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Mobility in a Net-Zero World

Words by RP Siegel

Editor's note: This is the second post in a two-part story on Shell's Eco-marathon Americas event and Powering Progress Together roundtable. You can read part one here.

A number of prominent thought leaders in the areas of energy and transportation gathered in Detroit to discuss the future of mobility at an event hosted by Shell.

The afternoon session opened with Valerie Brader, executive director of the Michigan Agency for Energy. She shared her concerns from a government perspective.

Many of the policies in place today were written with the idea that renewables would cost more, Brader explained. That’s no longer the case. Conversations are key.

This is a point that kept coming up throughout the day. Here you have these huge entities -- state governments, oil companies, auto companies -- all with large budgets, but none nearly large enough to prepare for all possible scenarios. In a sense, all of them are at the mercy of a future that is emerging quickly enough to need to plan for, but not quite quickly enough to be able to see yet. At the same time, none of these actors are in a position to control it.

Mobility in a net-zero world

A panel discussion on mobility in a net-zero-emissions world was moderated by Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute. It featured Wolfgang Warnecke, Shell’s chief scientist for mobility; Kristin Schondorf, global auto and transportation leader for professional services firm EY; and Shelley Poticha, who heads up urban solutions for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Asks Kortenhorst: "Look around, what’s new?" Experts cited a large uptake in biking in NYC, public-private shared vehicle partnerships, and the conversion of all taxis at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to Teslas. China plans to have 5 million electric vehicles by 2020, and Holland will sell only EVs by 2025. India plans to make its entire government fleet electric by 2030, they continued.

But, says Warnecke of Shell, let’s not overlook the continued potential of the internal-combustion engine. Is he just being loyal to his company? Liquid fuels have many advantages, which is why they hung around for so long. What if we can find a way to make them carbon neutral? It's certainly not out of the question.

Uncomfortable with the uncertainty, some government entities are betting it all on one horse: the EV. Will that tip the global scale? What if they are wrong? (Remember Betamax?)

Autonomous vehicles, smart cities and the future of mobility

The younger generation is less interested in owning cars, especially when they have many other options. NRDC is partnering with the University of California, Berkeley, on a study of the national implications of car sharing. Seventy-seven small and mid-sized cities will compete in the Department of Transportation's Smart City challenge. How do we make this transition without losing the character and vitality of cities?

What will be the impact of autonomous vehicles? Once the technology becomes established, will people buy them, or simply use them as a service? In the U.S., cars are typically held for more than 11 years. Will autonomous vehicles change that?

Lots of questions: How do you ensure safety? Maintenance? AI is considered a driver. Will we travel more and if so, does that defeat the purpose?

The role of policy cannot be ignored. Look at biofuels today; that was another government bet. Was it a good one? Is it too soon to say?

NRDC looked at the market dynamics around dropping from two vehicles per household to one. Cost savings were estimated at $8,000 per year. Can these services enhance public transportation? Ride share can take you to the transit hub where you get on something that acts like a bus. Cars as assets are utilized only 5 percent of the time. Original equipment manufacturers are thinking a lot about this. New jobs. New opportunities. Who is going to win? We talk a lot about cars, how is freight going to be moved?

Martin Haigh, Shell’s senior energy advisor, spoke about energizing the transition. The Sustainable Development Goals are simultaneously asking for more energy for the millions who don’t have access and aggressively combating climate change.

The Shell team developed two scenarios: Mountains and Oceans. Both achieve net-zero emissions by the end of the century, but by very different paths. The Mountains scenario imagines a world in which energy policy is shaped predominantly by government, where the Oceans scenario envisions a landscape shaped predominantly by market forces and civil society. An enormous amount of effort will be required to “bend the curve,” as Mark Barteau pointed earlier in the event. Transformations in cities will be essential.

According to Shell's predictions, while renewables will dominate, fossil fuel energy with some form of carbon capture and storage (CCS) will still account for 25 percent of the energy mix. In addition to CCS, for its part, Shell will focus on biofuels and hydrogen. Still, developing scenarios and predicting the future is difficult, since some new technology may yet come along, “from the edge,” and change the picture completely.

21st-century urban development: A case study in Detroit

There followed a discussion about Detroit and the progress being made in rebuilding that city. It featured Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Shell Chairman Charles Holliday and Penske Corp. Chairman Roger Penske.

Some signs of progress include the Super Bowl's return to the Motor City, as well as the return of Indy racing on Belle Isle. But perhaps the bigger news is the fact that millennials are moving in.

Drawn by the low housing prices and the opportunity to play a significant role in designing the community, the signs of Detroit's younger residents are widespread, whether it’s the appearance of organic food markets or vinyl record stores. There is innovation around derelict housing, and community gardens are popping up on vacant lots.

At the same time, the area is home to 375 mobility R&D centers, and companies like Quicken have moved in. That means opportunities are there to attract even more urban pioneers.

In his closing remarks, Shell's chairman said: “We started out this morning saying, 'There is no easy fix.' But coming out of a day like today, you know we can solve these problems. We can improve our economy, improve the lives of people, and deal with these longer-term environmental problems at the same time.”

Click here for more TriplePundit coverage of Shell's 'Powering Progress Together' event. 

Image credit: Eric Kilby:Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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