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Optimist and pessimist, the Oil & Gas Journal and replacement fuels

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist fears this is true” — James Branch Cabell. Or, as I once said in a presentation in China after Tiananmen Square, “a strategic optimist is a realist with brains.”

I live with the hope we can do better as nation with respect to the environment, our economy and the quality of life choices open to Americans, particularly low- and moderate-income Americans. But I worry that given the ideological and related political divisiveness among us, we may not.

In this context, after reading the recent article, “SAFE: Report’s ‘flash points’ emphasize US transportation fuel problem” in the Oil & Gas Journal, often seen by some as a mouthpiece for the oil industry, my thoughts reflected both optimism and pessimism. I concluded that I was a realist tempered by experience (and hopefully with a brain). Okay, what did the piece suggest that stimulated my mental and emotional adrenaline? Two or three quotes used by the author Nick Snow, respected Washington editor of OGJ, taken from a national conference convened by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE):

“A proliferation of global oil geopolitical ‘flash points’ (e.g., conflicts in countries or within countries that limit or could limit the supply of oil) makes it even more urgent for the U.S. to aggressively reduce its dependence on crude oil for transportation fuels…If we could be only 65% dependent on oil for our transportation fuels by 2025 instead of 90%, it would make a tremendous difference…We also need better politics developed by people who can find win-win situations so we can move forward…We all agree that we need to diversify our transportation sources away from oil.”

Nick Snow is no blazing liberal. According to his resume, Mr. Snow has spent 30 years or so as a journalist covering oil issues, many of those for media outlets friendly to oil interests (e.g., Oil Daily).

Have we reached nirvana? Did the article in the OGJ signal that big or small oil companies will soon announce their commitment to replacement fuels, like natural gas-based ethanol and methanol? Their support, given the fact that some oil companies already own significant natural gas fields, could be important from a public policy and an “on the ground production and distribution” perspective.

When I was a kid, older members of my family, if they wanted something but knew it was impossible to secure, would say, “I should live so long.” In some respects, while I’m surprised by the selected quotes used in the article by Mr. Snow, I doubt it heralds an epiphany by leaders of the oil industry or their companies.

Why am I a wannabe optimist but a realistic pessimist? Oil companies’ primary behavior over the past decade or more has been to oppose the development of most replacement fuels, FFVs and open fuel markets. Sometimes they have done this through other organizations that they influence or control, and sometimes directly. Clearly, gas station franchises granted by oil companies remain tied to a “just say no” position on replacement fuels, or a back- or side-of-the-station mandate concerning location of replacement-fuel pumps. For the most part, their reaction to “flash points” has been “drill, baby, drill,” and their battle cry has been that only more drilling will make the nation oil independent. This is a curious stance, since companies are simultaneously seeking to increase their ability to export globally. America still imports about a third of its oil, while retail prices for gasoline at most stations remain high.

I’m afraid that the OGJ piece by Snow is not a harbinger of good tidings concerning oil company endorsement of replacement fuels — at least any time soon. Rather, the article reflects a willingness of the author to honestly describe a major issue facing the nation, that is, the disproportionate share of oil in transportation fuels. Regrettably, excluded from the piece is a narrative about the fact that oil converted to gasoline has a significant negative effect on the environment, and that oil imports still take a toll on the economy. Replacement fuels would address security, environmental and economic issues, and related national objectives in a much more positive way.

I have a vested interest in remembering the famous Andrews Sisters. How many of you remember them? They played in my uncle’s band for a short time. So let me end, somewhat inappropriately, using the last stanza of one of their hit tunes “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” by composer Sammy Fain. I am sure neither the sisters nor Sammy would mind. With respect to the oil companies, “I am aware. My heart is a sad affair. There is much disillusion there. But I can dream, can’t I?”

Dreaming is about all you can do now, with respect to getting oil companies to develop, or support the development of, flexible replacement fuels. Maybe someday!

The journey of a thousand miles, replacement fuels and FFVs

The headlines recently have been terrible — a commercial plane was shot down over the Ukraine, there’s war in the Middle East and more. It makes you wonder, over and over again, about man and woman’s inhumanity to his or her fellow men and women.

