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Make a fuel choice resolution for 2015

Resolution time, people: Forget the gym, forget cleaning out the garage, forget writing that novel.

Resolve to start small in helping the economy and helping the environment in 2015: Sign the “fuel choice resolution” on the Fuel Freedom website today.

No. 1 on the list is: Watch PUMP the movie, of course. The documentary is coming to iTunes on Jan. 13, and is available now for pre-order. If you happen to be in Omaha, Nebraska, on Feb. 2, you can also catch a special screening put on by the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

No. 2 among the resolutions: Sign our petition asking that major independent fueling retailers like Costco and Walmart make ethanol available at their locations.

No. 3: Shopping for a new or used vehicle? Look for one that’s branded as flex-fuel. Then you’ll know it’s ready to rock with ethanol blends.

No. 4: Come up with your own idea about how you can promote fuel choice in the new year. Something that means a lot to you.

Go to the page on our website for the full list of resolutions, then share your pledge on social media.

Thanks, and Happy New Year! Let’s all work together in 2015 to make a diversified transportation fuel market one step closer to reality.

 

 

Religion, structural changes in the oil Industry and the price of oil and gasoline

Oil barrelAmericans — in light of the decline in oil and gas prices — don’t take happy selfies just yet! Clearly, the recent movement of oil prices per barrel below $80 and the cost of gasoline at the pump below $3 a gallon lend cause for, at least strategically, repressed joy among particularly low-income consumers, many of whose budgets for holiday shopping have been expanded near 10 percent. Retail stores are expressing their commitment to the holiday by beginning Christmas sales pre-Thanksgiving. Sure, sales profits were involved in their decisions, once it appeared to them that lower gas prices were here to stay, at least for a while. But don’t be cynical; I am sure the spirit moved them to play carols as background music and to see if in-store decorations made it easier for shoppers to get by headlines of war, climate change and other negative stuff and into, well yes, a buying mood. If retail sales exceed last year’s and GNP is positively affected, it will provide testimony and reaffirm belief that God is on America and the free market’s side, or at least the side of shopping malls and maybe even downtowns. Religious conversions might be up this year…all because of lower costs of gasoline at the pump. The power of the pump!

But, holy Moses (I am ecumenical), we really haven’t been taken across the newly replenished figurative Red Sea yet. There are road signs suggesting we won’t get there, partly because of the historical and current behavior of the oil industry. Why do I say this?

If history is prologue, EIA’s recent projections related to the continued decline of oil and gasoline prices will undergo revisions relatively soon, maybe in 6 months to a year or so. I suspect they will reflect the agency’s long-held view that prices will escalate higher during this and the next decade. Tension in the Middle East, a Saudi/OPEC change of heart on keeping oil prices low, a healthier U.S. economy, continued demand from Asia (particularly China), slower U.S. oil shale well development as well as higher drilling costs and the relatively short productive life span of tight oil wells, and more rigorous state environmental as well as fracking policies, will likely generate a hike in oil and gasoline prices. Owners, who were recently motivated to buy gas-guzzling vehicles because of low gas prices, once again, may soon find it increasingly expensive to travel on highways built by earthlings.

Forget the alternative; that is, like Moses, going to the Promised Land on a highway created by a power greater than your friendly contractor and with access to cheap gas to boot. Moses was lucky he got through in time and his costs were marginal. He was probably pushed by favorable tides and friendly winds. The wonderful Godly thing! He and his colleagues secured low costs and quick trips through the parting waters.

Added to the by-now conventional litany concerning variables affecting the short- and long-term cost and price of gasoline and oil (described in the preceding paragraph), will likely be the possible structural changes that might take place in the oil industry. If they occur, it will lead to higher costs and prices. Indeed, some are already occurring. Halliburton, one of the sinners in Iraq concerning overpricing services and other borderline practices (motivated by the fear of lower gas prices), has succeeded in taking over Baker Hughes for near $35 billion. If approved by U.S. regulators, the combined company will control approximately 30 percent of the oil and gas services market. According to experts, the new entity could capture near 40 percent relatively quickly. Sounds like a perfect case for anti-trust folks or, if not, higher oil and gas costs for consumers.

Several experts believe that if low gas prices continue, oil companies will examine other profit-making, competition-limiting and price-raising activities, including further mergers and acquisitions. Some bright iconoclasts among them even suggest that companies may try to develop and produce alternative fuels.

