Posts

EV_charging

Alternative fuels and vehicles: Good news on all fronts

If we’re going to replace the gasoline in our tanks, we’re going to need help from all kinds of directions. None of the alternatives is likely to do the whole job by itself, but every little bit helps.

That’s why it’s so encouraging that there was good news on all fronts this week, and why each little success gets us closer to having legitimate alternatives to take the place of gasoline.

Here’s a sampling of some of the news:

Batteries. A team at Stanford University announced it had developed a high-performance battery out of aluminum. This is important because aluminum is much cheaper than lithium, the current favorite among battery-makers. Aluminum has been used to make batteries, but the problem has always been keeping the voltage high after repeated charging and recharging. Now the Stanford team believes is has found the answer.

“We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames,” said Hongjie Dai, professor of chemistry who headed the team. “People have tried different kinds of materials for the cathode. We accidentally discovered that a simple solution is to use graphite, which is basically carbon. In our study, we identified a few types of graphite material that give us very good performance.”

This raises the question of whether Elon Musk can substitute aluminum batteries in his Gigafactory, which is set up to build lithium batteries for the new Tesla.

Hydrogen. Hydrogen cars are clean, producing only warm water for exhaust. But the problem is getting the hydrogen. The only known methods to date have been electrolysis of water, which is expensive and energy intensive, and “reforming” natural gas, which produces carbon dioxide and makes hydrogen just another fossil fuel. But now a team of scientists at Virginia Tech has come up with a catalyst the can make hydrogen quickly and cheaply from biomass.

“Researchers from Virginia Tech have developed a way to drastically cut the time and money necessary to produce hydrogen fuel,” reports the Christian Science Monitor. “By using discarded corn cobs, stalks, and husks, they have improved on previous methods deemed too inefficient by energy experts. Their research, which was funded in part by Shell, was published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Using genetic algorithms, Dr. Zhang and co-author Joe Rollin developed an “enzymatic pathway” that speeds up the reduction of hydrogen from biomass. By including two simple plant sugars, glucose and xylose, they were able to increase the rate of hydrogen production while emitting an “extremely low amount” of carbon dioxide.

“This method could breathe new life into the hydrogen car,” says the CSM.

Biofuels. And speaking of enzymes, another team of researchers working for the Department of Energy has come up with a bacterium that efficiently breaks down biomass without pretreatment. The team has been using the system to extract ethanol from switchgrass, a fast-growing weed that has long been a favorite of biofuels enthusiasts. The strategy, called consolidated bioprocessing, uses the Caldicullulosiruptor beseii bacteria to split cellulose and then ferments it into ethanol. The strategy eliminates the very expensive pretreatment that requires heat and more enzymes. Several facilities are now trying to break down cellulose and convert it into ethanol, but this one-stop process would be a huge saving.

EVs. A study at the Stockholm Environment Institute says that electric vehicles may be coming into their own much faster than everyone thought. This is because the price of batteries is coming down faster than anticipated. EV batteries now cost approximately $300 per kilowatt-hour. They weren’t expected to fall much lower than that over the next five years. But the authors Bjorn Nykvist and Mans Nilsson say that recent developments have brought the price down as low as $150 per kilowatt-hour, which could make electric vehicles appealing for a much wider range of customers. Since the batteries normally make up at least half the price of the vehicle, it could reduce costs significantly. Or manufacturers might use the new low price to load up on batteries, increasing the range of the electric vehicle. Either way, the package becomes more attractive.

And that doesn’t even include the possibility that the aluminum battery developed at Stanford could be making batteries more efficient and lowering prices even further.

There’s a tremendous synergy going on in these fields, as researchers pursue numerous pathways in exploring alternative vehicles. One way or another, it means that alternatives to foreign oil are soon going to be making their way into the customer’s field of vision very soon.

PUMP-pic_gas station

PUMP debuts on Netflix, so stream at your leisure

PUMP the Movie is now available on Netflix, giving millions of Americans the chance to watch an important film that shows the patch forward to ending our dependence on oil.

The documentary, produced by Fuel Freedom Foundation and narrated by Jason Bateman, was originally released in theaters last September. In fact, it’s still showing on big screens around the country, as the foundation has worked with partners to host screenings on college campuses and for nonprofits.

(For a full schedule of showings, as well as movie reviews and other content, check out PUMPtheMovie.com.)

But Netflix is a whole new level. The video-on-demand service is now available in 36 percent of U.S. homes, compared with 13.5 percent for Amazon Prime and 6.5 percent for Hulu Plus. Thirty-five million people watch movies and TV shows using Netflix’s streaming service, while another 5 million still get DVDs by mail. (We have DVDs for sale too, in an attractive blue case, on our website).

PUMP charts the century-long story of oil and how it built its monopoly on the U.S. transportation-fuel industry. There are interviews with major energy and auto-industry players like John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil Company, and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk.

Much of the film is dedicated to solutions to our oil addiction: For example, ethanol, which is cheaper than gasoline and burns cleaner, with fewer toxic emissions, can be made from plenty of “feedstocks” besides corn.

Here’s a clip from the film featuring alcohol-fuels expert David Blume, telling us about the possibilities:

Another voice in that snippet belongs to Marc Rauch, editor of the Auto Channel website, who says: “Ethanol is not just any competitor [to gasoline]. It is the better fuel. It has always been the better fuel.”

