Octane and fuel efficiency, explained in one video

When it comes to understanding complex regulations, there’s no better source than the experts on Fuel Freedom Foundation’s policy team. We sat down with President and CEO Joe Cannon, and Vice President of Policy and the Environment Robin Vercruse, to ask them to tell us more about the CAFE standards, why they’re important, and how they can benefit consumers. Video and transcript below:

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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.

4 Non Blondes, The King and I and alternative fuels

4-non-blondes-650-430“Twenty-five years [lots more years for me] and my life is still
Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
For a destination”

Combine the lyrics from 4 Non Blondes with the personal frustration suggested by the “it’s a puzzlement” comment from the King of Siam in “The King and I,” expressed when he was perplexed by a changing world, and you will understand why many are confused by three relatively recent actions that limit or impede the growth of alternative fuels.

Most advocates of consumer choice at the pump and the end of Big Oil’s near-monopoly concerning transportation fuel praised the president’s State of the Union address a couple of years ago. He proposed that the nation wean itself off of oil. Wow, some fuel choice advocates were thrilled, almost orgiastic. Just think, in a couple of years customers might search for fuel stations selling a range of lower-cost alternative fuels, instead of only gasoline. Environmentalists welcomed the president’s comments. Less pollution and fewer GHG emissions! Most economists were pleased. They saw more jobs and further GNP growth. Servicemen were happy. They would be asked to fight fewer wars for oil.

In this context, there was hope that the cheaper cost of oil, and its derivative, gasoline — both of which are now rising in cost — juxtaposed with the regulations resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Shell’s failure to use its original drilling permit to drill successfully and the availability of less expensive competitive fuels, would end the prospect of drilling in the pristine Arctic Circle off of Alaska’s coast. It would be just too costly. Good news! We can dream, can’t we!?

Similarly, some of my colleagues and friends who support fuel choice and a better shake for consumers than gasoline (concerning costs and GHG emissions), were hoping that improved technology, lower prices, and inventions like Elon Musk’s just-announced solar storage unit, could soon generate an increased ability for solar energy to power many coal-fired utilities, homes and even vehicles. In the aggregate, the U.S. would produce significantly fewer emissions and pollutants. What a welcome, possible, short-term happening! Musk for president!

The increased popularity of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) from Tesla (among those who can afford them) and the emergence of cheaper battery-powered vehicles from Detroit have also lent hope to those who are fuel agnostic or favor a long-term, robust renewable fuel market and more consumer choices at the pump. While electric cars offer a vision of the future, their broad acceptance by the public depends on design and technology improvements to both end the fear of running out of battery power while on the road, and provide more internal space — both at costs most Americans can afford. Both problems seem to be on the way to resolution, based on the pronouncements from Tesla and Detroit. We can only hope!

But despite the optimism gene internal to most Americans, the great “big hill of hope” has recently become even bigger to climb. While alternative fuel advocates remain relatively quiet and often unable to speak with one effective voice, federal and state policies and regulations have been changed to limit the ability of alternative fuels to secure significant market penetration. Despite large subsidies to the oil industry, neither the administration nor Congress has been willing to seriously try to weaken the ability of Big Oil to restrict alternative fuel sales at local gas stations. Indeed, several attempts to enact open fuels legislation have failed to even get out of Congressional committees.

Although the country seems awash in oil, just this week, the president gave conditional approval to Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska, despite the company’s mismanagement of earlier attempts to do the same, and despite the objections of many environmental groups and Alaskan natives. Both industry and critics of the permits note that drilling will be risky, given very high waves, icy seas, strong winds, bitter cold weather and the need to protect the routes of migration and feeding areas for marine mammals. As The New York Times indicated this week, the permit is a “major victory for the petroleum industry and a devastating blow to environmentalists,” and for consumers, I would add. Estimates of the oil in the Chukchi Sea range all over the place. However, if oil companies are able to overcome high drilling costs and secure a significant flow of oil, even for a relatively short time, they will increase their ability to limit sales of alternative fuels among their franchises and through differential pricing, the sales of alternative fuels by independent retailers.

