Canadian Transportation Council |  Medium-Heavy Duty Vehicle Committee | Electric Vehicle Council

LCA Report Review With Kelly Senecal | Episode 43

Carpool Chats Podcast |
March 01, 2022

In January, the Transportation Energy Institute published the report, “Life Cycle Analysis Comparison: Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles,” comparing the environmental impact of each type of vehicle from well to wheel, including their energy sources. This discussion delves deeper into how the market can decarbonize most effectively, leveraging EVs when and where they make sense while ensuring other options are deployed effectively to contribute to attaining the decarbonization objective.


Kelly Senecal, Ph.D, Owner & Vice President, Convergent Science


Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to Carpool Chats, a podcast brought to you by the Transportation Energy Institute.

John Eichberger (00:10):
Hey guys, welcome back to Carpool Chats. I’m John Eichberger with the Transportation Energy Institute. Today, we’ve got a great guest and usually I do a very light introduction, but this one I want to do more Graham Norton style. So he has a PhD mechanical engineering from University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s a visiting pressor at the University of Oxford. He’s the owner of Convergent Science and he’s the author of Racing Towards Zero. He is Kelly Senecal. Kelly, thanks for joining us on the program, man.

Kelly Senecal (00:35):
Thanks for having me, John. Hey, you told me this was carpool karaoke.

John Eichberger (00:39):
Oh, well, if you want to get into that, we can. I personally don’t really want you to, but you’re cynical, I’m cynical so whatever we want to do.

Kelly Senecal (00:48):
We’ll see how it goes [crosstalk 00:00:49]. Hopefully, don’t have to go there.

John Eichberger (00:51):
So first of all, to get us started, we have a lot of guests on the program that talk about electric vehicles because that’s what everybody’s talking about. And a lot of the guests we have are passionate. They believe it’s the future. It is irreversible. It is going to be dominating the entire universe in the near future. You have a slightly different opinion, don’t you?

Kelly Senecal (01:10):
Yeah, I do. And don’t get me wrong, I think electric vehicles are a big part of the future. I think we’ve made such huge progress over the last several years and we need to keep pushing those forward. And I definitely feel like in certain areas world, they are the greenest option even today. But I’m more of a fan of, I call it eclectic. Instead of going all electric, let’s use eclectic approach and let’s really use a mix of technologies because there really is no silver bullets. So I’m a big fan of hybrids where they make the most sense. I’m a big fan of renewable fuels. Of course there’s still a lot of challenges there, but I think we need to keep pushing the research there. And then I am a fan of electric vehicles. So, where I differ is I like electric vehicles, I just don’t think we should be going all in so fast on electric vehicles. I think they’re just part of the solution.

John Eichberger (01:59):
We’ve been going that way in the Transportation Energy Institute as well. All of our research is dedicated to say, “Look, if our goal is to decarbonize transportation, how do we do it? How do you do it most effectively?” We released a paper in January of 2022 looking at the life cycle analysis and carbon emissions of combustion hybrid and electric vehicles. And our title slide was an average of the U.S. utility mix and you were the first one to read that and responded, “Hey John. Dude, there’s no such thing as an average.” Can you help us understand a little bit why there’s no average and why we have to be a little bit more careful how we look at the emissions profile of our transportation system?

Kelly Senecal (02:32):
Yeah, that’s a really good… I’m glad you brought that up. So it’s easy to go to the average, and to be honest, most LCAs you look at that’s what they do. But as you said, there is no average electricity mix that anybody’s charging from. And so if you look at it and I noticed further in the report, I was very happy to see that you guys you looked at different carbon intensity grids. You said, well, what if it’s a high carbon intensity grid or what if it’s like extremely high carbon intensity grid? States like Montana, even in the Midwest, our grid is not nearly as clean as say in the Pacific Northwest where they have a lot of hydroelectric power. So it’s really a nuanced thing and depending where you are in the U.S., should really drive you to, “Am I going to…” No pun intended, “I’m I going to drive a hybrid vehicle or am I going to drive an electric vehicle?”