The point is choice: American drivers deserve more than just one. To learn how we can achieve it, in the cars, trucks and SUVs we drive today, pick up the remote and watch PUMP.

CNG-nozzle

10 people who turned anger into solutions for high gas prices

So we’ve heard from Americans who say high gas prices have disrupted their lives and their work. Let’s shift to the people who are more than mad as hell. They’re mad enough to turn their energy into action.

Among these 10 ideas, what’s the most practical for your life?

 

“I just ditched my old 1998 Volvo S70 for a used Prius, and it is so much more fun to fill a 10-gallon tank than an 18-gallon one. And have it last more than a week of heavy Los Angeles commuting. It’s still new to me, so I still kind of giggle every time I fill up the tank. I’m thrilled to put the money I save toward better things.”
— Jennifer

“We save a lot of money in the summer because my wife takes the bus to the south side of Madison to go to work, and I pick her up in the afternoon, about 4 miles south of our home. If I was to take her to work and pick her up, it would be 48 miles round-trip, morning and afternoon. The bus is cheaper.”
— Laverne F., Madison, Wisconsin

“As gasoline was so high for so long, I made a bio-diesel processor from a old electric water heater and made my own fuel for the oil furnace and my old 1984 GMC van with a diesel engine. I still received 21 mpg. Begging for grease was the hard part.”
— Willis W.

“I wish I had a good story for you, but my wife and I drive a plug-in Chevy Volt. We hardly ever stop at a gas station, except perhaps once every 6 weeks or while on an occasional trip. When we top the tank, it seldom takes more than 5 1/2 gallons, i.e. less than $20 worth of premium fuel. The main reason that we stop at gas stations these days is to get an automatic car wash.”
— David and Barbara G., Gaithersburg, Maryland

“Still wondering how to convert my 99 Ford Expedition to NG?”
— Gary S., Laguna Woods, California

(We’re checking around to find a SoCal CNG conversion business. Will update later.)

“I have not visited a gas station since September 2014, when I took delivery of my Tesla. However, I still pay for my daughter’s gasoline, suffer the financial cost, and contribute to the oil industry’s wanton environmental degradation. Savings at the pump could help me fund her college education.”
— Dr. George

“Go electric. I did and am receiving my Tesla next week. No more gas at all.”
— Bob

“Today we bought a 2014 Ford Focus, a flex-fuel vehicle which enables us to use E85 for fuel. A small contribution to energy independence.”
— David

“We need a blender pump [for ethanol] in every station.”
— Melvin M.

“I top off my cars with E85 when I can. I fill up once a month with a discount at Kroger. I am really pushing to get Kroger to provide ETHANOL pumps and shop at the same place!”
— Gerard R., Stone Mountain, Georgia

 

Incidentally, here’s a handy guide to flex-fuel vehicles on the market.

E85: Can it break through as an alternative fuel?

Harry_S._TrumanPresident Harry S. Truman once said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” Over the past few weeks, my colleagues at Fuel Freedom Foundation and I have spoken with and read about several optimistic owners of E85 fuel stations.

Our selection wasn’t random. We focused on chains or fuel stations that apparently overcame literature-defined problems in marketing E85 and, according to their owners or senior managers, were on their way to success in securing profitable market penetration. Frankly, we wanted to find sufficient cases that testify to the fact that E85 can compete successfully with gasoline. Succinctly, we wanted to respond to a question that’s frequently asked of us, which goes something like this: “Assuming no major policy and feedstock changes (at least in the near term), can E85, in light of the current price of gasoline, provide consumers and the nation with a real competitive choice of alternative fuels that are safer, environmentally better and cheaper than gasoline?”

Future articles will provide mini case studies of some of E85 retailers. But for the present, based on many phone calls and Google descriptions, we found at least four or five stations (relatively quickly) with prices ranging from 60 cents to just over a $1 below the price of gasoline, despite the current, relatively low gas prices. The lowest price described was below $1.50 a gallon. All stations seemed committed to the continued sale of E85, and each one expressed conviction that they have sufficient price flexibility to build a vehicular fuel market able to meet cash flow and profit expectations. Their optimism was based on their present sales and future forecasts of sales.

Clearly, we need to know more. But what we heard deflated (at least partially) conventional wisdom suggesting that while a large pool of newer FFVs s and older vehicles that can be converted to FFV status exists, increased sales of E85 is unlikely because of the decline in the price of gasoline.

The E85 retailers we talked to and reviewed online appear to be using some of the following strategies to take on gasoline successfully in the market place. They are paraphrased and summarized from direct quotes for brevity:

Loosen Ties with Brand Names: Loosening ties with major brand-name franchisers provides the ability to sell E85 and permits more flexibility to set prices based on market perceptions.

Share Value of RINs: RINs are tradable and are valuable, particularly when their value is high. The ability to secure RINs from members of the supply chain is an incentive. Producers and blenders have a stake in retailer success; retailers have a stake in feedstock. The RINs help make the price right at the pump.

Amend Supply Chain: By incorporating blending as a function, retailers are able to manage costs and, indeed, lower costs. By avoiding the need to contract for transferring E85 from terminal to station and doing it themselves, retailers are able to also better manage costs.

