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The pot calling the kettle black: The AEA and alternative fuels

justice2I have great sympathy for the coal miners of this nation. Their job in supplying this nation with coal is among the toughest in the world. Their historical contribution to the nation’s economic well-being is well established. They were, and many remain, beset with long hours, moderate pay (currently $22,000 to $64,000 per year), negative health and safety problems, and, at times, an unsavory public and private sector bureaucracy.

The glory years for coal appear to be over. Increasingly, the public and environmental experts and policy leaders view coal as a dirty fuel. Succinctly, coal emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Most analysts believe the future of the coal industry is dim.

Clearly, in the past decade, market forces, not public policy, have forced many electric utilities to substitute natural gas for coal, and the competition with coal to date suggests coal will be the economic loser. The cost differential between the two, generally, has favored natural gas.

Without a bipartisan commitment to find transitional pathways for miners and/or successful economic development options for their communities, present-day miners will regrettably become part of America’s throwaway society — consumed and discarded by technological change and the fear of global warming. Congress, the White House and the American public have a moral — if not an economic, social and political– obligation to look hard at training and mobility initiatives for miners, as well as economic development strategies in their places of residence and work.

Regrettably, the conservative American Energy Alliance (AEA) has put its muscle behind a frontal attack on the president’s effort to substitute alternative fuels for coal to power utility plants instead of a well-defined effort to define workable strategies to help miners find other than declining mining positions. If a coalition cannot be built to find feasible solutions to expand job opportunities for miners, many miners, whose experience is often limited, will find themselves locked in place and will face a life of poverty or near-poverty — even when the economy returns to health and unemployment decreases. The structure of the American economy has changed, and the change does not favor mining.

Surprisingly, given its history in opposing social welfare initiatives, AEA indicates that the EPA’s recently announced Clean Power Plan, which requires the states to cut back significantly on GHG emissions, is “justice denied” to millions of minorities and low-income households. While analyses of the impact of the Clean Power Plan on different demographic and income groups are not yet precise, the AEA statement does not acknowledge the fact that alternative fuels, like natural gas, have been on a per-dollar kilowatt-hour cost cheaper than coal. The AEA also fails to note the potential savings in health and other societal costs (for low-income families in particular) resulting from lower GHG emissions and other pollutants. A disproportionate number of low-income people live near utilities, refineries and coal mines because of the absence of affordable housing and cheap transportation. Until relatively recently, gasoline prices limited the ability of many low-income households to travel from decent housing to their current or potential jobs. Several respected economists view the current drop in oil and gasoline prices as a relatively short- to intermediate-term phenomenon (1-2 years), and that the norm, once the world economy improves, will much higher than it is today.

The American Energy Alliance is pro-oil and pro-coal. That’s okay — this is its right. But in this context, its support of both fuels should mute its legitimacy as a research organization or the research of many of the organizations it supports or its supporters support. The AEA is, plain and simple, an advocacy group whose causes are predetermined by the self-interest and ideology of its donors.

Unfortunately but understandably, the AEA is unlikely to ever support the considered use of high-octane alternative fuels or their independent study, whether for utilities or transportation. Placing alternative before fuels, even though it could mean improved choices and lower costs for low-income consumers, improved environmental conditions, less GHG emissions and greater overall economic benefits is and will not be in AEA’s lexicon. In this context, AEA seems to have hijacked the term or phrase “justice denied” in a manner that does not fit the intent of some of the original users — Martin Luther King, Jr., William Gladstone, and Frederick Douglass. Their respective purposes in using the term were to expand choices, to redress societal inequities and to lessen the burdens of the disadvantaged. It is time we consider alternatives to weaning the nation and the world off of oil and coal, and acknowledge the fact that justice denied diminishes justice everywhere, and in the ethicist John Rawls’s words, hurts the least advantaged among us.

methanol car

Why aren’t we using methanol?

The more you look at the contemporary scene with gasoline and imported oil, the more you have to wonder why we’re not switching some of our fuel needs to methanol.

