NewsJuly 24, 2012

Reinventing Transportation by Day, Making Music By Night

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

Joan Ogden is pretty satisfied with her life these days, except that she doesn’t get out much to perform. Ogden is a musician with a wildly eclectic range: she has, during a decades-long career as a serious amateur, played guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and oud (a sort of Middle Eastern flute) in bands devoted to rock, blues, international folk music, traditional Celtic music and more. For a time, during the 1980s, she was the principal accompanist for the belly dancers who shook and shimmied at the Cedar, a funky hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurant in gritty New Brunswick, N.J.

The problem these days is that she’s just too busy at her day job, which pretty much involves saving the world — or at least, showing the world how it might save itself.

Today, 99 percent of the nation’s cars and trucks use conventional internal-combustion engines, with 94 percent of the energy coming from petroleum-based fuels.

Ogden, a Ph.D. physicist, is co-director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways program at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. One of the Institute’s prime missions is to figure out how our petroleum-based transportation system can make the transition to fuels that don’t pump huge amounts of globe-trapping carbon dioxide into the air.

The good news, Ogden explained in an interview, is that we know how to do that. “There are lots of technical fixes,” she said, “including electric vehicles, biofuels, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, and they could add up to a large savings in CO2 emissions.”

The less good news is that these technical fixes aren’t being pursued on a large scale, for a variety of reasons, and it’s her job, along with those of her 40 or so colleagues, to figure out how to get around those reasons.

A series of profiles of people
on the front lines of
climate change.

Joan Ogden: physicist, co-director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways and wildly eclectic musician

Antonio Busalacchi: Climate Scientist and Certified Specialist of Spirits

Keith London: City commissioner, Hallandale Beach, Fla.

Katharine Hayhoe: Climate scientist and professor at Texas Tech University

Abigail Borah: 21-year-old Middlebury junior

Edward Lu: Astrophysicist and electrical engineer

Michael Mann:Climatologist and physicist

There’s no time to lose, either. Today, 99 percent of the nation’s cars and trucks use conventional internal-combustion engines, with 94 percent of the energy coming from petroleum-based fuels. By 2050, the proportion could be 60 percent electric vehicles and the rest using ultra-high-efficiency internal-combustion running mostly on biofuels. But it will only happen if essentially, we start right away. “Even if every new car produced starting tomorrow had zero emissions or very low emissions,” she said, “it would take at least 15 years before the entire fleet changed over.” 

In practice, however, it would take even longer. Ogden’s team includes not just scientists and engineers, but also economists who have studied how new transportation technologies make their way into widespread use. A classic example, she said, is automatic transmissions: they were invented way back in 1907, and became available on some Oldsmobile models in 1939. But it was many decades before the technology overtook manual transmissions.

The same happened with hybrid cars: research on them began in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that they entered the market, and a decade more before they gained any traction all — and they still represent just a few percent of new car sales.

It’s not just that people are reluctant to try something new (although they can be, especially when it would replace something they’re already comfortable with). It’s also, Ogden said, “because at first there’s a lot of work involved in R&D and testing. Mass production comes much later. For a while, nothing much seems to be happening.”

Unfortunately, that also means there’s no profit for a while either. Toyota and Honda were willing to take the leap into the hybrid market anyway, but without their leadership, other car companies might not have followed. “Industry sees the benefit of moving away from fossil fuels,” Ogden said, “but it’s risky for any one company to do the groundwork.”

That means the government simply has to get involved, either through carbon-emissions regulations or subsidies. It needn’t be at a massive level, though. “Say you create a demonstration project at a local scale,” Ogden said. “Say, a thousand vehicles with 50 charging stations. If it works well, people will notice, and that will encourage industry to take risks.”

As much as anything, she suggested, carmakers want to know how consumers will react to new technologies, and experiments like this could provide the answers.” It’s also possible, she believes, that the increasingly obvious downside of climate change will make emitting carbon socially unacceptable, much as smoking has become over the past half-century.

It’s clear to Ogden that the answers to the transportation emissions problem won’t involve a single technology, but rather a mix. “In California,” she said, “we have battery-electric-car advocates and fuel-cell advocates”— the latter favoring vehicles where oxygen and hydrogen combine in a slow, controlled reaction to generate electricity. “But the battery-powered cars are probably good for cities, while fuel-cell cars would be better for longer ranges. I’m pretty convinced,” she said, “that we’ll have a mix of fuels.” Rigorous analysis bears this out: in computer models that analyze the economics of low-emissions vehicles, Ogden said, “the lowest-cost solution never involves just a single technology.” 

With all of this analysis, plus running a major research institute, plus hosting workshops a couple of times a year where representatives from oil companies, car companies and federal agencies come to Davis to work through these issues, it’s no wonder Ogden doesn’t have much time for music. It’s not like the old days, she said, where she had no dependents and fewer job responsibilities (in 1980, in fact, when Ronald Reagan threatened to cut back drastically on funding for the Department of Energy, which supported Ogden’s research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, she and a friend took six months off to perform full time).

Now she has a husband and two daughters to worry about. But her youngest is leaving for college next fall, and she’s thinking about what she might do with a bit of free time. “We’ve got some open stages in Davis, I go to those,” she said (Ogden is also a singer/songwriter — yet another of her musical personae). “I’m thinking that if I go on sabbatical, I might just get out there, get more connected to the music scene, do a lot more playing.”

The question is whether the world can afford to have her off the job, even temporarily.