Self-driving cars are coming. Afraid yet?
The people who gathered at the 16th annual “Advance the Choice: Future of Transportation” conference in Riverside on Thursday didn’t seem too troubled by it. In fact, they welcome the revolution.
Self-driving cars are coming. Afraid yet?
The people who gathered at the 16th annual “Advance the Choice: Future of Transportation” conference in Riverside on Thursday didn’t seem too troubled by it. In fact, they welcome the revolution.
I must admit I’ve always been a little skeptical about this idea that diesel can be a “clean-burning fuel.” Anyone who has ever gotten stuck sitting behind a bus in traffic is likely to agree. Read more
The battle lines already are drawn over the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement Wednesday that it’s seeking to reduce the nation’s levels of ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review air-quality standards every five years. Under President George W. Bush, the agency set the ozone threshold at 75 parts per billion in 2008.
The EPA now wants to lower the bar to between 65 ppb and 70 ppb, the level that the agency’s advisory board of independent scientists and physicians has recommended. However, EPA will review comments on a lower benchmark of 60 ppb during its commentary period.
Ozone is created when sunlight hits emissions coming from vehicles, electricity-generating plants and factories. The EPA said ozone at the current accepted levels “can pose serious threats to public health, harm the respiratory system, cause or aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, and is linked to premature death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes.”
The NRDC said medical evidence shows that the revised limit, even at the lower end of 65 ppb, is harmful to health. ”So we urge EPA to set the standard at 60 ppb.”
That stance will put the EPA on a collision course with the manufacturing sector and Republican elected officials, who will control both the Senate and House in January. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who will take over as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that the lower threshold “will lower our nation’s economic competitiveness and stifle job creation for decades.”
National Association of Manufacturers president and CEO Jay Timmons said the new ozone regulation “threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing by placing massive new costs on manufacturers and closing off counties and states to new business …”
The Associated Press notes that the EPA initially proposed a range of 60 to 70 ppb in January 2010. Had that gone into effect, it would have come with an estimated price tag of between $19 billion and $90 billion and would have doubled the number of U.S. counties in violation.
In 2011, President Obama, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign, “reneged on a plan by then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson to lower the permissible level to be more protective of public health,” The AP wrote.
“Seldom do presidents get an opportunity to right a wrong,” Bill Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies told AP. “Obama has walked the walk on air.”
Current EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, in a post on CNNMoney.com, put the health argument front and center. But she also said cutting emissions would help the economy, not hinder it:
“Missing work, feeling ill, or caring for a sick child costs us time, money, and personal hardship. When family health issues hurt us financially, that drags down the whole economy. … Special-interest critics will try to convince you that pollution standards chase away local jobs and businesses, but, in fact, healthy communities attract new businesses, new investment, and new jobs.”
President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a milestone climate-change agreement in Beijing today, under which both countries would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to meet certain targets.
A major goal of the agreement, which still needs to be formalized, is to spur other nations to reduce their own carbon output.
But the deal already is coming under criticism: As The New York Times reports, at least one climate-change expert says China could do more on its end; the country is vowing to cut off peak emissions only at “around” the year 2030.
Republicans in Congress were swift to criticize the deal. As The Hill notes, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio issued a statement denouncing the deal as potentially harmful to the cheap energy that middle-class families rely on.
“This announcement is yet another sign that the president intends to double down on his job-crushing policies no matter how devastating the impact for America’s heartland and the country as a whole,” the statement said.
Rereading Alfred North Whitehead, one of my favorite philosophers, provides the context for the current debate over the wisdom of using the EPA’s amended transportation emissions model (Motor Vehicle Emission Simulator, or MOVES) for state-by-state analysis. He once indicated that, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”
I am uncertain about Whitehead’s skepticism, if treated as an absolute. However, it does give pause when judging the use of an amended MOVES model, based mostly on advocacy research by the nonprofit group, the Coordinating Research Council (CRC). The CRC is funded by the oil industry, through the American Petroleum Institute (API), and auto manufacturers.