Look at what’s happening: Oil has become so plentiful that we’re reverting to the old situation of the 1950s, when the big concern among oil people was that some new discovery was going to be made in some far corner of the world and there would be a new “glut” that would cause the bottom to fall out of the market. It was during this era that we placed a 20 percent cap on our oil imports. The concern was that there was so much cheap oil in the world that the American oil industry would be decimated.

All that changed in 1970 when American production finally leveled off — right about the time geoscientist M. King Hubbert had predicted “Hubbert’s Peak” would occur. The import ban proved easy to circumvent, and before we knew, it we were importing 36 percent of our oil, most of it from the Persian Gulf. OPEC, first convened in Baghdad by Saddam Hussein in 1960, suddenly became more than a debating society and realized it had real market leverage. Instead of begging the oil companies for higher royalties, the OPEC nations suddenly realized they could raise their price and even withhold supplies. The era of the Energy Crisis had begun.

Congress did all the wrong things in responding. It extended President Nixon’s price controls on one commodity, oil, creating a domestic shortage — too much consumption, not enough production. We made up for this by importing more oil, in which the price controls didn’t apply. While President Carter mandated a “moral equivalent of war” and wore cardigan sweaters, the price controls had the exact opposite effect: Our imports swelled from 36 percent to 50 percent in 1980, and we were sitting ducks when the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War suddenly cut short supplies. The result was the Second Gas Shortage.

President Reagan put an end to all this by striking down the oil-price controls his first week in office. Drillers went wild in Texas, and the Saudis flooded the market in trying to maintain market share. Soon prices had collapsed back to 1972 levels, and the “oil shortage” was pretty much forgotten.

Meanwhile, similar developments were taking place in natural gas. This commodity had been subject to federal price controls since the 1930s. Basically, it was an attempt by the Northern consuming states to rob Texas and Louisiana of their natural resources. In 1977 we actually experienced a “natural gas shortage” that caused factories and schools all over the North to close down in mid-winter, while Texas and Louisiana were burning natural gas for electricity — then considered horribly wasteful — because the price controls did not apply intrastate. This “crisis” was solved more slowly as natural-gas price controls were not phased out until 1988. Once again, supplies gushed forth. (We did learn a lesson. Nobody has talked about price controls on oil and natural gas since.)

Even with the market freely operating, however, the natural supplies of both oil and natural gas seemed to be diminishing, so that by 2005 we were running short of gas and back to importing more than half our oil. Then George Mitchell’s fracking revolution began. Suddenly, America was the world’s leading producer and oil and gas were once again in abundance.

Yet as far as freeing ourselves from further dependence on foreign oil, the results have been disappointing. Even though we are again producing 10 million barrels of oil a day, we are still dependent on imports for 30 percent of our oil, about one-quarter of this from the Persian Gulf. Low prices have stimulated consumption. People are going back to buying bigger cars and our gasoline use is hitting new records. Sales of electric cars and other alternative vehicles have nearly collapsed. Whatever impulse there is toward conservation is highly dependent on price.

Anything that requires a new infrastructure — electric cars, hydrogen vehicles, compressed natural gas and propane — will have trouble getting beyond a niche market. It’s simply too troublesome and expensive to get people to convert. But corn ethanol and methanol both slot easily into our current system of gas pumps and can compete.

The trouble with corn ethanol is that we are rapidly exhausting the potential supplies. We now use 40 percent of the corn crop to replace 3 percent of our gasoline. Cellulosic ethanol may expand supplies, but it is still basically experimental.

That leaves one fuel that could potentially replace vast amounts of our imported oil — methanol made from natural gas. We have enough natural gas supplies from fracking to make this a game-changer.

The great irony is that China sees this opportunity and is already seizing it. The Chinese are busy constructing two huge methanol conversion plants in Texas and Louisiana in order to take advantage of the abundant supplies coming out of the region. The Chinese have a million methanol cars on the road and will be carrying these supplies back to China to power their growing transport sector.

Yet the EPA continues to refuse to allow methanol to be used in car engines, mainly because of the reputation earned as a poisonous “wood alcohol” during Prohibition.

As Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security once said: “I think methanol fares poorly in Washington precisely because it doesn’t need any subsidies or government assistance in making it economical. For that reason you have no big constituency behind it and no member of Congress crusading on its behalf.” The entire farm belt is working to support ethanol, but there is no “methanol state” or corresponding congressman working in its favor. For that reason it languishes.

For almost 50 years the Indianapolis 500 cars have run on methanol. Yet it is still forbidden in our commercial transport sector. Isn’t it time that somebody considered the general good and started crusading on behalf of methanol?

(Photo by Vivid Racing, posted to Flickr)

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Poet biofuels

Former Shell Oil chief: U.S. must become more oil independent

Just in time for the Fourth of July weekend: Our very own John Hofmeister speaking words of wisdom about the need for the United States to wean itself off oil as its dominant transportation fuel.

“It’s incumbent upon the United States of America to become more oil independent,” Hofmeister said at a security conference in Israel in June. “Because it still relies on nearly 7 million barrels a day of imports, and in a nation that uses 18 and a half to 19 million barrels of oil per day, the loss or the risk of 7 million barrels a day of imports puts that nation at about two-thirds of independence, and that’s not enough for the world’s largest economy.

“So there remains an interdependence, until the U.S. can find independence, and it has every right and every responsibility to pursue independence. As does every other nation.”

Watch Hofmeister’s full talk at the Herzliya Conference in Tel Aviv:

Hofmeister knows of what he speaks: He was the president of Shell Oil Co., the American subsidiary of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, from 2005 to 2008. The author of “Why We Hate the Oil Companies” now travels the world talking about the need for alternatives to oil. He’s not only on the board of directors and advisors at Fuel Freedom, he founded a nonprofit called Citizens for Affordable Energy.

U.S. crude prices closed at $56.96 a barrel Wednesday, down $2.51 or 4 percent, the biggest one-day drop since April 8. Compare that to last summer, when the price was above $100. But the market remains volatile, and Hofmeister said having oil at an affordable price long-term is necessary for national security.

“If you’re not taking care of yourself, no one else will,” Hofmeister said.  “And so nations should look to their security — not just to their defense forces, but to their energy supplies — which in the United States, is why I’m almost entirely focused now on transitioning natural gas to transportation fuels, as well as biofuels, as well as electricity for transportation. Because the future of oil is simply limited. We’re not running out. It won’t disappear. But it simply won’t be available at this price for an indefinite future.”

Hofmeister expanded on another of his major themes: that natural gas, which is cheap and plentiful in the United States, could help the U.S. and other nations reduce oil consumption. Natural gas is used as a fuel in its gaseous, compressed form — as CNG and LNG — and it can also be processed into liquid alcohol fuel, ethanol or methanol.

“Over the next decade, nations like the United States, or like Israel, or like much of Europe if not the whole of Europe, that are not transitioning at least a third of their oil demand away from oil and toward natural gas will only look back in regret.”

(Photo credit: Poet Biorefining plant in Macon, Missouri. From FarmProgress.com)

Being a fuel agnostic and a believer, simultaneously

enemyBeing agnostic about certain things in life either makes you a person of little faith or willingness to leap across no or partial data; a wise person who is intellectually and emotionally strong enough to reflect on his or her personal doubts; a person who would prefer not to think about life’s complexities; or, succinctly, a person who is intellectually and emotionally lazy.

No, I am not going to discuss God at this time. But I do want to talk about fuel agnosticism. When people ask me which fuel I like, most times I reply that I am fuel agnostic. Put another way, except for gasoline, I have only strategic short-term fuel favorites among the fuels now on, or soon to come on, the market. As far as gasoline, I agree with the president, almost all environmentalists and a growing number of business leaders, that America must wean itself off gasoline. It just does not cut it, given the country’s air quality, GHG, pollution, economic and security objectives.

Happily, drivers, particularly owners of flex-fuel vehicles (new or converted) have fuel choices at the present time besides gasoline. They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But they are better than gasoline with respect to key public policy and quality of life commitments.

Flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) can use E85 ethanol blend, the vast majority of which is made from corn; battery powered vehicles can power up on electricity; vehicles with fuel cells can fill up with hydrogen. Natural gas-based ethanol likely will come on the market relatively soon, perhaps within the next 3 to 5 years. This is only a partial list, but they include the “biggies” with respect to alternative fuels.