Amen! Nirvana! Perhaps someday oil companies will push for an Open Fuels Law, conversion of cars to flex-fuel vehicles and competition at the pump…if they can make a buck or two. Maybe they will repent for past monopolistic practices. But don’t hold your breath! Opportunity costing for oil companies is complex and unlikely to quickly breed such public-interest related decisions. Happy Thanksgiving!

Europe says yes to alternative vehicles

Things have always been a little easier in Europe when it comes to saving gas and adopting different kinds of vehicles. The distances are shorter, the roads narrower, and the cities built more for the 19th century than the 21st.

Europeans also have very few oil and gas resources, and have long paid gas taxes that would make Americans shudder. Three to four times what we pay in America is the norm in Europe.

Thus, Europeans have always been famous for their small, fuel-sipping cars. Renault was long famous for its Le Cheval (the horse), an-all grey bag of bones that’s barely powerful enough to shuttle people around Paris. The Citroën, Volkswagen and Audi were all developed in Europe. Ford and GM also produced models that were much smaller than their American counterparts. Gas mileage was fantastic — sometimes reaching the mid-40s. A big American car getting 15 miles per gallon and trying to negotiate the streets of Berlin or Madrid often looked like a river barge that had wandered off course.

More Europeans also opt for diesel engines instead of conventional gasoline — 40 percent by the latest count. The overall energy conversion in a diesel engine is over 50 percent and can cut fuel consumption by 40 percent. But diesel fuel is still a fossil fuel, which have a lot of pollution problems and don’t really offer a long-range solution. So, Europeans decided that it’s time to move on to the next generation.

Last week the European Union laid down new rules that will try to promote the implementation of all kinds of alternative means of transportation, making it easier for car buyers to switch to alternative fuels. The goal is to achieve 10 percent alternative vehicles by 2025 over a wide range of technologies, removing the impediments that are currently slowing the adoption of alternatives. If everything works out, tooling around Paris in an electric vehicle within a few years without suffering the slightest range anxiety would become a reality.

By the end of 2015, each of Europe’s 28 member states will be asked to build at least one recharging point per 10 electric vehicles. Since the U.K. is planning to have 1.55 million electric vehicles. That would require at least 155,000 recharging stations, which is a pretty tall order. But members of the commission are confident it can be done. “We can always call on Elon Musk,” said one official.

For compressed natural gas, the goal is to have one refueling station located every 150 kilometers (93 miles). This gives CNG a comfortable margin for range. With liquefied petroleum (LPG) it will be for one refueling station every 400 kilometers (248 miles). These stations can be further apart because they will mainly be used by long-haul trucks travelling the TEN-T Network, a network of road, water and rail transportation that the Europeans have been working on since 2006.

Interestingly, hydrogen refueling doesn’t get much attention beyond a sufficient number of stations for states that are trying to develop them. There is noticeably less enthusiasm for hydrogen-powered vehicles than is expressed for EVs and gas-powered vehicles. All this indicates how the hydrogen car has become a Japanese trend while not arousing much interest in either Europe or America.

At the same time, Europeans are planning very little in the way of ethanol and other biofuels (they also mandate 20 percent ethanol in fuel). Sweden is very advanced when it comes to flex-fuel cars. They have been getting notably nervous about the misconception that biofuels are competing with food resources around the world — Europe does not have its own land resources to grow corn or sugarcane the way it is being done in the United States and Brazil. Europe imports some ethanol from America but it is also now developing large sugar-cane-to-ethanol areas in West Africa.

Siim Kallas, vice president of the European Commission for TEN-T, told the press the new rules are designed to build up a critical mass of in order to whet investor appetites for these new markets. “Alternative fuels are key to improving the security of energy supply, reducing the impact of transport on the environment and boosting EU competitiveness,” he told Business Week. “With these new rules, the EU provides long-awaited legal certainty for companies to start investing, and the possibility for economies of scale.”

Is there any chance that the public is going to take an interest in all this? Well, one poll in Britain found last week that 65 percent would consider buying an alternative fuel car and 19 percent might do it within the next two years. Within a few years they find the infrastructure ready to meet their needs.

Natural Gas, Corn Stover And The Restricted Ethanol Market

The nation is lucky to have Gina McCarthy as the head of the EPA. Her background is exquisite, her intellect is superior and her sensitivity to and understanding of the environmental issues facing America is second to none. She has been a fine EPA Administrator.