While certainly not equal in impact on the world at the present time, I happened to run across one point of light concerning a set of innovations which, in the long run, could positively impact climate change, security and consumer choice issues. It was reflected in a couple of articles describing the partnership between the state of California’s Energy Commission and Cummins Engines to develop an E85-fueled engine that apparently cuts Co2 by up to 80 percent (read it in Fleets and Fuels) in medium-duty trucks.

According to Cummins Engines and the Commission, a relatively small 4-cylinder, 2.8-liter engine has been successfully subjected to 1,000 miles and 1,500 hours of testing. It is now going through validation tests in Sacramento.

The story is a welcome one. Cummins indicates that the engine can generate 250 horsepower and 450 pound-foot of torque using E85. “Using lignocellulosic-derived E85, the powertrain’s efficiency features 75 to 80 percent lower well-to-wheels carbon emissions than gas engines; depending on the drive cycle…Cellulosic E85 is not derived from tilling, fertilizing and harvesting corn…Using corn-derived E85, the high thermal efficiency and power-to-weight ratio of this engine results in 50 to 80 percent lower well-to-wheels carbon emissions compared with the gasoline engine.”

Based on the Cummins documentation, California’s Energy Commission indicates “that successful completion of the project may result in a new market for E85 fuel now dominated by gasoline and diesel in the 19,500 lb. step-van fleet market.” The agency estimates greenhouse-gas savings as great as 69 percent, or 10 to 20 percent using corn based ethanol.

Fortunately, the general principles guiding development of Cummins’ engine may help improve flex-fuel automobiles and grant Americans more confidence in the environmental, price and economic benefits associated with extended use of E85.

Lessons learned may increase the nation’s ability to reduce GHG emissions. Based on what Cummins has done, using smaller engines extends the benefit of E85. Diesel-like cylinder pressures are important. Ethanol’s high-octane rating generates more engine efficiency. Use of state-of-the art sensors for spark ignition and coordination of stop-and-start functions enhances efficiency and reduces emissions. E85 is clearly a safe fuel.

The knowledge gained from the Cummins effort could lead to better flex-fuel vehicles and could support the effort to use increased technology fixes for older, non-flex-fuel cars and FFV twins. Perhaps the biggest benefit from the partnership between California and Cummings relates to the boost it could give to the search for replacement fuels, as well as the myth-busting understanding it could provide consumers about the safety of E85. It is a safe fuel, assuming engine adaptation and software amendment.

Elon Musk’s proposal to share Tesla’s electric-car patents and ideas might at least encourage increased collaboration among FFV makers in Detroit and the potential players in the conversion industry that likely would emerge, subsequent to EPA testing and approval of older vehicles for conversion. Even improved cooperation at the margin would could expand production of new FFV vehicles and expand conversion of older vehicles. For automakers and makers of conversion kits, as well as developers of FFV software technology, successful collaboration would generate larger markets.

Increased use of E85 through conversion of existing cars and the increased production of new FFV vehicles would help meet national and local environmental objectives, reduce gasoline prices and provide consumers with lower fuel costs, apart from gasoline. Both would also reduce dependency on foreign oil. Paraphrasing the poet Robert Frost, while FFVs — new or converted — are on a road less traveled now, as John F. Kennedy indicated, the journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step. The road less traveled now has more replacement-fuel drivers and FFVs than ever. Because of this fact, the journey of a thousand miles toward alternative fuel choices has made progress and, hopefully soon, will move at a faster speed. Success will mean a better quality of life for us all. It’s good news!

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Garage filling stations — are we getting close?

One of the greatest appeals of switching to an alternative-fuel vehicle — electric, compressed natural gas or hydrogen — is saving money and freeing yourself from the clutches of foreign oil. But another is being able to supply your own fuel from a garage filling station where you may even be able to generate some of it yourself.

All this takes on a certain air of necessity when you realize that most of the infrastructure for recharging or refilling is not yet in place. In many cases, the garage may be the best option right now. So let’s run down some of the different options available and see how they stack up as being economical and practical.

