Eichberger: decarbonization and electrification are not the same

As the U.S. continues to set goals to decarbonize the transportation sector, the executive director of the Fuels Institute says it’s important to highlight that electrification and decarbonization are not the same.  

John Eichberger tells Brownfield the administration needs to take a closer look at the issue.

“We have conflated two terms: decarbonization and electrification. Our politicians like it that way because it’s simple. The transportation sector is a complex and diverse industry. It’s going to require complex and diverse solutions,” he says. “We have to impress upon our elected leaders to work hard to roll up their sleeves and actually dive into the specifics of the market in order to deliver a solution that not only benefits the environment, but benefits consumers. If it hurts consumers, your solution will fail. I think that’s something they’re not quite getting yet.”

He says while there is a market for electric vehicles, low-carbon liquid fuels are here to stay.  

“The electric vehicle market is going to go to a certain level, but there’s going to be certain markets, certain use cases that will not go electric and we’re going to have to have a low carbon fuel option available,” he says. “And if the electric vehicle market trajectory does not grow the way the policy makers think it will, they’re going to be looking for options and it’s up to a liquid fuels industry to have a low carbon option to provide them a solution.”

Eichberger says while electric vehicles require infrastructure investments, biofuels are available today.

“To go electric, we have to change the entire infrastructure. We have to change how people behave. We have to change how they drive. They can’t just hop in a car and go. That’s a societal change and it’s going to take time to root in. If we can bring a low carbon fuel option and pair it up with a high efficiency powertrain such as a hybrid, we can deliver near zero carbon emissions equivalent to a battery electric vehicle today,” he says. “The challenge we have is the policies are being set to push the technology solution. When you do that, not only are you trying to force a technology on the market, you are sending a signal to the market to stop working on alternative technologies. If the technology you are supporting doesn’t materialize the way you think it will, what are your alternatives? We are putting all of our eggs in one basket. If we fall and the basket falls and all eggs break and we haven’t developed an alternative, we’re in big trouble. If the goal is reducing carbon, let’s reduce carbon. If the goal is electrification tell us that. But ostensibly, globally, the goal is reduce carbon to prevent climate change. Let’s focus on that, not be so focused on the technology solution.”

He noted that in his 25 years of experience in the industry, it’s more optimistic now than ever.

“Whenever you have a common enemy, it makes friends, and right now the industry is under attack. The industry is looking at a market shift away from what they do. I see the major petroleum associations and companies embracing a collaborative approach,” he says. “It’s going to take some time for the biofuels industry to accept that on face value and trust it because there’s been a lot of bad blood over the years, but it’s essential that the two industries come together. Only together can they deliver a low carbon fuel solution that can support the markets that will not electrify and be that backstop if electrification doesn’t materialize.”

Brownfield interviewed Eichberger at the High Performance Low Carbon Liquid Fuels Summit in Speedway, Indiana. The two-day event by Indiana Corn Growers Association and Indiana Soybean Alliance featured biofuels industry stakeholders, retail fuel businesses owners, farmers, and more.

Audio: John Eichberger

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