Then why am I worried when we have such a surfeit of riches in one individual leader? Long before McCarthy became Administrator, the EPA began working on a new set of guidelines governing the amount and use of ethanol in gasoline sold at the pump. The guidelines, more than likely, were ready in draft form simultaneously with Gina McCarthy’s appointment and the pressure to release them was intense, given earlier promises.

Because the positives and negatives of an increase or decrease in the RFS concerning ethanol use are imprecise, no real precise judgment can be made as to the final numbers, except the admonition, similar to the Hippocratic Oath: they do no harm and, do what the EPA suggests they probably will do, improve the economy, the environment and open fuel choices to the consumer. Sounds simple, but it isn’t! The EPA is considering modification of relatively recently determined RFS.

I understand the position of the oil companies to reduce what are effectively ethanol set asides. They have a financial stake in selling less corn-based ethanol with each gallon of gas, particularly when the content of ethanol rises to E85. Declining gas sales and prices make them eager to secure lower total annual ethanol requirements. Although the data is mixed, I also commiserate with the cattle growers who indicate they have had to pay, at times, higher prices for corn because of ethanol’s reliance on corn. Similarly, I am sensitive to environmentalists who worry that the acreage for corn-based ethanol is eating (excuse the pun) into conservation land and that total greenhouse gas emissions from production to use in vehicles of corn-based ethanol is not, generally, a good deal for the environment. I am not trying to be all things to all groups, but I am trying to weave my way through an intellectual and practical thicket.

The corn farmer’s advocacy of ethanol appears rational from an opportunity-cost standpoint. Corn-based ethanol seems, to them, to support higher prices for corn. They have done well in most recent years. While the facts remain unclear (credible researchers, such as those in the World Bank, have wavered over time on their position), the arguments made by groups and individuals concerned with what they believe is the relationship between corn-based ethanol and food supply should be debated fully. I, also, am inclined to believe those in the security business who feel that increased use of ethanol will reduce our dependency on important oil and lessen the nation’s need to fight wars in part to assure the world and the U.S. a share of global oil supply. Weaning ourselves from oil dependency is national need and priority.

It is tough to judge the efficacy of projections of ethanol sales, because of uncertain economic factors and the constraints put on consumer fuel choices by the oil industry’s almost-monopolistic restrictions at gas stations (just try buying safe, less costly alternative fuels at most gas stations) and federal regulations governing alternative fuel use as well as the sale of conversion kits. There is no free market for fuel.

Responding clearly to the conflicts over the value of corn-based ethanol and the annual total requirements for ethanol is not easy and should suggest the complexity of the involved issues and their presumed relationship to one another. Maybe increased use of corn stover and certainly natural gas-based ethanol for E85 would reduce food for fuel conflicts and lessen possible environmental problems. Nothing is perfect, but the production of ethanol using alternative feedstocks, such as stover and, hopefully soon, natural gas, could make a difference in providing better replacement fuels than just the use of corn based ethanol. Like a Talmudic scholar, I frequently, instead of counting sheep, find myself saying “on one hand, on the other hand” while trying to fall sleep. (I haven’t slept more than three full hours a night since Eisenhower was president.) I end up agreeing with the King in the King and I — “It’s a puzzlement!”

The EPA’s job is a tough one. Its lowering of the total amount of ethanol required to be used with gasoline may or may not have been the right decision. I know the EPA is considering modifying its initial estimates upward. We will have to wait and see what the Agency produces and then take part in a reasonable dialogue as to benefits and costs.

I am a somewhat more concerned about the basis used by the EPA to decide to lower ethanol requirements, at this point in time, than the new rules themselves. The rationale for the amended guidelines will become embedded in rulemaking and decisions could well generate unnecessary policy and constituent conflicts.

The Agency explained its recent decisions, in part, in terms of the absence of infrastructure and the possible harm that higher ethanol blends can do to vehicle engines. “EPA is proposing to adjust the applicable volumes of advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel to address projected availability of qualifying renewable fuels and limitations on the volume of ethanol that can be consumed in gasoline given practical constraints on the supply of higher ethanol blends to the vehicles that can use them and other limits on ethanol blend levels in gasoline (the ethanol blend wall).” Note that for the most part, the EPA does not dwell on environmental, economic or security issues in its basic rationale.

The EPA seems to mix supply and demand in a rather imprecise way. Ethanol is ethanol. Traditional infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) is not readily available now to transport ethanol from corn-based ethanol producers to blenders of gasoline and ethanol. But trains and heavy-duty vehicles are accessible and have provided reasonably efficient pipeline alternatives. Indeed, their availability, assuming modifications for safety concerns, particularly concerning trains, extends strategic options regarding the location of refineries/blenders and storage capacity to lessen leakage of environmentally harmful emissions.