Intuitive Marketing: Choosing an easily accessible location within which there is a high density of FFVs, along with recognition that price matters, are threshold needs to penetrate the fuel market. Smaller fuel stations often make their locational decision, in part, based on intuition and not on expensive market studies. Some might do a study…but those who did appeared to keep the costs low. They saw the possibilities in diverse locations by talking to the market and marketing folks and checking available data concerning FFVs in the area, as well as watching traffic patterns. They also had a feel for the area.

Anecdotes and small samples should not generate formulaic or prescriptive “one size fits all” market or marketing strategies. Maybe we were lucky in our calls! Maybe we were fortunate to quickly find the right articles or presentations. One of my colleagues fortuitously drove by a fuel station on his way to the airport and saw a sign touting a very low E85 cost per gallon. Clearly, economic, social, environmental, political and cultural variables are different in different areas of the country, and could very well negatively affect predictability of retail success, particularly concerning location, price and consumer acceptance. Just as clearly, supply-chain differences between and among retailers in different parts of the nation could well impede or facilitate success. What is important at this stage is to recognize that there are individuals and groups out there who own or manage fuel stations, and whose early market achievements should generate a positive bet concerning their intermediate and long-term success. Borrowing from Harry Truman, they appear, at least at first glance, to be making opportunities out of what others perceive as difficulties. If they succeed and generate copycats or variations on a theme, it will be good for the nation, its communities and consumers.

Obama-energy

President Obama, DOE boost alternate fuels

President Obama burnished his legacy as an environmentalist last week by mandating a huge cut in greenhouse gas emissions among federal vehicles. The aim is to cut emissions for 40 percent by the year 2025.

The executive order will increase the percentage of the government’s 636,000 vehicles that run on alternative fuels. Improved gas mileage on new internal combustion engines can account for only a small fraction of the required reduction, so the only alternative will be to increase the number of non-gasoline engines in the fleet. Among the frontrunners will be cars running on compressed natural gas, electric vehicles, propane-powered cars, vehicles running on gasoline-ethanol combinations, hydrogen vehicles, and all manner of hybrid combinations of any of the above Obama’s order built on a previous executive action in 2009 that has helped reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 percent. The 40 percent reduction will be measured against levels in 2008, right before Obama took office.

As of 2013, more than 200,000 of the federal fleet of 635,748 vehicles were alternative-fuel vehicles. The most common of these were the 180,000 cars running on an ethanol-gasoline mix. But the new cars are expected to be of the more experimental variety. It is anticipated that, by 2025, half the federal vehicles will be some kind of plug-in hybrid.

The White House pointed to the efforts of large private companies such as IBM, GE, Honeywell and Walmart in meeting the same standards of switching to alternative vehicles in their fleet. The president’s spokespeople said the combined effort would be “the equivalent of taking nearly 5.5 million cars off the road.”

The president’s order was not the only effort by the federal government to increase its fleet of alternative vehicles. The Department of Energy announced a $6 million program to accelerate the alternative vehicle market. DOE said the purpose of the grants will be to get people accustomed to the idea of driving alternative vehicles. Eleven projects will be funded around the country. They will include:

  • Clean Fuels Ohio will sponsor the Midwest DRIVES initiative to make alternative fuel vehicles available to select company fleets on a short-term lease basis. The program will used data collected from these experiments to encourage other companies to lease AFVs as well.
  • Penske Truck Leasing of Reading, Pennsylvania, will make compressed natural gas heavy-duty trucks available to cross-country truck fleets on a 1-to-3-month basis. The object will be to test consumer satisfaction.
  • The Florida Office of Consumer Services, Office of Energy, will make available plug-in hybrid vehicles to car rental companies in the Orlando area. With Disney World at its doorstep, Orlando is the nation’s largest car-rental market. The idea will be to accustom renters to the advantages of plug-in hybrids.
  • The Triangle Council of Governments around Research Triangle Park will supply vehicles powered by CNG, electricity, propane, E85 and biodiesel over a three-state area that will include North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The object will be to encourage fleet purchases.
  • The Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Demonstration Program, run by ASG Renaissance of Dearborn, Michigan, will attempt to stimulate consumer awareness and demand for PHEVs by placing them in the hands of media influencers. It is hoped that a social media campaign through Facebook and Twitter will bring positive coverage.
  • The West Virginia University Research Corporation will develop a curriculum for training promoters and repair specialists for alternative vehicles. The National Alternatives Fuels Training Consortium will provide marketing and outreach for the new curriculum.
  • The National Fire Protection Association of Quincy, Massachusetts, will develop curricula for the use of alternative vehicles in fire protection, emergency services and first responders to auto accidents.
  • The North Central Texas Council of Governments will develop a curriculum for use of propane, electric and natural gas vehicles for fire marshals, code officials, mechanics and technicians, and first responders. The program will be offered in four states of the Southwest.
  • The University of Central Florida will establish a training program for the use of CNG, electric and propane vehicles by first responders, college instructors, tow-truck operators and salvage/recycling vehicles. Hands-on training will be supported by vehicles supplied the National Association of Fleet Managers.
  • The Metropolitan Energy Center of Kansas City will collaborate with State Fire & Rescue Training institutes in Kansas and Missouri to adapt existing alternative fuel safety curricula to their existing training structures.
  • The National Association of State Energy Officials will work with its network of State Energy Offices, the National Governors Association, and the International Emergency Managers Association to help incorporate alternative fuel and advanced vehicles into multiple emergency preparedness plans.

