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.

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