The EPA’s argument for lowering ethanol requirements appears to rest, to a large degree, on a somewhat unconventional definition of supply. As one observer put it, the EPA’s regulations “muddle” the definition of supply with demand. There is an ample supply of ethanol now, indeed, a surplus. The EPA’s decision will likely increase the surplus or reduce the suppliers.

Demand for higher ethanol blends really has not been fairly tested in the analytical prelude to the recently changed regulations. Detroit and its dealers seem unwilling to clearly inform consumers of the government-approved use of blends higher than E15 in the flex-fuel cars that they are now producing and or are committed to producing in the future. Oil company franchise agreements limit replacement fuel pumps at their stations, often to off-center locations…somewhere near the men or women’s bathrooms, if at all. Correspondingly, the EPA’s regulations appear to mute the Agency’s own (and others) positive engine testing on E15 and its approval of E15 and E85 blends, within certain restrictions. Earlier, EPA studies were a bulwark against recent sustained attacks by the oil and, sometimes, the auto industry, as well as their friends on ethanol and its supposed negative affect on engines.

The EPA’s analysis of demand seems further blurred by the fact that if the Agency increased the supply of approved conversion kits, increased numbers of owners of existing vehicles would likely convert from gasoline to less-expensive ethanol-based fuels.

The EPA’s background rationale for the new RFS regulations understandably does not reflect the ability to produce ethanol from natural gas, a fuel in plentiful supply, and a natural gas to ethanol conversion process that may relatively soon be available. To do so would likely require an amendment to the RFS because natural gas is not a renewable fuel. The benefits include lower costs to the consumer, reduced import dependency and likely a decrease in pollutants and emissions. It appears a reasonable approach and provides a reasonable replacement fuel until renewable fuels are ready to compete for prime market time. Natural gas-based ethanol, as well as, as noted earlier, possible use of corn stover, would lessen the intensity of the food vs. fuel debate and the environmentalist concerns.

The EPA has tried hard to develop regulations that secure the public interest and appeal to varied constituencies. I respect its efforts. It’s a complicated task. I remember being asked by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop a report on simplifying its regulations for diverse programs. If I remember correctly, my report was over 600 pages long. Sufficiently said!

Pete Seeger And Building Consensus For Transitional Fuels

I have a love for folk music. I recently heard the cantor sing “Where have all the Flowers Gone?” at a service for the Jewish High Holidays. It brought back a lot of memories concerning the ‘60s: a period of hope, achievement and tragedy in America.

Excuse me if I take one line from the song by Pete Seeger, perhaps out of context, to explore the current intellectual and real politic difficulties we have in weaning the nation off of oil. Remember the continuous refrain in every stanza concerning the human costs of war, “Oh, when will [we] ever learn?”

I think we should ask the Seeger question now, in addition to thinking about war, about the issues involved in America’s transportation sector’s continued dependence on oil and the nation’s inability to come up with a coherent transition to a renewable fuel.

Look, I hope that we can make the switch from fossil fuels to renewable fuels as soon as federal policy, technology, design and costs make the renewables and cars competitive for most folks. The sooner the better! But even when the market penetration of non-fossil-fuel powered vehicles is double, triple or quadruple what it is now, the percentage of such cars on the road will be infinitesimal compared to the cars fueled by gasoline — a derivative of oil. Think about it! 254 million vehicles exist in America. Fewer than 100,000 renewable fuel powered cars, primarily electric and electric hybrids, were sold in 2013. Given the average life span of cars, it will take a long, long time before the fleet is predominantly gasoline free. Given these facts, establishing a national strategy that, through research and development, makes renewable fuel-powered vehicles cost efficient and marketable to most Americans as soon as possible, and that, simultaneously, encourages the use of transitional fuels in flex-fuel vehicles, while far from perfect, makes common sense. The dual-linked approach is better for the economy, the environment, the consumer and the country’s security. (Ain’t going to have go to war no more…or at least less war based on oil needs.)

What is it that makes many America’s leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sector unable to act even semi-rationally concerning alternative fuels? Sure, Washington is dysfunctional and partisanship as well as special interests have prevented the development of consensus around fuel policy, but to some extent, we as citizens have not become “energized” to advocate for change. Push alternative fuels, including those derived from renewables, and the oil industry demurs with shrill “earth is flat” type lobbyists; advocate for flex-fuel automobiles, and you get both the oil industry and some in the auto industry leveraging their often negative weight in Congress and in state capitals. Try building strong bipartisan coalitions around development of choice at the pump and you are seen as a dreamer, and subject to the often challengeable absolute wisdoms shouted by different interest groups and their leaders.