It doesn’t get any better. Just as opportunities to secure and store solar power — power that could be used to power homes, autos and utilities — seem almost ready for prime time, many of America’s utility companies — another great supporter of competition (excuse the cynicism) — have begun to seek legislative relief to impede solar’s growth. Their argument deserves discussion. If solar power grows, it could well be at the expense of improvements in the grid. But the use of their political power with state legislatures to seek ad-hoc remedies, different in each state, is not in the public interest. Legislative efforts to lower the price solar users secure from utilities when they put excess power on the grid may or may not be good policy or practice. Shouldn’t we know before such policies are enacted by states? Similarly, putting up regulatory impediments impeding the sale of solar units, including storage units, would likely really hurt what is now a risky start-up industry. The net result of poorly conceived state-by-state initiatives to protect the utility industry would be to limit the capacity of solar energy to substitute for coal in powering utilities and to reduce options to produce cleaner electric cars with almost zero GHG emissions. Similarly, restricting the storage of solar energy would end up slowing down the development of another alternative fuel — one based on solar-derived power.

Finally, the continuing efforts by several states to change Tesla’s business model have and will reduce competition for fuels and the use of electricity as a fuel. Why? Several state legislatures, under political pressure from auto dealers, have banned its direct-sales approach. If Tesla wants to sell its electric-powered cars in Texas, for example, it must sell through an auto dealer. Remember, some Texans recently wanted to secede from the union in order to free the state from “federal dictatorship” and, ostensibly, extend personal freedom and its corollary market competition! (I thought of signing the petition that was floating around to let Texas go.) Passing laws to protect one kind of business from another is un-American…almost like sending the Texas National Guard to monitor the training of U.S. soldiers to be sure they are not digging tunnels under Walmart and engaging in other nefarious activities contrary to the interest of the good citizens of Texas. Davy Crockett would be offended. The bottom line is that Texas and other states with similar regulations are limiting fuel choice by placing a Berlin Wall around their boundaries and not letting Tesla and its electric vehicles in. Ah. Freedom!

So, supporters have some big hills to climb and sometimes it may be a puzzlement to the climbers. But, as the singer Billy Ocean once vocalized, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Building a coalition among the willing supporters of alternative fuels should not be difficult. They share goals concerning the need for increased consumer choices and the value of open fuel markets. If they reach out to include, rather than define boundaries to exclude; if they acknowledge that absolute wisdom concerning strategies does not exist; if they are willing to work toward consensus and bring their respective constituencies along with them; and if they recognize that time is of the essence concerning achievement of key public interest and quality of American life objectives, following Robert Frost, they will travel the road less traveled, and will likely soon begin to see light at the end of their travails and travels.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

Will renewables survive the oil downturn?

The seven-month-long plunge in oil prices appeared to be enough to re-establish gasoline as the default fuel for motorists, while stunting the progress of replacement fuels.

But attendees at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit would have thought differently. Prominently displayed were various alternative vehicles that have been making headway and are just building momentum in the auto market, so they may be able to shrug off the precipitous fall in oil prices.

Also exhibited in Detroit was the first generation of hydrogen vehicles from Japan, which are challenging both the gasoline monopoly and the electric car, which is much more popular in America and Europe. The Honda FCV concept car boasts a driving range of about 300 miles and a refueling time of just three minutes, marking another step forward for the hydrogen fuel industry. California, where the cars are to be introduced later this year, is already preparing its “hydrogen highway,” which will make the cars feasible for drivers. Toyota’s fuel-cell offering, the Mirai — which also runs on hydrogen — is also scheduled to hit showrooms this year.

Chevrolet has had middling success with its electric-gasoline hybrid the Volt, but the maker has another generation planned with its concept car, the Bolt. The car will be made of extremely lightweight material and will have an all-glass roof and aluminum wheels for further weight reduction. Its lithium-ion battery will give the car a range of 200 miles and a recharging time of 40 minutes for an 80 percent charge. The price of $30,000 is likely to expand the market for electric cars.

Analysts note that oil is not used much for electricity anymore. The 1980s are the benchmark and generally remembered as the “Valley of Death” for renewables. Wind and solar were undercut by falling oil prices and lost their place in the generation of electricity. At the time, oil was providing 17 percent of our electricity. Now it provides barely 5 percent, and wind and solar energy have not felt any effect from oil prices.