Kelly Senecal (03:20):
I know where I live hybrids actually make more sense if I compare similar models. In the future, that may not be the case. We hope that our grid is going to continue to green up. But that also brings another point that makes this even more nuanced and that’s this whole idea of an average electricity… Tongue twister, average electricity mix versus say the marginal electricity mix. And there’s a lot of pretty heated debate out there on this topic. When you add a load to the grid, you’re not charging from the average mix. Even locally, it’s the marginal power that kicks up to take that extra demand. So that doesn’t mean that renewable can’t be part of the marginal mix, but you have to be really careful how you assign the mix and the emissions from the mix to these [OCS 00:04:10].

John Eichberger (04:10):
And I think it makes sense and that’s why we did the paper and that’s why we did various case scenarios. We have some people say you can’t drive electric vehicles in cold weather because you lose so range. Well, you lose range in a combustion engine vehicle in the cold weather because of all the ancillary heating elements you have in the car. But we wanted to provide that diversity because one size fits all doesn’t work. And if we want to be serious about reducing carbon, we have to be strategic. We have another paper coming out real soon, looking at meeting the heavy duty market and we wanted to understand that sector. When you think about how do we decarbonize the heavier duty vehicles? Where do you look at first? What are the best options, low hanging fruit for us to think about?

Kelly Senecal (04:48):
Wow. Heavy duty, that’s a whole other ball of wax. I think to be really honest, I think the diesel engine is a really good solution for that, but we need to be cleaning up the fuel. So renewable diesel, I think, is a great option. You will get into this big debate about hydrogen versus EVs and the really hardcore EV advocates as soon as you even say the word. You don’t have to say the whole word hydrogen, as soon as it starts coming out of your mouth, they start attacking you and say, “Hydrogen, no.” I have mixed feelings about hydrogen. There’s a chapter in my book called hydrogen, a new hope or new hype.

Kelly Senecal (05:26):
For that reason, it has a lot of really good sides to it, but it has a lot of downsides. Most of the hydrogen we make today is not green and it comes from fossil fuel so even though the fuel itself is carbon free, how you make it is anything. But so there’s a lot of stuff there. So some people will say, because of the long range of hydrogen, we either need fuel cells or we need hydrogen internal combustion engines for long range for heavy duty. I think there might be some of that. I think it makes more sense to think that we would have an infrastructure in place that would support that versus personal mobility.

Kelly Senecal (05:59):
I have a hard time believing we’re going to put a whole electric infrastructure in place and then on top of that hydrogen infrastructure. Honestly, I think today, I still think the diesel engine, and I know this is going to be controversial, but I think the diesel engine, but with as clean of a fuel as you can get. So whether that’s renewable diesel or a more efficient engine, there’s still room to improve efficiency on these engines and with some hybridization. We know that when you run an engine with the help of an electric motor, it allows you to run where you’re most efficient in the engine. We know that’s a good thing. And by hybridizing, you’re using minimal resources per battery, versus if you make the full truck fully electric. So there’s a lot of good reasons to continue to pursue internal combustion engines with some hybridization and hopefully cleaner fuels.

John Eichberger (06:51):
Your comment on diesel engines is spot on. We did a program for about four or five years called the diesel fuel quality count at the Transportation Energy Institute. We were looking at… We were hearing reports of the common rail high pressure diesel engines were having more systemic failures related to fuel quality. And so we want to really understand the fuel quality and as the engines get better, they’re their tolerance is for impurities or contaminants and the fuel gets so much tighter and you need such a cleaner fuel. And so even we really worked hard on proper fuel management, proper tank manager so we can keep that fuel as clean as we possibly can so we can enable these higher efficiency engines.

John Eichberger (07:25):
You’re right, right now there’s no better power to energy ratio than diesel and diesel engines for these heavy duty trucks. And we need to look at, and one of the things we did we’ve come into the EPA last year was you need to look at vehicles and fuels as a system. And whether that fuel is electricity or a liquid fuel or a gaseous fuel, you got to look in the system because one can’t do anything without the other. And sometimes we get lost in this idea that there’s a technology on the vehicle so I can solve all of our problems if the fuel doesn’t follow super we’re in big trouble.