Obstacles exist restricting consumer ability to exercise their choices among alternative fuels. Among them:

  • lack of investment in infrastructure — fuel stations, pumps etc.
  • franchise agreements excluding sale of E85 at brand-name stations

Both electric and hydrogen-cell cars, on average, are too expensive right now for most Americans to purchase, and reliance on batteries increases the psychiatrist’s bill for many drivers because of mileage constraints. Fear of being stuck on a freeway without electricity and without proximity to fuel stations induces lots of pre-driving psychodrama and expands the use of Ambien the night before driving relatively long distances. Misery, in this case, doesn’t like company. Sort’ve up the crowded creek without a paddle. However, on the good news side, we may have a paddle soon, as electric car producers are aiming at batteries capable of “driving” cars longer distances and producing cheaper sticker prices. Hopefully, with increased use of natural gas, wind and solar power as substitutes for coal, electric cars will become even better than they are now concerning life-cycle GHG emissions.

Corn-based ethanol is presently the best alternative fuel capable of competing with gasoline on a large scale and simultaneously responding to environmental, pollution and GHG objectives. Independent retailers selling E85 have grown in number and locational diversity. Better land management by farmers and an ample supply of corn have lessened the intensity of the food vs. fuel dialogue. While varying over time, the price of ethanol now in most areas of the nation is very competitive with gasoline on a mileage-per-gallon basis. The price differential between the two fuels seemingly has stabilized at between 20 and 26 percent.

Detroit, aided by available federal incentives, has put more than 17 million FFVs on the road. And even though there is a paucity of fuel stations, sales of E85 have still increased modestly.

Because of costs related to development and certification, only one EPA-approved conversion kit exists to change internal combustion engines to FFVs. It is very expensive. Even though consumers, including drivers of fleet vehicles, administered by the public sector, indicate driver satisfaction with the kit, its limited use to convert EPA-approved vehicles to FFV status is understandable. An increase in the number of certified kits would bring down their price and lead to expanded conversion of existing gasoline-only autos.

Natural gas-based ethanol has stimulated a good deal of interest. The process of making ethanol from natural gas seems doable. Coskata, Inc., has developed and tested a process to convert natural gas to ethanol. It results in a product that is relatively inexpensive and responds well to environmental and GHG objectives. The company is seeking financing to build one or more facilities. Its success will provide a strong contender among alternatives for consumer fuel dollars.

It is important that we extend the menu of choices at the pump. Right now, the nation has no real strategy to get from where we are now, which on paper and in a limited way at your friendly gas station is promising, to an effective nationwide menu of consumer fuel choices. Acting now to secure such a strategy is important, in light of GHG emissions, pollution and security problems, including growing tension in the Middle East and our allies’ continued need for imported oil.

We need an immediate, transitional and long-term strategy that increases competition, over time, among multiple fuels — fuels able to respond to national economic, social welfare, and environmental as well as GHG objectives. Through public-private sector partnerships, the nation should be aiming at low-hanging fruit (substitute fuel) like corn-based ethanol E85, and, when it’s ready, natural gas-based ethanol.

Electric vehicles and hydrogen-fuel vehicles are not yet ready for prime time, but both, with technological, cost, and design improvements, could be a necessity in the intermediate and long-term future. Let’s not meet the enemy only to find out that he or she is us (Pogo). We have the data to become a believer concerning the benefits of a transitional and growing fuel menu, while at least for now being fuel agnostic.

pigs-car

Pig power: A messy problem becomes a fuel solution

You can thank Hernando de Soto for bacon and pork chops.

The Spanish explorer gets credit for introducing the pig to America, having brought 13 of them to Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1539. By the time of de Soto’s death, three years later, that passel of piggies had grown to more than 700. Yes, pigs grow quickly. They also poop, 24 hours a day, in great quantities.

That manure can be transformed into fuel for vehicles. So even though we’ve let all that pig poop — and cow poop, for that matter — go to waste all these centuries, more of it is being processed to extract methane, the principal component of natural gas.