Let’s start with the easiest one — electric cars. There are three types of chargers available to owners of a Prius, Leaf or Chevy Volt. The first is a Level 1 “trickle” charger, which is just a basic 120-volt line that plugs into any three-pronged outlet. This is the standard plug-in for all EVs. The problem is the amount of time it takes for a complete charge. For the Leaf, it takes close to 21 hours, which means that you can’t even do it overnight. For hybrids there’s some leeway since you can always revert to the gas motor and do some brake recharging as well. But if you’re planning to rely completely on a home outlet, you’d better have a second car.

More favorable is a Level 2 240-volt circuit. If you have an electric clothes dryer in your house, you’re already equipped. If you don’t have a 240-volt system at home, installation is easy enough. It will require a 40-amp circuit breaker, which may need a permit from the local building department, but the job is simple enough. Recharging time will be cut to less than eight hours, enough for an overnight. Plugincars.com puts the price at $600 -$700, although vendors such as ClipperCreek lists some for less.

If you really want to go really high-tech, you can move up to a Level 3 480-volt power supply that can give you an 80 percent charge in half an hour. The whole package costs $30,000, but with federal tax breaks and some help from the car companies, you can get it down to $10,000. Nissan offers a unit for $9,900. You could probably recoup some of the costs by recharging EVs for your neighbors, but you might need a zoning variance.

So how about compressed natural gas? What are the options there?

The Honda Civic is the only CNG passenger vehicle being sold in the United States. (Most of the progress has been with delivery trucks and long-haul trailers.) There are currently 1,000 CNG filling stations across the country, but half of them belong to companies that are using them for their fleets. Only about 500 are available to the public. So, unless you’re traveling along an Interstate and can make it to one of Clean Energy Fuels’ new truck stops, you’re going to have a hard time.

Refilling at home, however, isn’t all that impractical. More than half the residences in the country are equipped with natural gas for home heating, cooking or hot water. The trick is to get a device that can compress this household gas to be used in your car.

Honda originally offered a home refueling kit, the Phill, which costs $4,500 and could do a refill overnight. Honda stopped making the offer after 2012; however, due to concerns about the widely varying quality of non-commercial gas and the possibility of home devices allowing moisture to collect in the fuel system. For those willing to take the chance, the Phill is still available from its manufacturer, BRC FuelMaker. The question is, “Why is it so expensive when the same pump would cost 10% if it filled air bottles?” There is a regulatory review needed to reduce the cost.

Seeking to promote the technology, the Department of Energy (DoE) handed out grants a few years ago to encourage companies to develop affordable home systems. Now one of them may have come through. The Eaton Corporation of Cleveland, already prominent in the field of electrical charging stations, announced in 2012 that it plans to market a CNG home refueling device by 2015. “The system will use liquid to act as a piston in compressing the gas,” says Chris Roche, vice president at Eaton’s Innovation Center. “We have also developed an innovative heat exchange technology that will improve efficiency and cut costs dramatically.” Eaton is aiming at production costs of $500, which means the device could sell for less than $1,000. GoNatural, a Salt Lake City company, has also promised to have a product available by 2015. “It could be a game changer,” said New York Times reporter Paul Stenquist, in profiling CNG home compressors last October.

So, what about hydrogen? Is there anything available there? Hydrogen is very difficult to deal with. It is the smallest atom and will leak through just about anything. It’s hard to store and transport and must be kept under high pressure.

The upside, however, is the possibility of generating your own hydrogen, particularly from renewable resources. This can be done with simple electrolysis of water, which only requires an electric current. If you can generate that current with wind or solar energy, then you are essentially powering your car for free.

Making it happen is probably a long way off, although people are working on it. HyperSolar, Inc., a Santa Barbara company, has announced “proof of concept” of a method for generating solar hydrogen. “Using our self-contained particle in a low cost plastic bag, we have successfully demonstrated our ability to mimic photosynthesis to produce renewable hydrogen from virtually any source of water using the power of the Sun,” said CEO Tim Young while making the announcement. Horizon Fuel Cells, a Singapore company, released a “desktop” hydrogen generator in 2010 that generates hydrogen through electrolysis from any power source. It sells for $250 on Amazon. Although the company is targeting much smaller fuel-cell devices, it could eventually scale up to handle quantities needed to run a hydrogen fuel cell car

Altogether for cutting loose from the local gas station, electric vehicles are the best bet for now. But natural gas in its many forms — including methanol — are moving up and renewable hydrogen may be on the horizon. With home-generating devices proliferating, it is not hard to see all this eventually making a dent in our consumption of fossil fuels.