Sit back and take it all in! The dialogue, or what purports to be the dialogue, concerning fuel choice often reminds me, at least, of the religious arguments about whose God is better. I don’t think anyone has recently had a direct line to God! The tolls are too expensive. Federal regulations in light of separation of church and state prevent it. Similarly, I do not know any respected analyst who finds complete truth in his or her numbers supporting one fuel over another. We hope for perfectibility, not perfection, in analytical theology.

But repeating the dysfunctional “woe is us” analysis over and over again becomes boring and seems to be an excuse for political inertia or failed leadership in all sectors — public, private and nonprofit. Paraphrasing the Pogo comic strip, we have met the enemy and he is us.

So, “when will we ever learn?” that making love is better than making war with respect to building an agreement on alternative fuel strategies? The oil industry, according to recent analyses, has reason to want to think about the future before it continuously tries to restrain our choices at the pump. Prices per barrel may soon reach the level where drilling for tight oil may be too expensive and alternative fuels may be worthy of investment. (Nothing like the profit motive to bring folks to the table!) The auto industry recently has been increasing production of flex-fuel vehicles and CAFE standards, combined with a successful push for open fuel standards and lower cost fuels, could induce even higher production levels of flex-fuel vehicles. Many environmental groups, some of whom already support a dual strategy leading to expanded transitional fuel choices and support for a faster path to renewables, seem willing to discuss a road less traveled, that is, continued use of fossil-based transitional fuels until renewables are ready for prime time. Maybe all we need now is a leader or leaders supported by informed constituencies who will bring relevant groups and individuals together around a consensus building learning table.

Thank you, Pete Seeger!

Hey, I own a flex-fuel vehicle. Now what?

E85editThere are somewhere between 15 million and 17.5 million flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) on the road in the United States. The Big 3 Detroit automakers have delivered on their promise to make half of all their new vehicles (built since the 2012 model year) flex-fuel.

With so many FFVs out there, why don’t more people know that those vehicles run great on ethanol?

FFVs can accommodate any ethanol blend, from the widely used E10 (which contains up to 10 percent ethanol … what most of us fill up on every day) to E15, E30, all the way up to E85 (which actually contains anywhere between 51 percent and 83 percent ethanol). Engines in FFVs can burn any mixture of ethanol and regular gasoline.

And yet surveys consistently show that only a fraction of people who own an FFV know that it can run on fuel other than the garden-variety E10.

How do you know you’re driving an FFV?

  • The most common identifier for vehicle that’s been “branded” an FFV by the manufacturer is a FlexFuel badge somewhere on the vehicle’s exterior, usually the rear.
  • FFVs normally have a sticker inside the fuel door.
  • For good measure, the gas cap is yellow.
  • The vehicle’s owner’s manual will mention it’s an FFV.
  • Often a particular make and model of car will be an FFV, and an identical one won’t be. To tell the difference, visit PropelFuels.com (a distributor of ethanol). They have a handy list of vehicle manufacturers, with a drop-down menu showing which of their models are FFVs. Just to confirm, they list key digits or letters in the VIN that will be a clear indicator.

Most new pickup trucks, and many SUVs, are branded as flex-fuel, so you’re probably used to seeing FFVs on the road. If you’re the proud owner of one, your next step is to find the fuel that will not only make the vehicle’s engine run more smoothly, with fewer knocks and pings, it burns cleaner, emitting fewer toxic substances than regular gas.

Check the Alternative Fuels Data Center website to find stations that sell E85 and other ethanol blends. Many of them are located in the Farm Belt and other Midwestern states, owing to the close proximity to corn-ethanol processing plants. But there are some 1,300 such stations around the country.

For various reasons, automakers build some vehicles that can run on ethanol but aren’t branded as “FlexFuel.” These are called “twins,” because in every meaningful way they’re identical to the FFV version. And there are millions of those on the road, too. All they require is a simple software update that can be done by a mechanic with the know-how.

If only a small percentage of FFV owners out there started using E85, we could make a serious dent in oil consumption in the United States.