All over the country, this renewable form of methane is being collected and fed into the nation’s natural-gas pipelines, and then transported to fueling stations to be used as compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). The fuel is not only much cheaper than petroleum-based vehicle fuels, it burns cleaner: It contains about 23 percent less in greenhouse-gas emissions than diesel and 30 percent less than gasoline. Capturing all that methane instead of letting it float away from farms is also important, since the gas is more than 20 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide.

There are some 191 renewable-methane projects on farms in the United States, according to the American Biogas Council (the EPA’s AgSTAR Stories project has profiles on many of them). These farms use anaerobic digesters, which involve storing the manure in tanks or ponds. The fecal matter, as well as food scraps and other farm waste, is broken down into smaller molecules, and the material usually is covered, to help elevate the temperature inside. That allows anaerobic bacteria (which don’t take in oxygen) to go to work on them. Methane is made as a result, and machines vacuum off the gas, cleanse it of impurities (like CO2) and ship it off to be used as fuel.

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A Clean Energy renewable-methane plant outside of Memphis.

Clean Energy Fuels of Newport Beach, California, has invested heavily in what it calls Redeem, its proprietary biogas made from organic waste. Twelve of its contracted projects in North America are at landfills — discarded food produces large amounts of methane, as does cellulosic trash like cardboard and paper — and three other projects are agricultural.

“There’s a tremendous energy potential in waste, and this is one of the more efficient and cost-effective ways of capturing that,” says Harrison Clay, president of the company’s subsidiary, Clean Energy Renewable Fuels. “I think there’ll be more and more opportunity at these large, concentrated agricultural operations to take their waste and turn it into an energy project, from a problem to a solution.”

Methane accumulates in large landfills, and many are legally required to flare it once it starts to seep out. Clean Energy’s equipment captures it instead. “So it’s a tremendous GHG emission benefit,” Clay said, “because you’re capturing all this methane that otherwise would go into the atmosphere, and you’re turning it into fuel and displacing oil.”

Ingenious ideas for turning waste into fuel are coming from all quarters: In England, a passenger bus called the Bio-Bus runs on human waste, as well as inedible food waste, culled from a sewage treatment plant.

Livestock is uniquely suited to be a renewable fuel source, because cows and pigs are prolific producers of manure. According to the USDA, dairy cows account for about 80 pounds per day (per 1,000 pounds of animal weight). The equivalent in hogs accounts for 63.1 pounds per day.

At Circle Four Farms near Milford, Utah (about halfway between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas), a million and a half hogs are raised and taken to market each year. It’s the largest pig farm in the western United States, and every day those hogs produce a million gallons of manure.

Three years ago, a Provo firm called Alpental Energy Partners, which finances alternative-energy projects, noticed the potential of the massive farm. (How could one not notice? The odor from the facility can be smelled for miles.) Alpental built anaerobic digesters that turn all that poop into electricity that powers more than 3,000 homes in a town hundreds of miles away.  (Here’s a great local TV report on the project.)

Such a project could easily provide the same benefits, but for drivers of cars, trucks and SUVs that run on natural gas, which also happens to be a “feedstock” for alcohol fuels that can run in flex-fuel vehicles.

Paul Stephan, managing partner at Alpental, said various incentives, including carbon credits and investment tax credits, which enhanced the revenue stream from the pig project. But those were complicated to secure. “If we didn’t have one of those [revenue] attributes, it would probably be more profitable for us to sell it as transportation fuel,” he said. “I think if I was going to go look at doing another project in the United States off of pig manure and methane, I’d probably sell it as transportation fuel.”

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Natural gas touted as the next alternative fuel in San Diego

“I’m not proud of it, but I’m a reformed diesel guy,” said Andrew Douglas, senior VP of sales and marketing at Agility Fuel Systems of Santa Ana, California.