Kelly Senecal (07:56):
Exactly. Right. And it’s it just one of my pet peeves, as you know probably from seeing me on LinkedIn is this idea of a zero emissions vehicle. And I know you probably feel similar, but of course we can make anything zero emissions if we only put our box around one particular thing in this case, being the vehicle. Now it’s an important box to make but if you’re making… if you’re using coal, natural gas, which is a bit cleaner, but if you’re using fossil fuels to create the electricity to fuel that just like when you have an engine are using fossil fuels or renewable fuels, it’s the same idea. But now it’s removed from the vehicle. So we have to look at this as a system, like you said, and if we don’t look at it as a system, the goal ends up being how many electric vehicles can to get on the road versus how can we decarbonize the fastest. You have to look at it as a system in order to decarbonize quickly.

John Eichberger (08:47):
And I think we’ve conflated electrification with decarbonization. The goal is decarbonization, as you mentioned earlier, electrification is a tool. So let’s diverge away from electric vehicles for a second because that’s a new technology that’s going to replace an existing fleet that is huge. It’s going to take decades to replace the fleet.

Kelly Senecal (09:04):

John Eichberger (09:04):
I keep hearing no noise about there’s no more research going into internal combustion engine at all yet you… I haven’t seen them in a while, you used to do posts all the time. Have you hugged your engine? I find it hard to believe there’s no opportunities combustion engines. I’ve seen a couple announcements in the last couple weeks. A super car manufacturer’s a three cylinder camless engine that can kick out 600 brake horsepower and then I heard the Wankel rotary engines coming back, a 15 kilogram engine can kick out 160 horsepower. These are advancements, but are they realistic? Are we looking any type of opportunity? Because even if we get to say 50% of sales or EV by 2035, which I really think is going to be a stretch without government mandate, maybe selling 50% combustion. What do you see when you think about the combustion engine market as opportunities to more efficiency out of the engines that are coming on? And then we’ll shift to talk about the legacy fleet after that.

Kelly Senecal (10:02):
Let me first start out with the hug your engine bit. The reason you haven’t seen one recently is not because engines are going away, it’s because of the pandemic. So normally what I would do is I would go around to somebody’s lab or whatever, some company or a national lab or university and it was always like, “Okay, let’s get a picture of me hugging the engine.” I’d post it on LinkedIn. So that’s why you haven’t seen as many, hopefully you start seeing more coming up. But there is still opportunity and I just I want to make a bigger point before I talk about the opportunities because people’s say you’ll see this all the time where these are tiny improvements that are left to make on the engine. Yes, there’s still some improvement, but they’re tiny improvements.

Kelly Senecal (10:44):
Let’s look at what we’ve been able to do over the years and over the decades with incremental changes adding up. I keep thinking about, and I can’t show you the picture right now, but think of a staircase and to get to the top up these little steps are what eventually get us there versus if you had to take that whole thing in one big step, which I feel like is this idea of a fully renewable electricity grid with zero emissions vehicles and all of that. So we have to be careful about shying away from these incremental changes. We’ve done enormous. Look at the criteria pollutants today versus the 1970s, 1980s. I mean, we really… I want to say… I won’t say we completely solved that problem because there’s still cold start issues and things like that, but we’ve effectively solved, I’ll say that the criteria pollutants problem with new vehicles, new engines, new after treatment systems and things like that.

Kelly Senecal (11:39):
As far as the engine itself, there is still a lot of research being done. A lot of the government money, at least in the U.S. has been transitioned away from light duty, more towards heavy duty. So where there used to be quite a bit of light duty funding from the DOE, now a lot of that’s heavy duty. But there’s still a lot of opportunity there and I do think that’s going to swing back at some point. I may be naive to think that, but I do feel that way. Really what this comes down to is building a more efficient engine that’s what’s going to reduce the CO2 and really what’s in our way is engine knocking.

Kelly Senecal (12:16):
The things you want to do to make an engine more efficient, just look at a simple one, like make the compression ratio higher. We all know that leads to higher efficiencies. Well, that leads to knocking as well, which is something you have to get around. So there are a lot of fancy ways and I’ll say fancy because it usually means expensive but to be honest, the fact that we’re now willing to spend this much money on a power train system, like an electric vehicle, it’s in a way, opened the door toward to some of these more expensive engine situations as well or engine design. So there are things like water injection, things like variable compression ratio, which you see is hit the market recently octane on demand. So depending on where you are on the map and how much you might knock, then it changes the octane level of the fuel.