USA, USA, USA…The search for competitive fuel choices

“USA, USA, USA, USA.” No, I didn’t just come from watching the U.S. playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But after reading the glowing, cheerleading, overly enthusiastic, often-nationalistic media accounts of the U.S. overtaking the Saudis in oil production, the win-lose aspects of the soccer chant somehow became embedded in my persona (like counting sheep or gas pumps at night when I can’t sleep). We beat the Saudis at their own game — oil. We’re number one…wow! Next, will we emulate the Saudis and place onerous and discriminatory restrictions on women drivers and, unlike the Saudis, argue that it’s a conservation measure? Of course not! We don’t have to be number one in everything. But oil does make strange bedfellows, and equally strange behavior, as well as policies.

Unfortunately, most of the media stories avoid analysis of what the new oil prominence of the U.S. means to the nation and world. Yes, increased production likely means less dependence on the Middle East, particularly Saudi oil. Indeed, we now import about 33% of oil needs, the lowest percentage in years.

But oil independence remains a myth. Oil interests are pushing for a reduction of regulations concerning exports of U.S. crude oil and have always exported considerable refined oil products allowed by the law. Their motives, despite frequent public comments to the contrary, are generally to sell to the price, which means to the buyer who offers the most return. He, she or it frequently is a global purchaser. Independence is a slogan that often blurs motive and reflects good politics but bad substance and contrary to reality.

The U.S., as the most powerful western nation, irrespective of any mathematical domestic surplus, will continue to extend its role as defender of the global supply chain from the Middle East or elsewhere. While we may be less dependent on foreign oil, U.S. leaders have, in the past, and likely will in the future, use a combination of diplomacy and military threats and action to defend and sustain the flow of foreign oil to allies or assumed allies. In this context, the role we play in the world extends our dependency. Unfortunately, wars will be fought and U.S. soldiers will die because of this felt dependency.

Most of the “USA, USA, USA” chants in the media coverage of our new oil prowess, implicitly neglects the difficult juxtaposition between increased oil production and supplies and higher gas prices. Less dependence hasn’t brought the reduction, or even stabilization, of gas prices promised by the oil industry. Gasoline in California is now generally well over $4 a gallon for regular, and averages over $3.60 a gallon across the nation. Why? We have a surplus, don’t we? Oil companies want to export more, and it appears that they will be able to do just that, soon. As Dr. Pangloss asked in “Candide,” is this the “best of all possible worlds” (let me add, for the U.S.)?

Clearly, the cost of oil at the pump is not strongly linked (at the present time) to the amount of U.S. oil that shows up on EIA calculations and projections. Both price and supply are going up simultaneously. Yes, there is uncertainty, given events in the Middle East and yes, uneven growth around the world has increased demand in some areas and suppressed it in others. The link between high prices and the Middle East is difficult to measure precisely. Consumer costs per gallon are likely affected more by investors, as well as speculation on Wall Street, than the actual numbers concerning increased production of U.S. oil.

So, apart from prayer and penitence, what can we do to get a better deal for consumers, and to prevent gasoline from becoming a negative factor concerning U.S. GDP growth and the environment? How can we help assure that being number one means robust economic growth, more income in the wallets of Americans (particularly low-income Americans), increased security and fewer dirty emissions?

These are not easy questions, and they do not lend themselves to simple ideological responses. Clearly, as renewable fuels and vehicles that meet the incomes and desires of most Americans become available, both will play a vital role in America’s future. But reliance on coal-fired utilities for power in some areas of the nation, battery costs, mileage limitations from single battery charges, and lack of infrastructure impede their ability to have a significant positive impact at the present. The market for renewable fuels and vehicles is relatively small and will remain so until technological advances catch up with potential demand.