Douglas was among the dozens of attendees at the L-NGV2015 conference in San Diego last week, a gathering mostly aimed at the compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. Agility retrofits tractor-trailers to run on CNG, and has produced 25,000 such vehicles since it was founded in 1996.

cylinder_stackMore and more companies are converting to CNG: In the early years the customers were mostly city transit buses and garbage trucks, but the shipping sector is taking advantage of systems that can stash more fuel on board and propel the big trucks longer distances. On the company’s new Saddle Creek Gen 5 model, four cylinders of CNG totaling 160-gallon diesel equivalent are stacked up behind the driver’s cab. The setup weighs more than 3,000 pounds, but it can travel 750 to 850 miles without refueling.

But the industry has challenges: Douglas said the goal is to get 10 percent of the nation’s heavy-duty trucks running on natural gas by 2020. The cost of such vehicles is steep, although Agility says companies can make that money back within 2 years.

“Eighty years ago there was a transition to an alternative fuel going — diesel,” he told a conference room of about 40 people. The industry is seeing a migration to a “new alternative fuel,” natural gas. Just as decades ago, price is the motivator.

Diesel is averaging about $2.86 a gallon, compared with $2.11 for CNG.

“I think we’re seeing an evolution to a cheaper fuel source, in this case, natural gas,” he said.

Later, showing off one of Agility’s behind-the-cab systems on a Frito-Lay truck in a cavernous room of the San Diego Convention Center, Douglas talked about being a trucking guy at heart, trying to convince trucking companies to switch away from a fuel that has been synonymous with big trucks for decades.

“Sometimes you have moments of doubt. And whenever I go there, I think to myself, No matter what the obstacles are, it’s about the price of fuel — or the differential (between NG and diesel). That’s what’s going to drive this.”

CNG truck22Fuel Freedom Foundation co-founder and chairman Yossie Hollander presented on the same panel as Douglas and Greg Roche from Applied LNG of Westlake Village, California. Hollander praised CNG and LNG, saying it’s going to be a “sustainable business for a long time.” But he reminded the panelists that the market for light-duty vehicles is 3.5 times bigger than the market for larger vehicles. “That’s the larger market here.”

One solution is to make liquid alcohol fuels, like ethanol and methanol, out of natural gas. Those fuels can run in many of the vehicles Americans drive already, without the need to buy a new vehicle or undertake an expensive conversion.

Fuel Freedom seeks to open the fuels market so all fuels, including CNG, LNG and alcohol fuels, are available to the consumer, not just gasoline. “We don’t have favorites,” Hollander said. “What we want is a supermarket.”

L-NGV conf banner

Natural gas center of attention at L-NGV2015

We’re headed to the L-NGV2015 conference in San Diego, where natural gas will be in the spotlight.

Natural gas has been getting a lot of attention lately, because the United States is producing so much of it. As Jude Clemente wrote in Forbes earlier this month:

U.S. proven natural gas reserves continue to soar to record highs. We now have some 360 Tcf [trillion cubic feet] of proven gas in the ground, recoverable under current market conditions, experiencing increases of 5-8% per year. Driven by the Marcellus shale play in the Appalachian Basin, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have registered the largest gains, with both state reserve totals more than quadrupling since 2010. In fact, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have accounted for about 60% of new U.S. gas reserves since 2008, although mighty Texas continues to plug along, upping its reserves by 20% since then.

The surge has occurred despite a steady decline in prices. Henry Hub spot prices are about $2.80 per million British Thermal Units, down from an average of $8.86 per MMBtu in 2008, as Clemente notes.

NG is running about 70 percent lower in price than the equivalent amount of oil, even with oil’s precipitous drop from last summer. That’s what makes natural gas an attractive alternative for transportation fuel.

Much of the discussion at L-NGV2015 will center on compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is being used in municipal fleets (official vehicles and transit buses) and industrial trucking (delivery, garbage-hauling) around the country. These fuels not only cost less than gasoline and diesel, they burn much cleaner, which is better for air quality and the environment.

Natural gas can also be converted into alcohol fuels to run in the cars, trucks and SUVs driven by the rest of us.

NG is “very, very cheap, and we need to take advantage of that,” Fuel Freedom co-founder and chairman Yossie Hollander said recently during a discussion about energy in Israel. “The greatest opportunity is a transportation one. Using a natural-gas product, whether compressed natural gas, liquid natural gas, ethanol from natural gas – you can make ethanol from natural gas, and another fuel called methanol – if we use all of them in transportation to replace oil, this will replace a $3 trillion industry around the world.”