What the world needs now is land (and honesty) to get to replacement fuels

I had the good fortune to meet and work a bit with Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera. We were both on an informal poverty task force created by President Kennedy. I always admired Land. Throughout his life, his comments were always thought-provoking. His suggestion that “politeness is the poison of collaboration” really challenged, and continues to challenge, many of the facilitation and leadership gurus and practitioners who sometimes seem to have invented linguistic anti-depressants. Translated: don’t get angry, hold your tongue, mind your manners, mute some of your views or make them sound less critical, try to be nice and likeable, move toward a win-win situation, compromise and, if you get intense, take a break and go out for a while. Have a beer?

Times have changed, but only a bit, since Land died in the early nineties. Many participants still go into a collaborative and/or facilitative policy process with squeamishness about being direct and honest about their concerns. Because of this fact, it takes many sessions, rather than a few, to get real, difficult issues on the table and achieve a real meaningful and honest dialogue. Bonding and game playing (real and surreal) are often seen as more important than advocacy as well as early substantive dialogue. There is often little chance to compromise because the people at the table compromise their own views before they speak. They want to be polite. We don’t really know what they really think. Building collaboration in the hands of a facilitherapist (my own word), is regrettably, at times, using everyone’s favorite term, an existential threat. It makes collaborative victories, frequently short-term ones, in light of the fact that underlying disputes and tension were not given an airing.

With this as context, let’s look at key policy and behavioral issues now confronting the nation, concerning the harmful link between gasoline, the economy and social welfare, and the environment, particularly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants. As relevant, let’s also think about why it’s been so tough to move toward replacement fuels for gasoline, even though such options would benefit consumers and the nation.

Gasoline now fuels approximately 250,000,000 vehicles in the U.S. While GHG emissions from gasoline are down because of improved technology in vehicles, gas still generally spews more GHG than alternative fuels such as ethanol, methanol, electricity or fuel cells. Gasoline also fails health and well- being tests when measured against a range of other pollutants, including NOx and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Gasoline prices, while seemingly low (only) compared to the recent past, in some cases remain higher than alternative fuels, by a significant amount, whether based on renewables or fossil fuel. In this context, most of you reading this column are neither poor nor near poor. Imagine though, that you are, and in order to work, you need find housing at a reasonable cost relatively close to your job, see a doctor or take your family to see an aunt or uncle. But if you secure these and other basics, you have fewer choices since you have to spend from between 10-15 percent of your meager income on fuel. This is a verity now for most low- and moderate-income households. Indeed, based on EIA projections of gas prices and conservative as well as liberal economists conclusions concerning job growth and income, the percentages, likely, will increase in the future. If you were a person of very limited means, what would you limit first: travel to and from work, decent housing, health care or food, etc.?

Now, none of the replacement fuels are perfect. Most, including those based on or derived from fossil fuels such as natural gas, do emit some measurable GHG and other pollutants. This includes electric cars, particularly those that do secure their power from coal-fired electric utilities. But all are better than gasoline on environmental, economic and social welfare indices.

Why then is there not a clear movement toward transitional replacement fuels? Sure, electric car sales and CNG sales are up and hydro fuels will soon be on the market. Hopefully, they all will succeed in attracting consumers. But right now, all three together constitute from 1.5 to 3 percent of sales of new cars.

Why? Well, electric cars, CNG and hydrogen fuel cars are expensive and out of reach for many American households. For some, particularly those who purchase lower-end electric cars, the miles per charge often create road fear on the part of drivers. “What if I get stuck on the L.A. freeway?” Fuel stations are few and often far between for both electric, CNG and hydrogen fuel.

New electric, CNG or hydrogen fueled cars, at least for the near future, will illustrate for us all the comparative purchasing power of the haves, the have nots and the almost haves. Hopefully someday soon, most Americans will be able to compete — price, technology and design wise — for larger shares of the automobile market. But even if they become competitive, they will not be able to generate a major dent in the number of existing vehicles that rely on the internal combustion engine for a long time. Look at the data yourselves! Given their predicted annual sales, how many years would it take before the fleet of privately owned vehicles contained a very large percentage of electric, CNG, or hydrogen fueled vehicles (perhaps as much as 50 to 75 percent or more)? I have seen figures ranging up to almost several decades from respected analysts . Clearly, if sales of hybrid and plug-in vehicles are counted in the totals, the amount of time, it takes will be lower. However, achievement of a proportionately large share of the total number of cars will still extend out a many many years.