Of course, natural gas has largely replaced oil, and a drop in gas prices could cut into the advance of renewables. Gas prices have traditionally been between one-sixth and one-twelfth of oil prices but have uncoupled themselves in recent years. This could work both ways, since gas prices have not fallen by the same degree that oil prices have.

Gas still holds its edge, however, and this means the attempt to use natural gas as an oil substitute may not slow. T. Boone Pickens has had some success in switching long-haul trucks to compressed natural gas, and this effort may be slowed only a little by gasoline’s new low price. However, if natural gas prices fall as well, then it may be able to keep pace with lower oil prices. The possibility that cheaper natural gas might encourage the conversion to methanol as a gasoline substitute would also be encouraged by falling natural gas prices.

That leaves the big question of whether ethanol can survive in the face of falling gasoline prices. In the first place, low gas prices are not likely to last forever. Some analysts are predicting crude oil prices will probably bounce back to $75 a barrel in the near future. Second, ethanol is protected by the federal mandate that says each gallon must contain 10 percent ethanol. If falling gas prices encourage the purchase of more gasoline – which it already has – then ethanol consumption must climb as well.

Ethanol has been under fire recently from studies that say it competes with food resources. The latest is a report from the World Resources Institute in Washington, which argues that “There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.” But the rapid development of cellulosic ethanol severely reduces the possibility that ethanol will compete with food crops. And the possibility that natural-gas-based methanol might begin substituting for ethanol makes the threat of competing with food crops even less.

Altogether, it appears that renewable energy and alternate vehicles are going to survive the dramatic fall in oil prices. Alternative vehicles and other related technologies are now too far along to be crushed by falling oil prices the way they were in the 1980s.

(Photo: The Toyota Mirai at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Credit: Vision Automotriz, Flickr)

Hydrogen-powered cars steal some sex appeal in Detroit

Visitors to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week likely were awe-struck, along with critics, at the sight of the new high-powered Acura NSX and the Ford GT.

But this might be the show where hydrogen-powered vehicles finally graduated from the drawing board to the public consciousness.

Much buzz was created in the Motor City when Honda unveiled its FCV (for fuel-cell vehicle) concept car, which is expected to go on sale in the United States in 2016. The car is an answer to Toyota’s Mirai FCV, which is expected to be available in the U.S. later this year (Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe became the first person in the world to get one last week.)

The cars join the Hyundai Tucson and the Mercedes F-Cell in the hydrogen ranks. Hyundai reportedly has decided to lower the price of its vehicle (said to be about $139,000) to increase its competitiveness with its rivals.

Cost could be a big issue with consumers: The Mirai costs about $62,000, roughly the same as the Honda FCV.

Refueling access is another issue: There are only 13 hydrogen stations in the U.S., 11 of them in California. But the state is investing more than $46 million to build 28 new stations.

FCVs combine hydrogen, from a tank or cell, with oxygen that powers an electric motor. The key benefit is the short refueling time: Honda said its FCV could be fueled in about 3 minutes (at about 10,00 pounds per square inch). The vehicle has a range of roughly 300 miles, an improvement over the 240 achieved by Honda’s first-generation fuel-cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity. The Mirai also has about a 300-mile range.

One person unimpressed with all the attention hydrogen-powered cars were getting in Detroit was Tesla founder Elon Musk. As MLive reported:

“I just think they’re extremely silly,” he told reporters at Automotive News’ annual World Congress.

Musk argued that hydrogen acts as an energy storage unit, not a source of it, making it impractical for powering vehicles. He called drawing hydrogen from water “an extremely inefficient” process.

“If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick,” Musk said.

Toyota is undaunted, saying it will share the 5,680 patents that went into its hydrogen fuel cells. Musk announced last year that Tesla would make its patents available to other carmakers.

Time reported:

“Hopefully by sharing these patents with others, these new fuel systems can be refined and improved,” said Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter, “to attract a larger market of buyers.”

The Mirai is starting with a small batch of 700 vehicles in 2014 with the goal of growing to tens of thousands by the 2020s. “We believe hydrogen electric will be the primary fuel for the next 100 years,” Carter said.

(Photo: Honda FCV, via