So there’s plenty going on in the advance of alternative vehicles. It will take more than a drop in the price of oil to discourage these programs.

(Photo: POET LLC)

Toyota_FCV_002

Toyota, California go for hydrogen

California, the home of Elon Musk and his Tesla venture, is about to embark on another technological initiative as well — a car driven entirely by hydrogen.

In late February Toyota began producing and selling the Mirai (the name means “future”), a hydrogen-powered vehicle that will be available in Tokyo this year and go on sale in the U.S. in December. Always conscious of its history and ready to make amends, Toyota made the announcement five years to the day after it testified before Congress about a sudden accelerator problem that caused the company a great deal of embarrassment and led to a recall. “Every Feb. 24, we at Toyota take the opportunity to reflect on the recall crisis, doing everything we can to ensure its lessons do not fade from memory,” company CEO Akio Toyoda said. “For us, that date marks a new start.”

To say that Toyota is being cautious in entering the hydrogen car market would be an understatement. The Mirai won’t even be mass-produced but is being hand-crafted by Japanese workers who are turning out three cars per day. The model will sell for $57,000 in Tokyo and is not designed to take off like a rocket. The company only plans to sell 2,000 individual models in Japan this year. “The Mirai program, especially once all the research and development costs are factored in, is clearly unprofitable at this point, and even selling a few thousand units at $57,500 each is not going to turn the tide,” the Motley Fool’s Alexander MacLennan wrote. “But the Mirai is not about short-term profits; it’s about long-term market advantage through brand acceptance and technological development resulting in better vehicles.” Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got into the act, saying we are headed into a “hydrogen era.”

Right now Toyota’s main rival as an alternative to gasoline will be Elon Musk’s all-electric Tesla Model 3. Musk is not taking the challenge lightly. He has called the hydrogen car “an extremely silly idea” and mocked its fuel cells as “fool cells.”

But Musk might have reason to worry. The Mirai will offer drivers a range of 300 miles and take only three minutes to fill its tank. Tesla’s Model 3, due out in 2017, will offer only a 265-mile range and consume 40 minutes to offer an 80 percent recharge of its batteries. (Ideally, EVs should be recharged overnight.) Of course, the big test will be the availability of refueling stations, and here electric vehicles have a big head start. Tesla already has 393 Supercharging stations nationwide and is building them out as fast as possible.

There are only a dozen hydrogen stations now, all of them in California, as a result of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “hydrogen highway” initiative of 2004. But California has seized the gauntlet again and is promising to spend another $20 million in building out the Hydrogen Highway with 28 new stations in the next few years. The Mirai will be initially aimed exclusively at California and its requirements for zero-pollution vehicles, then try to expand to the East Coast as well. Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Tucson is already being sold in California.

Where Toyota and Tesla have found agreement is in opening up their patents to rivals to try to promote the technology. Musk famously made his EV patents available last year, and now Toyota is doing the same with its hydrogen research. The obvious aim is to get other manufacturers involved in order to increase the demand for fuel outlets. “We think this is a different way to look at the market and collaborate and hopefully with this get a lot more people coming into the game,” Nihar Patel, Toyota’s vice president of North American business strategy, told Forbes.

Still, the switch to hydrogen vehicles has some challenges ahead. Musk’s main criticism — echoed by many others — is that hydrogen fuel is too difficult to handle and transport. Hydrogen is, after all, the smallest molecule and leaks through everything. One of its biggest critics is Joseph Romm, who worked in the Clinton administration promoting the technology and finally became so disillusioned that he wrote a book critical of the technology called The Hype About Hydrogen. Romm is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and heads the Climate Progress blog. Another problem with hydrogen, of course, is that it is not available as a free resource but must be manufactured from other resources, principally natural gas. This, of course, requires costs and energy.

Still, hydrogen vehicles have the advantage of producing no air pollution (its exhaust is water vapor) and will be able to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere, since the CO2 is easily captured in the reforming process. Overall, hydrogen is likely to be a big plus for the environment.

It also offers car buyers what may be the most important factor in reducing our foreign oil dependence — free choice. It hardly matters if electric vehicles prove to be more popular than hydrogen vehicles or vice versa. The important thing is that they will both be available as alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. They could also open up the door to other alternative fuels: compressed natural gas, E85, and the dark horse of them all, methanol manufactured from natural gas. All these alternatives cannot help but make a dent in our current dependence on foreign oil.

Fake and real news: Links between GHG reduction and alternative fuels

FT-emissions-graphicTurn on your local news every night and you’ll need a sleeping pill to get some rest. The format and content is the same around the country: a lot of tragic crime — ranging from sexual harassment, robbery and shootings — for about ten minutes; local sports for about 5 minutes; what seems like ten minutes of intermittent advertising; silly banter between two or more anchors for two minutes; and a human-interest story to supposedly lighten up your day at the very end of the show — likely about a dog and cat who have learned to dance together or a two-year-old child who already knows how to play Mozart. You get the picture!