Where is the Greek philosopher Diogenes when we need him? We have a path in front of us that would buy time toward a better American future, one that could offer competition to gasoline — competition that would be good for the economy, the consumer and the environment. Increased availability of replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol, combined with large-scale conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and increased production of new FFVs by Detroit, would give gasoline a run for the money, if gas-only stations become fuel stations and provide consumers with a choice. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, less than one percent of all gas stations in the U.S. that are branded by the big oil companies offer E15 or E85.

I remain an optimist that more freedom will reign soon at the pump. The noted people’s philosopher, Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts” comic strips, lessened my fears about the future when he said, “Stop worrying about the world ending today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” USA, USA, USA. Fuel choice, fuel choice, fuel choice!

Attention Investors: Opportunity for an oil change

What would you say about an investment opportunity where your product is four times cheaper than the commodity it is trying to replace and there are 77 million potential customers waiting to use it?

Does that sound like something that you would like to put your money into? Well that’s the opportunity that awaits anyone willing to invest in the infrastructure and technical changes needed to substitute natural-gas-based ethanol for foreign-fuel-based gasoline in our cars.

A full-fledged prospectus was presented this month by Miles Light, professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a report called “Natural Gas Based Liquid Fuels: Potential Investment Opportunities in the United States,” written for the recent Goldman Sachs Energy Summit.

Professor Light lays out the situation in very clear terms: “Low natural gas prices and new technology present an opportunity to market and sell liquid fuels in the form of ethanol and methanol to U.S. consumers. Per unit of energy, oil is almost four times more expensive than natural gas. This implies a potential arbitrage opportunity to convert natural gas and natural gas liquids into a liquid fuel. In the U.S., 14.5 million vehicles can currently utilize ethanol fuels. These are the so-called ‘Flex Fuel’ vehicles. Another 16.1 million FFV ‘Twins’ can utilize ethanol with a software upgrade, and 46.9 million conventional fuel vehicles can potentially be converted for $150-$250 each. In all, this presents 77.75 million light duty vehicles, or 31.8% of the national light duty fleet, that would potentially purchase natural gas liquid fuel, if prices were attractive.”

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “If we can capture just 2 percent of this market…” Well, this is it. There are opportunities up and down the line, from auto mechanics performing flex-fuel conversions on conventional engines to major corporations building plants to convert natural gas to ethanol.

What Light is talking about here is the wholesale substitution of a portion of our natural gas resources for the oil we import in order to run our transportation sector. True, we’ve cut down on imports so they now make up less than half of our consumption for the first time since the early 1990s. But what people are missing is that we still pay the same amount for that oil because the price keeps rising. This continues to put a $380 billion dent in our trade balance every year — not to mention that much of this money goes to countries that actively support hostile actions against America and its friends and allies around the world.

So what would it take to make this transition? There’s certainly been a lot of activity to date. However, most of it has concentrated on utilizing compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG). T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels is in the process of building a “CNG Highway” to service long-haul trucks from coast to coast. He’s already completed the first leg from Los Angeles to Houston. Those big 18-wheelers have room for the larger gas tanks and travel fixed routes along the Interstate Highway System that can be serviced by relatively few filling stations.

But passenger vehicles are a completely different matter. They travel everywhere and would require a whole new national infrastructure to fill their tanks. The auto companies have already offered a few CNG models but they haven’t sold well. It’s the chicken-and-egg problem — people won’t buy cars before the stations become common and the stations won’t be built until there are enough cars on the road.

With ethanol, however, there is already an infrastructure in place. The country is presently outfitted with 2,394 gas pumps dispensing E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. (The gasoline is there just to start on cold mornings.) Most of these are concentrated in the farm belt but they’re starting to make their way into major cities on the East and West Coasts as well.

The point is this: these stations have been set up to handle corn ethanol. This is the result of the 35-year government effort to promote biofuels. But Light suggests that these stations could just as easily dispense ethanol made from natural gas. No new technology would be necessary, nor would it require any special permission from the government. (Methanol, which is a little easier to synthesize than ethanol, has a greater toxicity and would require some additional approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.)

So according to Light, this is where the investment opportunities lie. The conversion of natural gas to ethanol is the first and most important step, but Coskata, Inc. already has a working facility and Celanese Corporation is converting coal to ethanol in Indonesia. Light estimates that, at current and foreseeable prices, the return on investment could be as high as 46 percent.