Kelly Senecal (13:05):
Hybridization, like I said, stop start technology. Some people call that a micro hybrid, that’s a funny name but there’s a lot of stuff. The opposed piston engine, I don’t know if you’ve heard much about the opposed piston engine from Achates Power. They’re not the only ones who have worked on this, but they seem to be at the forefront and that really helps efficiency by reducing heat loss. There’s no cylinder head in that engine, you have two pistons opposed from each other, compressing into each other. So there’s a lot of stuff out there.

Kelly Senecal (13:33):
There’s a lot of great work still being done and I think we need it because I think if we one day wake up and say, “Wow, this electric vehicle.” There’s always unintended consequences. If we wake up and say, “Wow, maybe we shouldn’t have gone all in on this because of X, Y, or Z.” If we don’t keep improving the engine, then we’re going to look back and say we’re using 20 year old technology, we could be using modern technology. So I think it’s really important to keep going in this area. And I do think it’s still a pretty healthy research area.

John Eichberger (14:04):
And I think you look at the EPA Automotive Trend Report, the last one came out from the model year 2000 and you just look at the progression gas direct injection engine, how fast did they take over the 90% of the market. All these things that go into efficiency and you could poop and who say, “Well, it’s not enough.” But you know what? We’re going to be selling in these vehicles for 20, 30 more years, unless the government bans in which I don’t see that happening in the States, but we’re going to selling them. So why don’t we make these improvements going forward?

John Eichberger (14:28):
Now you’ve mentioned compression ratio and that leans us directly to the discussion about fuel and high octane fuel and how do you even… We published a paper a couple where we were looking at how do you do that? And it’s a challenge. There’s several challenges bringing a higher octane standard to the market, but you also mentioned earlier renewable fuels. And when I think about how we reduce the carbon intensity of the combustion engine, because when you look at our LCA paper, 72% of all emissions from the combustion engine vehicle come from that combustion cycle. If we can bring low carbon fuels to power those vehicles, what kind of improvement do we have in the overall carbon emissions profile in the industry? So when you look at the fuel side, what are the best opportunities we have to deliver a low carbon fuel efficiently, effectively in the near term?

Kelly Senecal (15:15):
That’s a great point and I like to say it’s not the engine that’s the problem, it’s the fuel. I think the internal combustion engine is an incredible machine. It’s done so much for us over the last 100 plus years, but low carbon fuels zero carbon fuels, that really is the way forward. There are lots of options. I don’t think any of them have shown themselves as the silver bullet way to go. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s the whole biofuel area. You have the food or fuel debate there, but there are ways to create biofuels without touching food sources and things like that. Then you have the eFuels area, which hydrogen, I guess, would be considered the simplest eFuels because if you’re going to make green hydrogen, you use electrolysis and you split apart water into hydrogen and oxygen, but then you can also use captured CO2 with that hydrogen to make a more complex fuel.

Kelly Senecal (16:12):
People will say, “Well, if you already have that renewable electricity available to you to make this carbon neutral fuel, why not just use that directly and charge up your battery? Why go through this other process?” And there is some merit to that argument actually, but what liquid fuels have going for them, unlike any other option here is storage and transport. You can transport a liquid fuel. We know how to do that. We have the infrastructure for that. It doesn’t require this whole new infrastructure to be put in place [crosstalk 00:16:44] which that’s a whole another… Yeah, go ahead.

John Eichberger (16:46):
I’ve gotten that discussion about eFuels. eFuels are only 19% efficient. They’re a waste of energy, but if it’s purely renewable energy, zero carbon or net zero as a liquid fuel go an existing infrastructure, how much money and effort do we save in building out infrastructure if we can use existing one? We’re going to… Federal government spending seven and a half billion on zero emission vehicle infrastructure whether it be mostly charging stations. I think there’s a little bit [inaudible 00:17:11] for hydrogen stations, but need that because as you and I both agree, electric vehicle are going to be a big part of the market and we need to make sure customers always have access to affordable, reliable transportation, energy, wherever they are. But if we can leverage the existing infrastructure for liquid fuels and go into biofuels, then one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen a lot of research now saying that our carbon intensity on biofuels is coming down, especially on corn ethanol.