CRC was tasked by the EPA with amending MOVES and applying it to measure and determine the impact of vehicular emissions. The model and related CRC analysis was subject to comments in the Federal Register but the structure of the Register mutes easy dialogue over tough, but important, methodological disagreements among experts. Apparently, no refereed panel subjected the CRC’s process or product to critique before the EPA granted both its imperator and sent it out to the states for their use.
I am concerned that if the critics are correct, premature statewide use of the amended MOVES model will mistakenly impede development and use of alternative transitional fuels to replace gasoline, particularly ethanol, and negatively influence related federal, state and local policies and programs concerning the same. If this occurs, because of apparent mistakes in the model (and the data plugged into it), the road to significant use of renewable fuels in the future will be paved with higher costs for consumers, higher levels of pollutants and higher GHG emissions.
With some exceptions, the EPA has been a strong supporter of unbiased, nonpartisan research. Gina McCarthy, its present leader, is an outstanding administrator, like many of her predecessors, like Douglas Costle (I am proud to say that Doug worked with me on urban policy, way, way back in the sixties), Russell Train, Carol Browner, William Reilly, Christine Todd Whitman, Bill Ruckelshaus and Lee Thomas. No axes to grind; no ideological or client bias…only a commitment to help improve the environment for the American people. I feel comfortable that she will listen to the critics of MOVES.
The amended MOVES may well be the best thing since the invention of Swiss cheese. It could well help the nation, its states and its citizens determine the truths or even half-truths (that acknowledge uncertainties) related to gasoline use and alternative replacement fuels. But why the hurry in making it the gold standard for emission and pollutant analysis at the state or, indeed, the federal level, in light of some of the perceived methodological and participatory problems?
Some history! Relatively recently, the EPA correctly criticized CRC because of its uneven (at best) analytical approach to reviewing the effect of E15 on car engines. Paraphrasing the EPA’s conclusions, the published CRC study reflected a bad sample as well as too small a sample. Its findings, indicating that E15 had an almost uniform negative impact on internal combustion engines didn’t comport with facts.
The CRC’s study of E15 was, pure and simple, advocacy research. CRC reports generally reflect the views of its oil and auto industry funders and results can be predicted early on before their analytical efforts are completed. Some of its reports are better than others. But overall, it is not known for independent unbiased research.
The EPA’s desire for stakeholder involvement in up grading and use of MOVES to measure emissions is laudable. However it seems that the CRC was the primary stakeholder involved on a sustained basis in the effort. No representatives of the replacement fuel industry, no nonpartisan independent nonprofit think tanks, no government-sponsored research groups and no business or environmental advocacy groups were apparently included in the effort. Given the cast of characters (or the lack thereof) in the MOVES’ update, there’s little wonder that the CRC’s approach and subsequently the EPA’s efforts to encourage states to use the amended model have been and, I bet, will be heavily criticized in the months ahead.
Two major, well-respected national energy and environmental organizations, Energy Future Coalition (EFC) and Urban Air Initiative, have asked the EPA to immediately suspend the use of the MOVES with respect to ethanol blends. Both want the CRC/MOVES study and model to be peer reviewed by experts at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL), and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). I would add the Argonne National Laboratory because of its role in administering GREET, The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation Model. Further, both implicitly argue that Congress should not use the CRC study and MOVES until the data and methodological issues are fixed. Indeed, before policy concerning the use of alternative replacement fuels is debated by the administration, Congress and the states both appear to want to be certain that MOVES is able to provide reasonably accurate estimates of emissions and market-related measurements, particularly with respect to ethanol and, as Whitehead would probably say, at least provide half-truths, or, as Dragnet’s Detective Jack Webb often said, “Just the facts, ma’am,” or at least just the half-truths, nothing but at least the half-truths.
What are the key issues upsetting the critics like the EFC and the Urban Air Initiative? Apart from the pedigree of the CRC and the de minimis roles granted other stakeholders than the oil industry, the CRC/MOVES model, reflects match blending instead of splash blending to develop ethanol/gasoline blends. Sounds like two different recipes with different products — and it is. Splash blending is used in most vehicles in the U.S. and generally is perceived as producing less pollution.
