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Achieving Deep Cuts in the Carbon Intensity of U.S. Automobile Transportation by 2050: Complementary Roles for Electricity and Biofuels

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Passenger cars in the United States (U.S.) rely primarily on petroleum-derived fuels and contribute the majority of U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Electricity and biofuels are two promising alternatives for reducing both the carbon intensity of automotive transportation and U.S. reliance on imported oil. However, as standalone solutions, the biofuels option is limited by land availability and the electricity option is limited by market adoption rates and technical challenges. This paper explores potential GHG emissions reductions attainable in the United States through 2050 with a county-level scenario analysis that combines ambitious plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) adoption rates with scale-up of cellulosic ethanol production. With PHEVs achieving a 58% share of the passenger car fleet by 2050, phasing out most corn ethanol and limiting cellulosic ethanol feedstocks to sustainably produced crop residues and dedicated crops, we project that the United States could supply the liquid fuels needed for the automobile fleet with an average blend of 80% ethanol (by volume) and 20% gasoline. If electricity for PHEV charging could be supplied by a combination of renewables and natural-gas combined-cycle power plants, the carbon intensity of automotive transport would be 79 g CO2e per vehicle-kilometer traveled, a 71% reduction relative to 2013.

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