What can we do to achieve legitimate important national objectives concerning the environment, the economy and consumer costs for vehicles and fuel almost immediately? We can move to expand the number of FFVs (flex-fuel vehicles) in the country, first, by encouraging Detroit to build more each year and second, by asking public, nonprofit and private sectors to work together with the EPA to certify more conversion kits as well as existing in-use cars for conversion to FFV status. The net results would be vehicles able to use much higher percentages of ethanol (E85) derived from natural gas or from corn cobs, husks and stalks as well as other biofuels.

The proposed strategy is a transitional one. Clearly, electric, CNG and hydro fueled cars, when able to meet market tests concerning consumer needs, should join the mix of choices at the pump. I am optimistic. For example, twenty two states led by Colorado and Oklahoma have agreed to use CNG fueled cars to replace older cars retired from their state’s fleets. Detroit with the pool of CNG cars purchased by the states has agreed make best efforts to develop a lower cost CNG vehicle. Electric cars are coming down in costs. Hydro fueled cars will likely be produced in larger numbers soon and technology over time will reduce vehicle prices.

Now back to Edwin Land. I believe his comments about politeness, perhaps a bit too absolute, reflect his and my own views that the ground rules for collaborative efforts and consensus building may impede honesty concerning discussions of difficult topics. Being polite sometimes circumscribes and weakens important strategic dialogue. Involved participants fear being direct and sometimes avoid linking their intense feelings to their commentary. They try to avoid criticism or be seen as breaking the mythology of togetherness concerning long-term objectives and initiatives. Indeed, both objectives and initiatives are often so long term, that they are vague and don’t really matter to folks at the table. So why not go along? Individuals either avoid saying things that might lead to even temporary policy, program or behavior conflict and debate.

Politeness, certainly, is generally a virtue in most circumstances. Perhaps Land went too far in his choice of words. But the term, if used to guide collaborative efforts, often serves to mask real disagreements and necessarily blunt conversation. I have done lots of facilitative sessions on policy issues between senior officials of different nations and the U.S., as well as between community leaders on education, growth, environmental, race and poverty issues. Maybe the difference is miniscule, but I like the term being “civil” rather than being “polite;” the former presumes disagreement and allows for willingness to entertain tough dialogue and the possibility that the dialogue might step, at times, on intellectual toes; the latter, when translated into behavior, often suggests a willingness to skirt conflicts regarding ideas, if it temporarily reduces the ambience at the table.

Leaders from all sectors need to help build a collaborative “coalition of the willing” among environmental, public interest, government, private sector, nonprofit and academic leaders to push for flex fuel cars and replacement fuels. The criteria for coalition selection should be relevance to the policy and political issues related to gaining the public’s access to multiple fuel choices at the pump and to secure a much larger number of new FFVs as well as existing vehicles converted to FFV status. Identification and selection should not be limited to leaders who think exactly like us. But both should be limited to individuals who care about the environment, the economic and job growth of this nation, the well-being of consumers, particularly low- and moderate-income consumers and, although not discussed above, the security of this nation and the world. Claims of absolute wisdom should be a non starter for membership.

I suspect if the leadership group is diverse enough and if reasonable ground rules concerning structure and processes are set at the outset (ones that encourage substantive dialogue and debate ), disagreements can be bridged based on the data and agreements reached on transitional replacement fuel strategies that would influence public and private sector decision makers. A good facilitator would be needed, one weaned on policy and strategy more than psychology. A nationally respected foundation, or possibly even EPA, could either support or indeed facilitate the proposed serious exercise in collaboration and democracy. Civility, not politeness, should be a principle governing the dialogue.

The best and worst of times for ethanol

For ethanol it is the best and worst of times. Silos are bursting with a bumper crop and the price of corn has fallen by half, from $7 to $3.50 a bushel over the past year. Refiners are buying feedstock at rock-bottom prices.

“This is the most profitable time I can remember,” Dan Syekh, plant manager at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy of Council Bluffs, told the Lexington Clipper-Herald of Nebraska. “People are beginning to pay off debt and invest in ever more advanced technologies.”

Yet hanging over all this is the question of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will do about the Renewable Fuel Standard, which specifies how much ethanol the refining industry must buy next year.

“I feel like [the EPA is] playing politics instead of doing what’s right for America,” Iowa Gov. Terry Bradshaw told a Farm Progress Show in Boone last week. “Farmers aren’t buying equipment and John Deere is laying people off. What EPA has done is not only damage farm income but cost us jobs in farm machinery and manufacturing.”