Then there are all the intervening steps. “Alongside the core ethanol production opportunity, there are several related supply-chain developments projects, such as production facility development, ethanol fuel marketing, fueling station upgrades, blending facility expansions, and vehicle update kits,” he writes. All are well within the range of private investment. No government subsidies or mandates would be required.

In other words, the conversion of significant portions of our auto fleet to natural gas presents a whole world of opportunity just waiting for imaginative, ambitious investors to take advantage.

Anybody interested?

Resources for the future and an alternative vehicle and fuel pathway

I have been a fan of Resources for the Future (RFF) since my early days in Washington many years ago. While the organization’s reports won’t keep you awake at night nor can they easily convert into a Bollywood movie, they generally provide sound nonpartisan analyses of resource and environmental issues. In this context, the Fuel Freedom Foundation (FFF) retained RFF to independently study the potential economic, environmental and national security gains from replacing a portion of domestic gasoline use in the light-duty fleet with various natural gas-based fuels such as ethanol or methanol.

The request reflected the relatively large price differential between the growing supply of natural gas and gasoline and FFF’s assumption that natural gas-based fuels (ethanol and methanol) could not only offer the U.S. security benefits, they would be cheaper and cleaner than gasoline. If FFF’s assumption was right, public and private sector strategies to encourage the conversion of older vehicles to FFVs and to increase the production of new FFV vehicles in Detroit would seemingly be in order. Similarly, finding financially feasible ways to produce, develop, distribute and successfully market natural gas-based alcohol fuels would appear quite sound.

RFF’s study was completed last September and is available online.

I have read the document many times. It is compelling because it honestly portrays gaps in information and uncertainties concerning public policy and regulation, technology, geography, price trends, competition, and availability as well as access to natural gas-based fuel. Indeed, embedded in the report is the fact that policymaking in public, nonprofit or private sectors or predictions concerning consumer behavior is never perfect. As complexity increases, decisions often require reliance on perfectibility over time, rather than perfection in the present time.

Apart from RFF’s marshalling of available, relevant data and its related analysis, the study’s conclusions are supportive of leadership groups and leaders who seek an “alternative path” in support of the use of natural gas-based fuels and the conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles.

What RFF concluded is that the only replacement fuel currently available to the more than ten million FFV E85-capable vehicles “does not have a cost advantage at the pump over conventional gasoline.” But assuming companies like Coskata, Inc. and Celanese are able to deliver on their financial modeling, live tests and price predictions concerning the production and distribution of natural gas-based ethanol, owners of FFVs, including owners of new and older converted vehicles could see cost benefits near $1 per GGE (gasoline gallon equivalent) in the very near future.

This is no small benefit. It will be particularly important to low and moderate-income folks, permitting them more choices when it comes to jobs, housing and other basic needs. It will also reduce the strain caused by reduced economic and income growth on middle class households. RFF also indicates, with somewhat less certainty as to how much, that there will likely be environmental benefits.

Making this new replacement fuel path viable will require the EPA to lower the costs of certification of kits that help convert older cars to FFVs, and to sanction relatively simple software adjustments, particularly for newer FFVs and their twins (not the human kind but automobiles whose engines reflect FFF characteristics. This path will also need the EPA and advocates of natural gas-based ethanol to work together to develop a vehicle-testing procedure for older cars that is both cost efficient, sound and hopefully, relatively quickly. Finally, it will necessitate a fuel market that reduces, if not eliminates, the almost monopolistic conditions generally imposed by oil companies and often supported, at least implicitly, by government policies and regulations.

Consumers, clearly, would benefit from more competition at the pump and from more pumps devoted to replacement fuels. Auguste Comte, the great 19th century philosopher and founder of positivism, never saw a gasoline station, but his simple motto, “Love as a principle [need for increased natural gas-based flex fuels and need for flex-fuel cars], the order as a foundation [development of policies and infrastructure for natural gas-based fuels and increased FFVs] and progress as a goal [extend consumer choice]” nicely frames RFF’s narrative. In turn, RFF’s study, while recognizing the value of renewable fuels, supports an alternative, natural gas-based replacement fuel as well as a vehicular pathway to help achieve national, regional and local economic, social welfare and environmental benefits. It’s near July Fourth. Let’s move toward freer increased choices among fuels and increased vehicular capacity to use them.