Let’s skip the precise formula. It’s complicated and more than you want to know. Just know that according to the letter sent to the EPA by the EFC and Urban Air Quality on Oct. 20th, the use of match blending requires higher boiling points for distillation, and these points, in turn are generally the worst polluting aromatic parts of gasoline. It noted that match blending, as prescribed by the MOVES, results in blaming ethanol for increased emissions rather than the base fuel. There is no regulatory, mechanical or health justification for adding high boiling point hydrocarbons to test fuels for purposes of measuring changes in vehicle tailpipe emissions, when ethanol is part of the fuel mixture. Independent investigations by automakers and other fuel experts confirm that the use of match blending in the study mistakenly attributed increased emission levels to ethanol rather than to the addition of aromatics and other high boiling hydrocarbons, thereby significantly distorting the model’s emission results. A peer-reviewed analysis, which will be published shortly, found that the degradation of emissions which can result is primarily due to the added hydrocarbons, but has often been incorrectly attributed to the ethanol.
The policy issues involved due to the methodological errors are significant. If states and other government entities, as well as fuel supply chain participants, use the model in its present form, they will mistakenly believe that ethanol’s emissions and pollutants are higher than reported in study after study over the past decade. The reported results will be just plain wrong. They will not even be half-truths, but zero truths. Distortions in decision making concerning the wisdom of alternative transitional replacement fuels, particularly ethanol, will occur and generate weaker ethanol markets and opportunities to build a strategic path to renewables. The EPA, rather than encourage use of the study and the model, should pull both back and suggest waiting until refereed review panels finish their work.
Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.
In the early 1990s, California tried to force the introduction of electric cars by requiring that auto companies produce a zero-emissions vehicle in order to remain in the state. The result was Chevrolet’s EV1, which everyone agreed was the best electrical vehicle that could be built at the time. Owners loved them, but somehow the effort didn’t take off.
The infrastructure simply wasn’t in place. The car only had a 70-mile range and drivers spent much of their time worrying about their next charge. Many EV1s ended up on the lots of rental agencies where they attracted little attention. All this, of course, was interpreted by some people as the fault of the oil companies and the auto industry, which didn’t push the case hard enough. The award-winning documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” made this argument.
Then three years later, Toyota introduced the Prius, a gas-electric hybrid that gave drivers some breathing room. It was a spectacular success. By not trying to make the technological transition in one giant leap, the Prius introduced drivers to the advantages of electric propulsion without asking them to sacrifice anything in terms of a nerve-wracking search for a refill. In fact, when Toyota brought out the Prius it deliberately left off a home charger so that buyers would not associate it with the failed EV1. Not until several years later did the company release a plug-in hybrid. In both cases, the Prius has been the most successful of all hybrids.
Natural gas vehicles seem determined to avoid the same mistake. This year both Ford and General Motors are releasing commercial NGVs in their light-truck and sedan lines. But they are taking care to make them bi-fuel vehicles that run on both gasoline and natural gas, although they are expensive. (Both companies have been making tri-fuel — gasoline, ethanol and CNG — for many years in Brazil.) First out of the box will be the immensely popular Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra, both full-sized pickups that sold 480,000 and 184,000 last year, respectively, the highest sales mark since 2007. GM is offering bi-fuel versions for every cabin configuration. The 2015 model will offer a 16-gallon gasoline tank and a 17-gallon-equivalent compressed natural gas tank. When both are filled, the truck will have a remarkable range of 650 miles.
Along with that, GM will be releasing a bi-fuel Chevrolet Impala to introduce ordinary drivers to the advantages of natural gas. The Impala will feature an 18.5-gallon gasoline tank and a 7.7-GGE CNG tank. The result will be a 500-mile range.