Local news, as presently structured, is not about to send you to sleep feeling good about humanity, never mind your community or nation. National news is really only marginally better. Again, the first ten minutes, more often than not, are about environmental disasters in the nation or the world — hurricanes, volcanoes, cyclones and tornadoes. The second ten minutes includes maybe one or two tragically laced stories, more often than not, about fleeing refugees, suicide bombings, dope and dopes and conflict. Finally, at the end of the program, for less than a minute or two, there is generally a positive portrayal of a 95-year-old marathon runner or a self-made millionaire who is now single-handedly funding vaccinations for kids in Transylvania after inventing a three-wheeled car that will never need refueling and can seat twenty-five people.

Maybe this is how the world is! We certainly need to think about the problems and dangers faced by our communities, the nation and its citizens. Every now and then, Americans complain about the media’s emphasis on bad news. But their complaints are rarely recorded precisely in surveys of viewership. We criticize the primary emphasis on bad news, but seem to watch it more than good news. Somewhat like football, we know it causes emotional and physical injuries to players, but support it with the highest TV ratings and attendance numbers.

Jimmy Fallon, responding to the visible (but likely surface) cry for more good news, has added a section to The Tonight Show. He delivers fake, humorous news, which is, at times, an antidote to typical TV or cable news shows. Perhaps John Oliver, a rising comedian on HBO, does it even better. He takes real, serious news about human and institutional behavior that hurts the commonweal and makes us laugh. In the process, we gain insight.

This week’s news about carbon dioxide emissions “stalling” in 2014 for the first time in 40 years appeared in most newspapers (I am a newspaper junkie) led by The New York Times and the Financial Times. It seemed like good news! Heck, while the numbers don’t reflect a decline in carbon emissions, neither do they illustrate an increase. Let’s be thankful for what we got over a two-year period (in the words of scientists — stability, or 32.3bn tons a year).

But don’t submit the carbon stability numbers to Jimmy Fallon just yet. It’s much too early for a proposed new segment on The Tonight Show called “Real as Opposed to Fake, Good News.” Too much hype could convince supporters of efforts to slow down climate change that real progress is being made. We don’t know yet. Recent numbers only reflect no carbon growth from the previous year over a 12-month period. The numbers might be only temporary. They shouldnt lessen the pressure to define a meaningful fair and efficient strategy to lower GHG. If this occurs, yesterday’s good news will become a real policy and environmental problem for the U.S. and the world for many, many tomorrows.

I am concerned that the stability shown in the carbon figures may be related to factors that might be short lived. Economists and the media have attributed the 2014 plateau to decreases in the rate of growth of China’s energy consumption and new government policies, as well as regulations on economic growth in many nations (e.g., requirements for more energy-efficient buildings and the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles), the growth of the renewable energy sector and a shift to natural gas by utilities.

Truth be told, no one appears to have completed a solid factor analysis just yet. We don’t really know whether what occurred is the beginning of a continuous GHG emission slowdown and a possible important annual decrease.

Many expert commentators hailed the IEA’s finding, including its soon-to-be new director, Dr. Fatih Birol. He indicated that this is “a very welcome surprise…for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

Yet, most expert commentators suggest we should be careful. They noted that the data, while positive, is insufficient to put all our money on a bet concerning future trends. For example, Hal Harvey, head of Energy Innovation, indicated, “one year does not a trend make.”

Many articles responding to the publication of the “carbon stall” story, either implicitly or explicitly, suggested that to sustain stability and move toward a significant downward trend requires a national, comprehensive strategy that includes the transportation sector. It accounts for approximately 17 percent of all emissions, probably higher, since other categories such as energy use, agriculture and land use have murky boundaries with respect to content. Indeed, a growing number of respected environmental leaders and policy analysts now include vehicle emissions as well as emissions from gasoline production and distribution as a “must lower” part of a needed comprehensive national, state and local set of emission reduction initiatives, particularly,if the nation is to meet temperature targets. Further, there is an admission that is becoming almost pervasive: that renewable fuels and renewable fuel powered vehicles, while supported by most of us, are not yet ready for prime time.

While ethanol, methanol and biofuels are not without criticism as fuels, they and other alternative fuels are better than gasoline with respect to emissions. For example, the GREET Model used by the federal government indicates that ethanol (E85) emits 22.4 percent less GHG emissions (grams per mile) when compared to gasoline (E10). The calculation is based on life-cycle data. Other independent studies show similar results, some a higher, others a lower percent in reductions. But the important point is that there is increased awareness that alternative fuels can play a role in the effort to tamp down GHG.

So why, at times, are some environmentalists and advocates of alternative fuels at loggerheads. I suspect that it relates to the difference between perfectibility and perfection. Apart from those in the oil industry who have a profit at stake in oil and welcome their almost-monopoly status concerning retail sales of gasoline, those who fear alternatives fuels point to the fact that they still generate GHG emissions and the assumption, that, if they become competitive, there will be less investment in research and development of renewables. Yes! Alternative fuels are not 100 percent free of emissions. No! Investment in renewables will remain significant, assuming that the American history of innovation and investment in transportation is a precursor of the future.

Putting America on the path to significant emission reduction demands a strong coalition between environmentalists and alternative fuel advocates. Commitments need to be made by public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together to implement a realistic comprehensive fuel policy; one that views alternative fuels as a transitional and replacement fuel for vehicles and that encompasses both alternative fuels and renewables. Two side of the same policy and behavior coin. President Franklin Roosevelt, speaking about the travails of the depression, once said, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” His words fit supporters of both alternative fuels and renewables. Let’s make love, not war!