A return to making love, not war – Iraq and replacement fuels

Early on I wrote a column about an unanticipated Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a special operations soldier who had served in Iraq. His comment, in response to a question I asked about whether he and his buddies knew why they were sent to Iraq, was brief and blunt: “oil and U.S. security.” He would have none of what he thought was b.s. about “freedom and democracy” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Before I asked the question I actually already knew what his answer would be, but a glass of wine, a wonderful piece of turkey and good company suggested that my inquiry would lead to an opening for a longer repartee on the Middle East and U.S. policy. It did, and again oil and oil politics were the dominant theme.

I suspect that many of the writers of today’s headlines and op-ed articles anticipated Republican Eric Cantor would win. They are now arguing, in sometimes misleading reference terms concerning democracy, inter-sectarian harmony and morality, for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the invasion by Sunni radicals of parts of what once on a map called the nation of Iraq.

But the real issue for many “experts,” I again suspect, is oil — a fear, whether factual or not, that if Iraq collapses, the world oil supply (already close to equilibrium concerning demand and supply) will relatively quickly reflect shortages and much higher prices per barrel of oil ($150 a barrel) and oil’s product, gasoline ($5 and more).

Should we be sending kids to fight for our apparent God-given right to Middle Eastern oil? Although I think a lot about the ethics of public decision making, I am not an ethicist. But as long as there are alternatives to supply, my hard-nosed policy advice would be against war or the steps that might lead to war. Iraq has not been the noble state that welcomed America in to rescue it ostensibly from Saddam Hussein. Its form of democracy has been limited, corrupt and sectarian.

What should our calculations be, concerning alternative supplies of oil? First, we ought to really think through whether a full or partial shutdown of Iraqi oil wells will mean a damn. Iraq alone supplies a small share of U.S. oil imports. Most of the often-shrill economic coverage of the radical Sunni invasion and its potential impact on U.S. oil seems to relate more to perceptions, not empirical evidence, about shortages and prices. Commentators “perceive” what the oil markets might or will do — really what oil speculators and investors will or will not do — based on what is currently happening in Iraq, not on facts on the ground. Neil Cavuto of Fox Business said, “Oil is a commodity, a global commodity, and like any stock in almost any market, it often trades on issues having little to do with basic fundamentals, and more to do with simple fear.”

Assuming, however, there is a real worldwide shortage of oil as a result of a closure of Iraqi wells, or that fear drives the prices up so much that there is a strain to the economy, the Saudis, probably, among all the OPEC nations, are the only ones with sufficient oil in the ground to make an immediate difference concerning supply. But will they? They have shown some flexibility in the past to U.S. petitioning. They have also, at times, despite their security relationship to the U.S., turned us down. This time around the Saudis could well be more than a bit sensitive, particularly if it looks like the radical Sunnis might win. The Kingdom is vulnerable with respect to a radical brand of Sunniism. I bet they also fear a potential Shiite effort to push the radicals back, particularly one led by Iran. Life is never simple for the House of Saud.

Okay, where are we? Oil is sold in an international marketplace. No matter which side you are on regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved and completed, it will not have a major impact on U.S. gas supply or prices. Ask your friendly oil refinery or oil company executive where he or she believes Keystone-supplied oil will be going. Most of the assumed supply will be traded internationally for the highest global price. The predicted increased supply of U.S.-produced gasoline will probably help diminish price increases slightly, but don’t make a bet on how much. Today, a price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is well over $4 in California and U.S. production is at a very high level.

What would likely help keep gasoline prices from spiking significantly and, at the same time, lessen the amplitude of the cycles is a commitment to competition in the fuel marketplace. Let Adam Smith reign! Allow safe, cheaper, environmentally better replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol (and someday soon, methanol) to compete with gasoline. Encourage the conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel vehicles! Push for renewable fuels and related vehicles that appeal to a larger market than at present, given costs and design constraints! Reduce our dependence on imported oil! Make love, not war! Drive (excuse the pun) for strategic solutions!

