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. 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.

Can algae become the new biodiesel?

Supporters call it “clean diesel” to differentiate it from “biodiesel,” and indeed, there is a difference. Soybeans, the main feedstock for biodiesel, have only a 2-3 percent oil content. Some species of algae can have up to 60 percent oil content. This reduces the land requirements for growing a crop by a factor of 30.

So is algae biodiesel one of those great ideas that is always just over the horizon? Or has it germinated long enough that it may finally about to become a reality? The outcome still appears to be up for grabs.

The term “algae” actually cover a whole spectrum of organisms, from the 20-foot ribbon-like “seaweed” that grows in ponds and along littoral shores to the mid-ocean, microscopic “plankton” that is the diet of whales. All have one thing in common – they use carbon and sunlight to photosynthesize organic material. And they are good at it. Some species can double their mass within 24 hours. Thousands of species thrive in varying environments. Last summer, a red algae “tide” that feeds on farm runoff at the mouth of the Mississippi River “bloomed” to cover 5,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, killing all manner of birds, fish and marine life, including hundreds of manatees. “If we can figure out how to make energy out of that,” President Obama told an audience at the University of Miami, “we’ll be doing alright.”

The idea of harvesting algae for energy was first suggested by Richard Harder and Hans von Witsch, two European scientists at the outbreak of World War II. Nothing much developed, however, and interest didn’t revive until the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, when the Department of Energy set up an Aquatic Species Program to pursue research.

Funded with $25 million over the next 18 years, the Aquatic Program investigated thousands of species, finding the Chlorella genus the most promising. It also made an important discovery. When Chlorella is deprived of nitrogen, it can increase its lipid (fat and oil) content to a remarkable 70 percent of mass! Remember, soybeans are only 2-3 percent lipids. But this created a conundrum. While depriving algae of nitrogen might may increase lipid content, it also severely inhibited growth. The Aquatic Program had not yet resolved this dilemma when it was disbanded in 1996.

Private companies picked up the research, however, and have tried to overcome it with genetic engineering. While pursuing this, they have developed two methods of cultivation. The easiest is to grow algae in open pools or “raceways” that devour large areas of land, since sunlight can only penetrate a few centimeters into the algal mat. The problem here is that most species are highly sensitive to variations in acidify, temperature and humidity. Their high lipid content also means they synthesize fewer proteins, which makes them extremely vulnerable to invasive species. This makes it very difficult to bring them up to commercial scale.

The more advanced technology is “photobioreactors,” conducted in large networks of glass or plastic tubes. The system overcomes environmental difficulties but is very expensive. In 2009 Exxon combined with J. Craig Venter, the decoder of the human genome, to try to develop a commercial method for developing algae-based fuels. After investing $600 million, however, Exxon pulled out of the enterprise in 2013, saying commercialization was 25 years away.

Nevertheless, several small companies say they are now making progress. Algenol, a Fort Myers, Fla. company, says it has developed a revolutionary “3rd generation” technology that can produce ethanol, jet and diesel fuel 8,000 gallons per acre, 18 times the output of corn-based ethanol, at $1.25 per gallon. Sapphire, a San Francisco company, has opened a 100-acre Green Crude Farm in New Mexico and hopes to be producing 100 barrels a day next year with full-scale commercialization by 2018. And Aurora Algae, a Hayward, Calif. firm which has operated a test facility in Western Australia for the last three years, has just announced an open-pond operation in Harlingen, Texas that it hopes to expand to 100 acres.

There is one great irony to all this. A full-blown algae industry already exists, providing feedstock for food additives, cattle silage and nutritional and pharmaceutical products. Some highly specialized fatty acids derived from exotic species can fetch $10,000 per gallon. In fact, the current industry sees algae-for-fuel as a rather low-grade use. “Until more federal funding is available, my members are going to continue growing for the higher-value products,” Barry Cohen, executive director of the National Algae Association, told Slate’s John Upton. “We have algae companies that are growing for the ingredients industry, the food industry and the nutraceutical industries. If they can grow the right species, those companies will buy every drop they can make.”

What makes these operations viable, of course, is their high-value end products, which cover the costs of growing algae in commercial quantities. An algae-for-fuel industry will either have to: a) develop new species that are much more efficient or b) perfect mass-production techniques that can bring prices down to an acceptable range. Only then will “clean diesel” become a competitor. For now, the industry seems headed in the right direction.