Ich bin ein Norwegian and Swedish — expanding open fuel markets

artI have been intensely involved in urban policy issues since the early sixties — that’s the 1960s, for those who are young. Once, I was at a conference with the late and wonderful mayor of Minneapolis, Art Naftalin. He was a dear and valued friend and colleague. I asked him why the Minneapolis St. Paul Metropolitan Metro area had given rise to more urban policy innovations than most other areas of the nation (including metropolitan delivery of services, tax-base sharing, etc.).

I expected the mayor to respond with something like, “Well we have good leaders,” or, “Our citizens care,” or, “We really do have a solid institutional structure,” or “The politics are ripe.” Without batting an eye, however, Mayor Naftalin— “Art” — looked at me and indicated, “It’s because we have more Scandinavians here.”

What an interesting answer! I queried the mayor on his response. He said, “It’s because folks who emigrated from Norway and Sweden came to the area with a strong sense of community and social conscience.” He added, laughingly, that the weather often “was so cold, and the environment in Scandinavia so tough, that [they] began life at an early age, assuming shared responsibility for taking in someone else’s wash, children, and caring for the community’s public good.”

I think that Mayor Naftalin’s comments about the impact of demography and community consciousness were interesting and, for Minneapolis St. Paul in the sixties, probably reasonable. Jumping to 2015, and the present political polarization of Washington and many states and communities, I have some “fabulistic” ideas. First, why not create an innovative Avis-Rent-a-Scandinavian program to encourage Scandinavian emigration. Involved immigrants would receive fast pathways to citizenship as long as they show strong involvement in community life and leadership. Second, why not organize Scandinavian leaders in communities in the U.S. that illustrate a vibrant, strong Swedish or Norwegian demographic? They could make wonderful facilitators and spread the word about community building. Third, why not grant subsidies to surrogate mothers who agree to bear a Scandinavian child for parents desiring Norwegian or Swedish children? All right, this one is only presented to wake you up! It will take too long a time to make a difference in population numbers. No genetic engineering here. (As an aside, the idea is akin to relying only or even primarily on renewable fuels at the present time to significantly reduce GHG and other pollutants, given the number of existing internal combustion vehicles.)

Again, this discourse seems to be right out of Peter Pan’s Neverland. But, bottom line, there is wisdom in Mayor Naftalin’s comments, particularly with respect to developing strong concepts of the public good to secure support for polices to increase use of alternative fuels, FFVs and open fuel markets.

Because of the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of what was, until two weeks ago, focused on declining prices of gasoline and often real-dollar savings to low- and moderate-income households, an opportunity to create a nonpartisan constituency for sustained lower-fuel costs probably now exists among America’s population, particularly among less-than-affluent folks and their advocates. So, let’s make everyone a bit Swedish or Norwegian.

But human memories are often short lived and if gasoline continues to rise over the next few months, our memory of nearly $2 dollar a gallon gasoline will likely be lost. How many remember when gas was only twenty-five cents a gallon? I do. Only because I ran out of money when I was 16 several times and had to cash in bottles to secure gasoline.

Seriously, a brief window exists to create a broad community or public interest coalition (e.g., government, business, environmental groups, national, state and community groups interested in helping low- and moderate-income people, etc.) to sustain lower fuel prices. The coalition’s agenda, if successful, would open up gas markets to competition from safe, lower-priced, environmentally better alternative fuels — natural gas, ethanol, methanol, electricity and other renewables. They are not perfect fuels, but they are better than gasoline. Let gasoline compete on an even playing field instead of being protected by franchise agreements between stations and oil producers as well as the present absence of equitable and efficient public policies. I bet by trolling computerized Yellow Pages, the coalition could find Swedes and Norwegians — or their counterparts throughout the population — to provide strategic local, state and, indeed, national leadership and support for alternative fuels. Or, better yet, we all could become, in Mayor Naftalin’s terms, Scandinavian. Paraphrasing President Kennedy, “Ich bin ein Norwegian, Swedish.” Yes, we can! Instead of “drill baby drill”, let’s substitute “alternative fuels grownups alternative fuels!”

Should we use ethical thinking to respond to harm caused by oil’s boom and bust periods?

Many years ago, I wrote a piece for the Denver Post. At the time, I was the dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado. The column appeared just after the earthquake that devastated part of the Marina in San Francisco and was preceded, I believe, by a series of tornadoes in Tornado Alley in the Midwest. At the time, I expressed my concern that Congress was rushing to approve legislation that would aid individuals and communities that were negatively affected by both traumas. While I was in favor of helping them, I wondered out loud in the piece, “Why is it so easy for our leaders to immediately respond to people and communities where there is a reasonable probability that terrible events like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding will occur relatively frequently or with some certainty over time?” Put another way, community development and home buying or renting are most often conscious choices by individuals, groups and institutions. If they can choose where to live and/or develop, and if they know in advance that their choice is risky because of geology or climate, except for emergency support, should extensive public assistance be provided without too much discussion or analysis in the form of subsidies, insurance, tax breaks (an imputed subsidy) — particularly when it’s so hard to maintain social welfare and education initiatives for the poor who have few choices?

texas2Policy polarization is as bad as political or ideological polarization and complex questions of policy deserve more than an either/or dialogue, particularly when the pool of funds, public, nonprofit or private resources is limited, and should require efficient and equitable choices. It may well be that living in risky areas is the only choice of some households, given income or job constraints. But clearly, many of the folks living in hurricane-prone areas along the East Coast (e.g., Hilton Head) or in earthquake-susceptible areas like the Marina in San Francisco, are not among the poor or very poor. Developers, who read relevant government maps and study models, also know that higher tides and flooding, likely related to climate change, are increasingly possible along America’s coast lines. Yet development still goes on and builders make profits, and in the end the public often pays when calamities happen.