Not to be outdone, Ford has already introduced a bi-fuel version of the immensely successful F-150 half-ton pickup truck. Released only last November, the company managed to sell 15,000 vehicles across eight models in 2013. That beat 2012 sales by 25 percent. When combined with its conventional gas tank, the CNG boost gives the F-150 an astounding 700-mile range, beating the Silverado by 100 miles. Unfortunately, the price differential for all these NGV models will be about $10,000.
But motorists could see a 2-3-year payback if the price gap between gasoline and its natural gas equivalent holds up. Right now it has settled around $1.50 gap per gallon and has remained there for almost five years. Give motorists the opportunity to save almost half the price on a gallon of gas is bound to make the new bi-fuel models more attractive.
Other developments are also moving in the direction of a transition to natural gas for high mileage vehicles. In 2012, ARPA-E, the federal government’s program for advanced energy research, awarded $2.3 million to GE Global Research, Chart Industries and the University of Missouri to design a gas refueling station for homeowners. GE already makes a $5,000 medium-sized refueling kit for commercial businesses called “CNG in a Box” that takes gas out of the utility pipes and compresses it for fleet vehicles. The target price for the scaled-down homeowner version is $500. The consortium has set a release date for later this year, at which point we’ll find out if they’ve been successful. The launching of such a cheap conversion system that would allow homeowners to tap the natural gas pipes in their house to refuel their cars would revolutionize the whole NGV effort.
Of course there’s always another possibility — converting our abundant natural gas supplies to ethanol or methanol that would fit right into our current gasoline delivery system. Switching to liquids would not require a new on-board gas tank but would simply involve adjusting existing engines so they could run on a variety of liquids — the “flex-fuel” system. Giving motorists the widest variety of choices would let them experiment with different strategies without having to make a giant leap over some technological chasm. That’s what California learned twenty years ago when it tried to rush the introduction of the electric car and the lesson still holds good today.
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
“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!
In their path-breaking study, “Fuel Choice for American Prosperity,” the Energy Security Council carefully outlines the dilemma that our complete dependence on oil for transportation has created.
“It’s not the oil we import, it’s the price,” was the way they summarized it. As I outlined in a previous post the authors show how OPEC still controls the bulk of the world’s oil reserves and has not increased its output since the 1970s. As a result, even though we have increased domestic production dramatically and cut down on consumption, we are actually paying more for our oil imports than we were ten years ago. Why? Because, OPEC is still able to manipulate the price to keep it at $100 a barrel. It’s not the black stuff we import that crimps our economy, it’s the price of oil we must accept from a monopolistic cartel.
So what to do? Do we set up protests outside OPEC’s corporate offices in Vienna? Do we bring an anti-trust suit in some world forum? People have actually tried such things and gotten nowhere. No, the only way to extricate ourselves from this market is to break the monopoly that oil has on our transportation system. If oil had competitors, it will start acting like any other commodity and respond to supply and demand. The key to breaking the OPEC monopoly, says USESC, is to develop alternative fuels.
When it comes to asking why we have not made more progress in developing alternative fuels, however, USESC has a surprising answer: government regulation. Government regulation? How can that be? I thought the government was doing everything it could to foster alternatives and try to lower our oil imports. Well, as usually happens when the government gets involved in manipulating a market, things quickly get complicated and murky. Here’s what has happened:
CAFE standards. When Congress first started setting corporate fleet average standards, responsibility was given to the Environmental Protection Agency. In retrospect, this was an odd choice, since EPA is more concerned with air pollution than reducing oil consumption. The Department of Energy would have been a more logical choice. This didn’t become visible in the 1980s when pollution concerns centered on the combustion products of sulfur and nitrogen. But now that carbon dioxide and global warming have become the principal concerns, the EPA has subtly changed its emphasis. As USESC points out; “CAFE’s initial energy security centric vision has been blurred by the desire to use the law to promote greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.”
In its latest regulatory effort, for example, the EPA will reward auto companies for introducing alternative fuels by applying a “multiplier” to their corporate fleet average beginning in 2017. Every electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will count as two vehicles in the denominator of the corporate average, phasing down to 1.5 by 2021. For plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and compressed natural gas vehicles (CNG), the multiplier will be 1.6, phasing down to 1.3.