At issue is the EPA’s announcement last spring that it would cut the mandate from the 14.4 billion gallons, originally required by the law, to 13.01 billion gallons, in order to deal with overproduction. With gasoline consumption having fallen since 2007, although numbers are now starting to rise again, the federal requirement had pushed ethanol additives past the 1 percent “blend wall,” where auto and oil companies claim it will damage engines. Many people dispute this but the auto companies are refusing to honor warranties in cars that use blends higher than 10 percent without authorization. Others say the solution is E85 — a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — is the answer but it is not yet widely available outside the Midwest.

The EPA was supposed to make a decision on the mandate last November but has delayed after the furor over its initial proposal. Only last week it sent a final proposal to the White House for review. Rumors are that the EPA has settled on a figure somewhere between the original mandate and its April number, but there is nothing definite. In any case, the Obama administration could take several weeks to approve, even pushing its verdict past the November elections. This is the longest delay in the program’s history.

For several years now the ethanol industry has seen its influence waning in Congress. In 2011, Congress repealed the tariff on foreign biofuels, opening the door to cheaper sugar ethanol. Then it allowed a production tax credit to expire. Perhaps most significant has been the loss of support from large portions of the environmental community. Last year the Associated Press ran a story documenting how the mandate has led to over intensive cropping and the removal of land from conservation soil banks. “Corn ethanol’s brand has been seriously dented in the last 18 months,” Craig Cox, director of the Environmental Working Group in Ames, Iowa, told Politico. “The industry is still politically very well connected but it doesn’t occupy the same pedestal it did two years ago.”

Yet oddly enough, all this is happening at the moment when the industry may be on the verge of a huge breakthrough. On September 3, POET, the South Dakota refiner of ethanol, and Royal DSM, a Dutch maker of enzymes, will hold opening day ceremonies in Emmetsburg, Iowa for the inauguration of what could be the country’s first cellulosic ethanol plant — long considered the holy grail of biofuels. King William-Alexander of the Netherlands is scheduled to be in attendance.

Cellulosic ethanol uses the non-grain parts of the corn plant — the shucks and stalks that cannot be eaten. By cultivating certain enzymes and bacteria from the stomach of cows and other ruminants, several companies now believe they are able to break down the starches in these plant “wastes” and turn them into fuel. Various inventors have made the same claim over the years but have never been able to achieve cellulosic digestion at a commercial level. Now it appears POET may be about to break the barrier.

They aren’t the only ones. In fact, there is now $1 billion worth of cellulosic ethanol investments in the Midwest about to bear fruit:

  • In Nevada, Iowa, DuPont is investing $200 million in a cellulosic plant that will have a capacity of 30 million gallons annually. Operations are slated to begin before the end of 2014.
  • In Hugoton, Kansas, Spain-based Abengoa Bioenergy is spending $500 million on a plant to make ethanol from corn leftovers, wheat straw, milo stubble and prairie grasses. It will produce 21 million gallons of ethanol plus 21 megawatts of electricity.

Should any of these plants succeed, it would change the face of the industry.

So ethanol finds itself in a very strange position. Just as it may be on the verge of a huge breakthrough in production, it finds its markets drying up. Several Midwestern agricultural professors have suggested that the real solution is E85, which readily substitutes for gasoline and would create an almost unlimited demand. There are 15.5 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road — 6 percent of the entire fleet — all of which accept E85. There are also 3,200 gas stations that dispense it. But there is a huge mismatch between them. Most of the stations are in the Midwest where support for ethanol is strong while the flex-fuel vehicles are concentrated in cities on the East and West Coasts. So far no one has come up with a solution for making a better match.

There remains one potential market, however, that could tide over the ethanol industry until better auto markets develop. This is the U.S. Navy. The Department of Defense burns 300,000 barrels of oil a day, 2 percent of national consumption. For some time the Navy has been trying to find “drop-in” biofuels that would substitute for imported oil in jets and other vehicles. This year, for the first time, the Navy will include biofuels in its annual procurements. It is trying to get 50 percent of its fuels from renewable resources by 2020. “Up in the air you don’t have any other choice but liquid fuels,” said Tyler Wallace, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue. “The U.S. uses 21 billion gallons of aviation fuel annually and cellulosic ethanol would make a perfect drop-in.”

So would a huge order from the Navy be able to galvanize an infant cellulosic industry? Or will ethanol have to continue to holds its breath waiting for a decision on the Renewable Fuel Mandate from the White House and the EPA? For the industry, it remains the best and worst of times.

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

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?