The oil industry and API, at it again. When will they ever learn?

Never a dull moment! The API is at it again. Just a few days ago, it dramatically issued a survey indicating that close to 70% of all consumers were worried that E15 (a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline) would damage their cars. While the survey was done apparently by a reputable firm, it was not attached to the press release, preventing independent experts or advocate group experts from commenting or verifying the questions and the sample. More importantly, the survey was preceded by an expensive oil industry media blitz that illustrated or talked about the so-called evils of ethanol. The survey and media show reflected an attempt by the oil industry to eliminate or weaken the renewable fuel mandates and lessen competition from alternative transitional fuels.

Americans are usually not Pavlovian in demeanor or behavior; we do ask for second and even third opinions from our doctors. But when only one group, in this case, the oil industry, has put out a continuous flashy very expensive multimedia message, the API’s survey results were almost preordained to reflect the published results. Whatever the industry wanted it got! If you tell a misleading partial story to create fear and uncertainty, long enough, it will likely influence many. In this case, the API, if it had a nose, its nose, similar to Pinocchio’s, would be growing and growing and growing.

Let’s look at the facts — never acknowledged by the API in its “Fuel for Thought” campaign.

  1. DOE effectively demolished the API-supported study many months ago indicating that the sampling approach was wrong and the analysis was faulty. DOE’s study used a much larger number of vehicles and was far more rigorous concerning methodology. (Just to let you know, API is an oil industry funded group.)
  2. Many countries around the world have used E15 and higher ethanol blends as a fuel without significant problems. They are seen as a way to reduce environmental problems. They are cheaper than gasoline and they reduce the need, at times, for oil imports. Put another way, they improve quality of life, lower costs to the consumer, and are good for the economy and security.
  3. Although oil company franchise agreements with gas stations have limited the number of stations able to sell E15, several states (mostly in the Midwest) with multi-fuel stations, have demonstrated the merits of E15. Early data appears to discount engine problems.

Hell, Henry Ford’s initial car was designed to run on pure ethanol until the temperance movement supported by Standard Oil banned the use of manufactured alcohol. I know Standard Oil was very concerned that Americans would drink ethanol at their favorite bars or in front of their favorite fire place with their favorite significant other. Praise be to Standard Oil for salvation!

The law (RFS) requires a 10% ethanol blend with gasoline. More than a year ago, EPA OK’d the sale of E15 (for most cars particularly those produced after 2001). In June, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal by the oil industry of EPA’s standards.

API’s media campaign raises the food versus fuel fight canard because ethanol is produced mostly from corn as the feedstock. But the narratives neglect to raise the fact that the evidence concerning the negative impact on food is disputed by reputable analysts who indicate that, for the most part, the corn used for ethanol production is not your friendly grocery counter corn. Put another way, most of the corn to ethanol conversion comes from corn not able to be used for food. Yes, there still maybe some impacts on corn production and prices because of the growers reallocation of land, in light of the differential between corn and ethanol prices, to ethanol. However, many studies suggest that if a negative food impact exists, it is relatively minor. It is a worthy debate.

It appears, that API, conveniently, forgets to mention that ethanol can be produced efficiently and effectively from natural gas and that cellulosic based ethanol is now being manufactured or will soon be manufactured in large volumes by several companies. Further, Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it will start selling fuel made from methane in landfills and other waste sources in over 40 stations in California. Success of these initiatives, likely, will mean the end of the fuel versus food issue. If success is combined with the inexpensive conversion of existing cars to flex fuel cars permitting them to use alternative fuels, America will be blessed with a much cleaner, environmentally safe, and cheaper alternatives to gasoline- assuming the oil industry doesn’t block their sale at fuel stations.

Clearly, the oil industry does not want competition at the pump from ethanol…whether corn, cellulosic, garbage or natural gas. The American public should be wary of misleading guerilla marketing through industry funded surveys or not so benign expensive media blasts by captive organizations like API. Hopefully, the American consumer will not be confused for long. Paraphrasing a song by Peter, Paul and Mary about war and peace and a statement by President Lincoln, when will the oil companies ever learn?, and, if they don’t learn, when will they recognize “they can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time but they cannot fool all the people all the time.”