All this seems fair enough. EVs and FCVs use no gasoline and plug-in hybrids are only partially dependent on oil. The real problem, however, is that flexible-fuel vehicles – cars that are designed to burn ethanol, methanol or gasoline – have only been given credit based on how much E-85 they burn in real-world driving. The auto manufacturers have used this to avoid making improvements in car efficiency. This is regrettable because flexible fuel engines burning either ethanol from homegrown corn or methanol derived from natural gas would be the best say to cut down on imported oil. Both methanol and ethanol are liquids and fit right into our current gas station delivery system. Compressed natural gas and electricity, on the other hand, require a whole new replenishing system. Yet the EPA remains wary of both ethanol and methanol because they produce carbon exhausts. CNG also produces carbon exhausts, of course, and EVs drawing power from coal or natural gas will produce exhausts at the power plant. The EPA has tried to compensate for this by adding upstream carbon releases for EVs and other alternative fuels but it does not do the same for gasoline! In short, the whole multiplier system is a mess. The EPA would do much better just trying to reduce oil dependence rather than bringing carbon emissions into the equation.
Costs of converting to alternative fuels: One of the most important steps in developing alternative fuels is converting existing gasoline vehicles to run on other fuels.
In general, there are three types of conversions – switching a gasoline or diesel car to run solely on another fuel (dedicated), changing a vehicles to run on higher alcohol blends (flex fuel), or installing an additional fuel tank so that the vehicles can burn the competing fuel as well (bi-fuel). In American, however, onerous regulations and staggering costs of conversion has deterred consumers.
The study points out that installing a CNG tank in an American car costs $10,000 while the same tank in Europe can be installed for $3,800. The difference is the strength of the tank as dictated by the EPA. Of course we don’t want to be in a situation such as Pakistan where CNG cars are exploding due to poor tank quality. But even in comparison to other developed countries, U.S. regulatory requirements are excessive.
Taxing by volume instead of by energy content: The federal and state governments places taxes on gasoline and any other product used to propel trucks and automobiles. The logic here is that the money goes into special highway trusts that maintain the roads. But the tax is imposed by the gallon rather than by energy content. USESC maintains that this is discriminatory because methanol, ethanol and other non-gasoline products have less energy density and therefore require more volume for the same amount of energy. This is a fine point and might be disputed by the oil industry, which would say if ethanol and methanol have less energy content, that is simply their tough luck. Ethanol, on the other hand, has been exempted from the federal highway tax and most state gas taxes, which is what makes it economical to add to gasoline.
The ban on methanol: Finally, although the USESC report does not even mention it, the biggest regulatory impediment to alternative fuels is the EPA’s failure to authorize the use of methanol in gas tanks. Putting anything in your gas tank requires permission from the EPA because of air pollution considerations. Although methanol actually produces less nitrous oxides and less particulate matter than gasoline, the EPA has never given it an OK. Although methanol made from natural gas might be the best alternative for replacing gasoline, it is does not yet have EPA approval.
Changing any and all of these regulations would require a huge concerted effort by some constituency that had a strong material interest in pushing it through Congress. Unfortunately, there is no such group. The natural gas industry is not yet organized around the issue and is more concerned about defending fracking and opening up natural gas exports. T. Boone Pickens is pushing CNG for trucks through his Clean Energy Fuels but there is no similar effort to promote the use of natural gas in cars. The entire farm bloc is behind corn ethanol, of course, which is why it has been so successful. But there is no similar interest promoting methanol, which may be just as good an alternative or better.
Under these circumstances, the best alternative is to persuade the auto manufacturers to produce flex-fuel vehicles that can run on any fuel – natural gas, hydrogen, biodiesel, E85 (85% ethanol) or M85 (85% methanol). The adjustment would not add significantly to the price of a new car and would open up the field to all the competitors attempting to replace gasoline.
Let the best fuel win.