We’ll be presenting more about this topic at L-NGV2015. Check out our Twitter feed (@fuelfreedomnow) for regular updates.

propane school bus

Propane gains as an alternative for vehicles

School bus drivers in Macon, Georgia, have noticed one advantage to their new propane-driven school buses. “The children are much quieter,” says bus driver Esther Muhammad. “That’s because the engines don’t make as much noise. The kids can actually hear themselves talk.”

Quieter engines are only one of the advantages school districts around the country are finding as they convert their fleets to propane. Lower fuel costs, lower maintenance charges and longer engine life are among the advantages. So are lower emissions and compliance with the 1995 Clean Air Act. A propane engine produces 25 percent less carbon emissions, 66,000 pounds less nitrous oxide and 2,700 pounds less particulate matter over the course of a year compared with petroleum. “Because of these new propane buses, children will no longer be exposed to diesel fumes when boarding or disembarking our buses,” says Peter Crossan, fleet and compliance manger of the Boston Public Schools, which just put in an order for 86 Blue Bird Propane Vision buses, manufactured in Georgia.

The move toward propane — which is also called “autogas” — is picking up steam. Propane buses now run in 19 of the top 25 school bus markets, including New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Miami and Phoenix. In the Mesa County Valley district of Grand Junction, Colorado. Administrators recently signed a five-year, $30 million contract that includes 122 propane buses, according to The New York Times. Altogether there are now 143,000 propane vehicles on the road in the U.S.

Propane is a gas that is easily stored as a liquid under only 160 pounds of pressure. It is a by-product of both gas and oil production, with 65 percent of our propane coming from natural gas refining and the remaining 35 percent from oil. “We have enough natural gas to last us 200 years,” says Stuart Weidie, president of Alliance Autogas. “We’re not going to run out of propane.”

Propane has been used to run cars since 1912 and is still the third most used fuel, behind gasoline and diesel. Because it’s a little more difficult to handle than gasoline and has only 85 percent of the energy content, however, its use in standard automobiles has been limited. Instead, propane is employed mainly for home heating in rural areas where gas pipelines to not extend, and for laundry dryers, water heaters, backyard barbecues and portable stoves. There are about 10,000 filling stations around the country now. Propane sells for $1 per gallon less than gasoline, which gives it a price advantage.

Right now propane is starting to be used for medium-, heavy-duty and fleet vehicles such as garbage trucks, police cars, taxis, city buses and emergency vehicles. There are 450,000 forklifts running on propane, since their exhausts are easier to tolerate in enclosed spaces. The 2016 Ford F-150 light-duty truck will be suited for propane conversion, making it the eighth Ford model to be so outfitted. However, conversion of your automobile to propane can cost from $5,000 to 10,000 and is not for the faint of heart. A lot of computer adjustments are necessary on late-model cars, and they must be outfitted with an extra gas tank. Usually cars run on both gasoline and propane, since it isn’t always easy to find a propane filling station. The payoff is $1 per gallon saved on gasoline, but since most cars consume only about 500 gallons per year, that’s a long payback. Fleet vehicles like police cars that may log 50,000 miles a year, however, become economical. United Parcel Service has 750 vehicles running on propane.

Around the country, towns and cities are starting to buy into propane. The city council in Roanoke, Virginia, has just voted to convert part of the city’s police fleet to propane, as has Springfield, Illinois. ConocoPhillips will deploy more than 300 of its vehicles to “autogas” over the next five years. The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) in southeast Michigan is converting 61 “connector buses” that provide door-to-door service for the elderly and handicapped.

The movement has reached the point where STN Expo will sponsor a one-day “Green Bus Summit” in Reno on July 29th. The participants will discuss current and pending regulatory issues and funding opportunities for propane conversions.