John Eichberger (17:36):
Carbon capture sequestration is going to be a huge advantage for that sector, but they’re limited in their blend level, whether it be by regulation or by OEM certification. How do we… Trying to figure out a way to break through what could be considered artificial barriers, some say, they’re absolutely clear. The industry goes all artificial. Whatever they are, how do we break through these barriers to allow us to leverage the technologies and fuel opportunities we have? And I think that’s something that we just… That’s not part of the discussion right now. The discussion’s all about plugs and we need to rethink about all options. And it’s very frustrating when you and I are looking at the whole map of all the options of what we could do. We can pick some of this and pick some of that and nobody wants to hear it. It’s like, “Come on, guys.” A ton of carbon admitted today still matters, we can’t wait for the white night of electrification save the world.

Kelly Senecal (18:24):
Exactly. And it doesn’t matter where it’s admitted. The atmosphere doesn’t care. We just made this point in a different podcast I did with my co-author Felix Leach about where you emit the carbon, if you emit in Asia versus the U.S. versus Africa, it doesn’t matter. One of my colleagues, Gautam Kalghatgi, calls them emissions elsewhere vehicles when he refers to electric vehicles. But hopefully we do continue to green up the grid and I hope we do, but in the meantime we have to be realistic. This whole idea of… Well, some people argue when I talk about hybrids versus bevs, and I say in some places in the U.S. today in a lot of places in the U.S. today, hybrids actually make more sense from a carbon standpoint. They say, “Well, what about 10 years from now? Our grids going to be 100% renewable, or 15 years from now?”

Kelly Senecal (19:12):
Well, that’s our goal but getting there is a completely different story. And so we have to be careful with all of these projections we make and things like that. And we need to… The best data we have is actually today’s data in the past. And so what can we learn from that data and how can we use that to best go forward? So I agree, we need all the above technologies. It’s not a one size fits all problem. It’d be nice if it was, it’d make it easier but it certainly isn’t.

John Eichberger (19:39):
I still think there’s certain consumers out there who will never view themselves as being an electric vehicle customer because they’re a lifestyle, they just don’t see it happening. So I think we’re going to have a mix of vehicles as long as I’m alive. And I think one of the unswayed benefits of this focus on electrification is battery improvement. And you talked about greening the grid, the key to that is being able to store intermittent power generation to redistribute to the grid when it’s necessary. We’re so far behind on that and hopefully that’s a breakthrough that comes soon because I agree, we have to clean the grid and we are, but I think it’s going to take longer than most good to anticipate. I think the transition to electric vehicles going to take longer than most people anticipate.

John Eichberger (20:15):
There’s always unforeseen circumstances that interrupt forecasts and projections. We saw it last year with exactly microchip shortage, semiconductor shortage. There’s always going to be something. If people want to know more about what you’re working on and what you’re doing, how can they follow you and learn about what you guys are doing?

Kelly Senecal (20:35):
So they can follow me on LinkedIn, just search for my first name, Peter, my middle name, Kelly Senecal or just search for Kelly Senecal, I’ll probably pop up. If you want to learn more about my book, you can go to If you want to learn about my company, you can go to, lots of places to go to. We’ll leave it at that.

John Eichberger (20:57):
Well, Kelly, I appreciate you joining today. You Set a lot of people off on your LinkedIn post. A lot of people come at you pretty hard, but what I’ve always appreciated is you’re open to the options. You’re trying to raise awareness of alternatives. And I really appreciate the thoughtful way you approach it. People they read posts, they don’t think about the thought that went in behind it and I know that you’re always giving them a lot of thoughts. I really appreciate spending the time with us today.

Kelly Senecal (21:21):
Yeah. Thanks a lot, John. Are we going to do karaoke or we’re going to save that for next time.

John Eichberger (21:24):
I am not going to do karaoke. We can go ahead and stop recording and you can start singing if you want but as of right now, I think our listeners have probably heard enough both you and I.

Kelly Senecal (21:31):
Okay. Perfect.

John Eichberger (21:34):
Kelly, [crosstalk 00:21:35] thanks a lot. And for everybody back home, thanks for watching Carpool Chats. I’ll see you the next time.

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