personal level it works for people in their lives, it meets them where they are. And that’s partly geographically recognizing these geographic differences, socioeconomic differences. But we need solutions that work for all people.
Bernie Fette (22:28):
And we do that in part by making this personal for everybody.
Michael Berube (22:33):
Bernie, I think you’re right. We need to make sure we’re focused on solutions that work for everyone
Bernie Fette (22:39):
In trying to meet the challenges that you’ve outlined for us towards some very ambitious goals, do we have any low hanging fruit that we can reach for? Are there areas where we can make some really quick progress and really push ahead with some serious momentum?
Michael Berube (22:57):
Yes. I think we are. So aviation, a lot of people fly, of course most people have flown to some point or the other. And there’s concern about the amount of emissions from aviation. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, it is one of the largest chunks of emissions we have overall. We have today in our hand the capability to take waste biomass. So you think about you’re growing corn, you’re growing all types of fruits, vegetables, trees in the pulp and paper industry, there’s a lot of waste biomass. We know how to take that waste biomass or municipal solid waste in a landfill, how to take that and convert it to liquid fuel. That’s the same liquid fuel that you can burn in a jet engine today. People ask me like, we can actually do that. Yeah, we can do it. In fact, they are now out in Nevada. There’s a massive scale factory taking municipal solid waste and making it to liquid fuel. Of course today in gasoline, 10 percentof our gasoline comes people to totally realize, but from biomass. So there’s the opportunity I think, relatively quickly to be taking that technology and starting to scale it up. Cost is of course the challenge in some cases, that’s what we’re trying to drive down. But a lot of people don’t realize we’ve driven down the cost of these liquid fuels as much as we have batteries over the last six, seven years. So the cost has come down a lot. We’re continue to drive it down. I think that short term between now and 2030, our goal is that when people are flying in 20, 30, 10 percent of all the fuel they’re flying on is net zero emission fuel. And then that just keep growing and growing thereafter.
Bernie Fette (24:35):
Wow. You’ve got a great story to tell.
Michael Berube (24:38):
Bernie Fette (24:40):
We have talked about a lot certainly, and we’ve barely gone beyond the surface of this issue and all its many tentacles. If you would hope that our listeners took just one thing away from our discussion today, what would that be? Or maybe I’m being unfair by saying just one. I mean, last time I asked you that, you gave me three and that’s fine, but what’s your elevator speech here for people?
Michael Berube (25:05):
Yeah. That we can make this work, that we can actually get to a point where we decarbonize all of the transportation sector, that the technology is here really at reach, that it can work for people. And that’s a change from where we were five plus years ago. Five years ago it was like more of a theory. Now the message is this is actually becoming reality and it’s gonna happen. And it is here now, you know, just take an example. Today announced — I guess the day we’re recording — this year, seven automakers announced an unprecedented new plan to join together, in forming a EV charging network of over 30,000 fast chargers across the country as a group that’s on top of other charging networks that are out there now like Teslas and on top of the work that government is doing as well. But that’s an example of they are all in, this is the change that’s happening. We are actually moving away from internal combustion light duty vehicles to electric vehicles.
Bernie Fette (26:05):
Okay. In having this conversation with you, two things seem to be really clear to me. One is you really know your subject matter. And the other is that I don’t notice any shortage of enthusiasm in in, in what you’re doing. So my last question is, what is it that makes you excited to show up to work every day?
Michael Berube (26:27):
It is really seeing the progress. So as I, me, I’m a scientist engineer by training background, seeing the progress of ideas and innovations that were imagined, like the lithium ion battery or hydrogen fuel cell. And seeing it in reality, seeing like, look, this is actually out there right now. People are actually using it. You can go buy an electric vehicle and it’s a joy to drive. It’s a great thing. And you actually see the charging network coming out. You see people buying it every day. Hydrogen fuel cell heavy duty trucks. You go to a truck maker now and it’s not just a theory that no, this literally we are making these trucks, we’re actually starting to make them available for sale, meaning all of the specifications that a class A truck has to have. So seeing that actually getting out there and being reality is just super exciting.
Bernie Fette (27:21):
We’ve been visiting with Michael Berube, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainable Transportation and Fuels at the U.S. Department of Energy. It has been a pleasure and an honor to have you join us today, Michael. Thank you so much for your time and thanks all also for your commitment to public service.
Michael Berube (27:40):
Thank you very much. I, uh, really appreciated our conversation.
Bernie Fette (27:47):
More than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of fossil fuels that power the cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes that move people and products throughout the nation. So any meaningful progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely to happen without big advancements in the transportation sector. That’s why both government and industry are taking assertive steps toward a future that relies increasingly on sustainable fuels to support our growing economy and meet our growing need for mobility, and doing so in a way that’s practical and affordable. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode. And please join us next time for our conversation with Mike Manser and Ioannis Pavlidas, to explore the question of how driving can affect our stress levels. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.