In moving toward propane power, the United States is actually trailing several countries that have shifted to propane because of difficulties in acquiring imported oil. South Korea, Poland, Turkey and India all run more than 50 percent of their vehicles on propane. All these countries converted after being hit hard by the oil crisis of the 1970s. In the United States, however, the price of gasoline of diesel fuel remained low enough that we didn’t have to pursue alternatives. Now that is changing.

The propane industry foresees a strategy in which the increasing use of propane by fleet vehicles and light- and medium-duty delivery trucks will eventually lead to the construction of more propane filling stations. This will give motorists enough confidence to start buying propane-enabled vehicles or convert their cars from gasoline. “That’s the way it’s happened in Europe,” says Stuart Weidie of Autogas Alliance. “I think you’re going to see it happen here as well.”

(Photo credit: Roush Cleantech)

CFiWZ1LUgAE6_hv

Utah governor: Alt-fuels have to stand on their own

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert believes in an “all of the above” approach to energy. That means renewable fuels have to stand on their own merits and compete against established transportation fuels like oil and natural gas.

“We don’t think government should pick winners and losers; we think consumers should pick winners and losers,” Herbert said Thursday at the fourth annual Governor’s Utah Energy Development Summit in Salt Lake City. “The competition between the greener sources of energy and the traditional sources of energy are acute and demanding. What I see is, because of the competition between the various sources of energy, those that are greener and cleaner are having to find ways to compete and be economic.”

That also means that there’s pressure on the oil and gas industry, too, to get cleaner. Herbert, a Republican, said energy must achieve three objectives: sustainability, affordability and less dirty.

“There is a raised sensitivity in our society to make sure we’re responsible stewards of our home, the Earth.”

Although he announced no new initiatives for cleaner energy, he touted a new state report showing the strong impact the energy sector has on the state economy. Oil, natural gas, coal and other natural resources contribute $21 billion a year in activity for the state, the report said.

Herbert said the biggest challenge he faces is how to make sure there’s sufficient infrastructure, including enough energy — coal and natural gas for electricity generation, cost-effective gasoline and diesel for drivers — to meet the demands of a growing state.

“If anything keeps me awake at night, it’s, ‘How can I handle the challenges of growth? Well, energy is a big part of that also. Part of the challenge we have is planning and anticipating for the growth pressures that surely are going to happen, whether we like it or not. I actually think growth is a healthy thing.”

Later, during an onstage discussion with Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Herbert maintained that working with the private sector has helped Utah clean up its notoriously dirty air, which accumulates along the Wasatch Front in wintertime, an affliction known as “inversions.”

“We’ve reduced the pollution levels on the Wasatch Front by 87 percent,” he said. Some critics “it’s dirtier now than ever … well, it’s not.”

After a joke from moderator Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute about Hickenlooper, a Democrat, possibly being a Democratic contender for vice president, Herbert said energy policy shouldn’t be a partisan issue in the 2016 campaign.

“The focus should be on the economy, having a healthy economy. We’re not there yet in this country. This is the longest, driest recovery period we’ve had since the Great Depression. Something’s not working right. … If your focus is on the economy, it’s got to be at least part of the focus on energy.”

“We have an opportunity to have a sustainability where we don’t have to risk national security, or our economic well-being, because the people we have to deal with [importing oil] don’t like us.”

(Photo: Utah Office of Energy)

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Economist touts natural gas at Utah energy summit

The natural-gas industry and people who promote gas as a cleaner fuel alternative need to “manage” environmental concerns about fracking, a key economist said at the fourth annual Governor’s Utah Energy Development Summit.

Dan North, chief economist for the credit-insurance company Euler Hermes North America, said Wednesday that despite the abundance and cheapness of natural gas compared with oil, only 3 percent of natural gas is used in transportation.

He said there are 17 million passenger vehicles around the world that run on natural gas (primarily CNG and LNG), but only 100,000 such vehicles in the United States. “This is an enormous opportunity going forward,” North said. “It’s terrific that we have this cheap natural gas.”

But, he added, “WE do have to manage one thing, which is the environmental concerns about fracking.” After listing all the countries, states and municipalities that have banned the oil-and-gas drilling technique also known as hydraulic fracturing, North said: “Environmental concerns have not been addressed well enough.”