Japan bets big on hydrogen fuel cells

Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?

Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.

Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.

But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.

The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.

This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.

What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.

So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.

In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.

Can supercapacitors replace batteries?

The electric car depends on batteries, and before EVs become a large chunk of our automotive fleet, there are probably going to be some changes.

Right now, Elon Musk is betting he can produce millions of small lithium-ion batteries not much bigger than the ones you put in your flashlight and string them together to power a $35,000 Tesla Model E over a range of 200 miles at speeds of up to 70-80 mph. The Model E also will also need an infrastructure of roadside “filling stations” and home chargers, although the best superchargers still take more than 20 minutes to achieve 80 percent capacity.

But there is another way to store electricity, long familiar to the designers of electrical circuits. It’s the capacitor, a device that stores a small current by static electricity rather than a chemical reaction. Capacitors sit in all of your electrical devices, from radio circuits to the most sophisticated laptops, and are essential to providing the steady electric current needed to run such electronics. But what if the concept of capacitors could be scaled up to the point where they could help power something as big as an electric vehicle? Granted, it’s a long, long way from the 1.5-volt capacitor in your iPad and powering a 4,500-pound Tesla along the Interstate, but researchers are out there probing and are already thinking in terms of a breakthrough.

Right now there’s a huge separation between the things that batteries can do and the things that capacitors can do. In a way they are complementary — the strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other. But researchers are working toward a convergence — or perhaps just a way of using them in tandem.

A battery employs chemistry by splitting ions in the electrolyte so that the negative ones gather on the cathode and the positive on the anode, building up a voltage potential. When they are connected externally an electric current flows. Batteries have a lot of energy density. They can store electricity up into the megawatt range and release a flow of electricity over long periods of time. The process can also be reversed, but, because the reaction is (once again) chemical, it can take a long time.

Capacitors store electrons as static electricity. A thundercloud is a great big capacitor with zillions of electrons clinging to the almost infinite surface area of individual raindrops. And as everyone knows, this huge stored capacity can be released in a “bolt of lightening.” Capacitors can be recharged almost instantly but also they release their energy almost instantly, rather than the even flow of a battery. One of their major uses is in flash photography. But their capacity for storing power is also limited. On a pound-for-pound basis, the best capacitors can only store one-fifth to one-tenth the equivalent of a chemical battery. On the other hand, batteries can start to wear out after five years, while supercapacitors last at least three times as long.

Back in the 1950s, engineers at General Electric, and later at Standard Oil, invented what have come to be called “supercapacitors.” Basically, a supercapacitor changes the surface material and adds another layer of insulating dielectric in order to increase storage capacity. Surface area is the key and engineers discovered that powdery, activated charcoal vastly increased the capacity of the storage plates. Dielectrics were also reduced to ultra-thin layers of carbon, paper or plastic, since the closer the plates can be brought together, the more intense the charge. Since then they have begun experimenting with graphene and other advanced materials that may be able to increase surface area by orders of magnitude. All of this means that much more electricity can be stored in a much smaller space.

But the problem of low energy density remains. Even supercapacitors can only operate at about 2.5 volts, which means they must be strung together in series in vast numbers in order to reach voltage levels required to power something like an electric car. This creates problems in maintaining voltage balance. Still, some supercapacitors are already being employed in gas-electric hybrids and electric buses in order to store the power siphoned off from braking.

Researchers in the field now see some possibility for convergence. Most exhilarating is the idea that the frame of the car itself could be transformed into a supercapacitor. Last month, researchers from Vanderbilt University published an online paper entitled, “A Multifunctional Load-Bearing Solid-State Supercapacitor,” in which they suggested that load-bearing materials such as the chassis of a car or even the walls of your house could be transformed into supercapacitors to store massive amounts of electricity on-site. Combined with advances in evening the flow of electrons from supercapacitors, this opens up whole new avenues of approach to the electric car.

All of these developments are a long way off, of course. Still, supercapacitors support the possibility of pulling out of your driveway in the morning and returning at night in your EV without needing to gas up with foreign oil at your nearest filling station.