Now, what does all this have to do with ethics, gasoline and alternative replacement fuels? I have been intrigued with the recent spate of articles concerning the fact that the decline of gas prices (increasing over the past two weeks, at least) has benefited certain vulnerable, low-income people and has harmed others. As important, perhaps, the decline has made community leaders and residents in areas subject to the recent oil boom worried about the impact of price reductions on the tax base, new development and maintaining services. Most are clearly more sensitive than they have been to the effect of oil boom and bust periods.

Clearly, the least advantaged among us have secured what amounts to a personal income and household budget boost from the lower costs of gasoline. It is likely that their jobs and quality of life prospects have increased simultaneously. They can search for a job farther from their home, they can visit relatives who do not live in their community more easily and affordably, they might even be able to take a vacation using their car. But other low- and, indeed, moderate-income folks have suffered either because current or anticipated cutbacks in oil production, for example, in the Texas shale area will cost or will soon cost many of them their jobs and because their communities have had to cut back on needed often promised services. An oil producer, local to the Texas shale area, recently told Financial Times: “We are stacking rigs and laying people off every day. Everyone is.”

Questions whether the current increase in oil prices is a preface to the future or are just a part of resource instability are now being argued in the media by would-be experts. But the ethical questions concerning winners and losers, as well as possible public support options and company behavior, are and will remain pervasive. They are just as difficult to answer now as they were years ago and will likely still be difficult to answer years from now.

“While the town’s oil workers [and their communities (my addition)] count themselves as victims of the slump in crude prices, they in part contributed to their own downfall,” the author of the Financial Times piece wrote. Visions of permanent, high-paying jobs drew many employees to oil-boom areas and visions of higher taxes and sustained economic growth converted town leaders to boosters for speculative spending and oil-related development — often without attention to reserves and debt.

Estimates of profits, technological inventions, such as fracking, and the high price of oil and gas just a few years ago generated producer behavior in seeking leases and installing drilling rigs.

Sorry to drop a name, but if you buy into Rawlsian ethics (and if you don’t, let’s discuss), a country’s real greatness is defined by how it treats the least among us. In this context, the oil companies deserve little sympathy. They are long-time recipients of significant direct and indirect or imputed public subsidies. Production is still rising, and their bottom line, in light of the choices they have to cut back spending, will likely remain strong.

The ethical issues, as noted earlier, are trickier for employees and towns. To some extent, employees were captured by iterative boom town publicity, employments ads, “drill, baby, drill” talk out of Washington, and reports of comparatively high income levels in oil production areas. Over America’s history, household mobility has probably raised more incomes and provided more quality of life choices to those involved than any existing public policy.

Clearly, many people who had choices because of income and family structure to begin with were motivated to move to the oil shale areas. If they chose to move and their decisions were wrong, to what extent is the larger community or the nation responsible to provide support, apart from advice? It’s a tough question, given budgetary constraints and the increased numbers of low-income folks in the nation, some of whom had no choice concerning jobs but to move to boom communities or to stay in place. Similarly, if the cities and towns involved saw oil production as their ticket to a glorious future, and if they were wrong or they didn’t hedge the bet, does management weaknesses and local boosterism merit more than sympathy for the human condition and the lack of perfection in our leaders? Again, these are tough questions because real people are involved. Many Midwestern, Southwestern, and Western areas have become ghost towns or towns that once dreamed and are now more off-the-road tourist attractions of what used to be viable communities.

Let’s go back to the future. Maybe just maybe some of these global ethical issues could be reduced if the oil industry itself assumed some responsibility for social and community problems during “bust” times. Not just a reserve fund or diverse investments and products to help the company ride out long busts, but a fund to help communities they have “rigged (excuse the play on words)” and their residents ride out the down economic tide, and for employees to relocate if they want to. Probably a bad idea, but think about it! Companies get federal help, even in boom times, even when most analysts of right and left say it’s unnecessary. What’s wrong with a relatively small payback? Values based capitalism!

Perhaps ethical issues could be lessened if the federal government and oil companies could be convinced to move toward open fuel markets. Gas prices seem to be on the rise. One way to hold them down and provide low- and moderate-income workers a break is to convert gasoline stations to fuel stations. Given the lower prices of alternative fuels, competition, in this instance, would sustain at least part of the income benefits that consumers, including low- and moderate-income consumers, have had when gas was priced at low levels. Competition might also help maintain the economy of some shale areas that, for example, produce natural gas and have, or can have, site blenders for ethanol.

As I said earlier, basic ethical problems related to resource distribution, whether related to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or oil economic boom and bust cycles are difficult to resolve easily. Assigning fault between public, private sectors and individuals is a complicated task, made more complicated because of numerous exogenous variables that are not readily influenced in the short term (e.g., climate change or tension in the Middle East) at least by institutional, group or human actions, as well as a lack of data concerning cause and effect relationships and the power of special interest groups. We probably are condemned to the noted political scientist Charles Lindblom’s description of policymaking as muddling through to decisions. After consulting many companies and working with citizen groups and individuals over the years, I would add that the muddling process applies in varying degrees to them also. It’s the American way and has its advantages, particularly when we are uncertain about alternative strategies. Indeed, often it has better outcomes than decisions by fiat. Many times, it helps generate consensus during decision making processes and about decisions. Importantly, it also many times increases involvement of disenfranchised constituencies. But we can try to do better muddles!

What does loving America have to do with the whims and opportunity costing of the oil industry?

The Greeks are going broke…slowly! The Russians are bipolar with respect to Ukraine! Rudy Giuliani has asked the columnist Ann Landers (she was once a distant relative of the author) about the meaning of love! President Obama, understandably, finds more pleasure in the holes on a golf course than the deep political holes he must jump over in governing, given the absence of bipartisanship.

2012-2015_Avg-Gas-Prices1-1024x665But there is good news! Many ethanol producers and advocacy groups, with enough love for America to encompass this past Valentine’s Day and the next (and of course, with concern for profits), have acknowledged that a vibrant, vigorous, loving market for E85 is possible, if E85 costs are at least 20 percent below E10 (regular gasoline) — a percentage necessary to accommodate the fact that E10 gas gets more mileage per gallon than E85. Consumers may soon have a choice at more than a few pumps.

In recent years, the E85 supply chain has been able to come close, in many states, to a competitive cost differential with respect to E10. Indeed, in some states, particularly states with an abundance of corn (for now, ethanol’s principal feedstock), have come close to or exceeded market-based required price differentials. Current low gas prices resulting from the decline of oil costs per barrel have thrown price comparisons between E85 and E10 through a bit of a loop. But the likelihood is that oil and gasoline prices will rise over the next year or two because of cutbacks in the rate of growth of production, tension in the Middle East, growth of consumer demand and changes in currency value. Assuming supply and demand factors follow historical patterns and government policies concerning, the use of RNS credits and blending requirements regarding ethanol are not changed significantly, E85 should become more competitive on paper at least pricewise with gasoline.

Ah! But life is not always easy for diverse ethanol fuel providers — particularly those who yearn to increase production so E85 can go head-to-head with E10 gasoline. Maybe we can help them.

Psychiatrists, sociologists and poll purveyors have not yet subjected us to their profound articles concerning the possible effect of low gas prices on consumers, particularly low-income consumers. Maybe, just maybe, a first-time, large grass-roots consumer-based group composed of citizens who love America will arise from the good vibes and better household budgets caused by lower gas prices. Maybe, just maybe, they will ask continuous questions of their congresspersons, who also love America, querying why fuel prices have to return to the old gasoline-based normal. Similarly, aided by their friendly and smart economists, maybe, just maybe, they will be able to provide data and analysis to show that if alternative lower-cost based fuels compete on an even playing field with gasoline and substitute for gasoline in increasing amounts, fuel prices at the pump will likely reflect a new lower-cost based normal favorable to consumers. It’s time to recognize that weakening the oil industry’s monopolistic conditions now governing the fuel market would go a long way toward facilitating competition and lowering prices for both gasoline and alternative fuels. It, along with some certainty concerning the future of the renewable fuels program, would also stimulate investor interest in sorely needed new fuel stations that would facilitate easier consumer access to ethanol.

Who is for an effective Open Fuel Standard Program? People who love America! It’s the American way! Competition, not greed, is good! Given the oil industry’s ability to significantly influence, if not dominate, the fuel market, it isn’t fair (and maybe even legal) for oil companies to legally require franchisees to sell only their brand of gasoline at the pump or to put onerous requirements on the franchisees should they want to add an E85 pump or even an electric charger. It is also not right (or likely legal) for an oil company and or franchisee to put an arbitrarily high price on E85 in order to drive (excuse the pun) consumers to lower priced gasoline?

Although price is the key barrier, now affecting the competition between E85 and E10, it is not the only one. In this context, ethanol’s supply chain participants, including corn growers, and (hopefully soon) natural gas providers, need to review alternate, efficient and cost-effective ways to produce, blend, distribute and sell their product. More integration, cognizant of competitive price points and consistent with present laws and regulations, including environmental laws and regulations, is important.

The ethanol industry and its supporters have done only a fair to middling job of responding to the oil folks and their supporters who claim that E15 will hurt automobile engines and E85 may negatively affect newer FFVs and older internal combustion engines converted to FFVs. Further, their marketing programs and the marketing programs of flex-fuel advocates have not focused clearly on the benefits of ethanol beyond price. Ethanol is not a perfect fuel but, on most public policy scales, it is better than gasoline. It reflects environmental, economic and security benefits, such as reduced pollutants and GHG emissions, reduced dependency on foreign oil and increased job potential. They are worth touting in a well-thought-out, comprehensive marketing initiative, without the need to use hyperbole.

America and Americans have done well when monopolistic conditions in industrial sectors have lessened or have been ended by law or practice (e.g., food, airlines, communication, etc.). If you love America, don’t leave the transportation and fuel sector to the whims and opportunity costing of the oil industry.