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Bio-processing of Gas-to-Liquids: A Report Card

If finding microbes that can convert cellulose plant material into ethanol is of the holy grails of biofuels, an equally elusive goal is using microbes to make liquid fuels out of natural gas.

Almost everyone agrees that the best way to apply our now-abundant natural gas resources to transportation would be to convert it into a “drop-in” liquid fuel that would fit easily into our current gas-station infrastructure. T. Boone Pickens’ CleanFuels Corp. and others are trying to supply compressed natural gas to diesel trucks, but the effort has obvious impediments and will require a whole new infrastructure.

Much easier would be the direct conversion of natural gas to methanol, the simplest alcohol, which is now produced at a rate of 33 billion gallons per year for industrial purposes. But methanol still suffers from its Prohibition-Era reputation as poisonous “wood alcohol” (although gasoline is equally poisonous) and has run into stiff EPA regulations on converting contemporary engines to burn alternative fuels. (See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol”) And so the vision has arisen that a golden gas-to-liquids pathway can be carved by the nation’s laboratories working with nature’s existing microbial stock.

A year ago, ARPA-E, the fast-track research funding agency modeled on the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, announced a new initiative: REMOTE – the Reduced Emissions Using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy.  Methanotrophic organisms are microbes that feast on methane, the simplest carbohydrate, and can convert it into more complex molecules such as butane or formaldehyde, which can in turn be synthesized by other microbes into butanol, methanol or other liquids that can be cleanly burned as fuels.  As the agency wrote in its Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA):

The benefits of converting natural gas to liquid fuels for use in transportation have long been recognized. First, the existing transportation infrastructure is based on liquids, and such fuels can be conveniently “dropped in” without substantial changes in vehicles. Second, liquid fuels from methane have lower emissions than petroleum-based fuels. Liquid fuel produced from methane decreases emissions by up to 50%, compared to unconventional petroleum, and decreases particulate matter by up to 40%, compared to combustion of conventional diesel. Further, methane is responsible for 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (on a CO2 equivalent basis), in part because its global-warming potential is 20 times greater than that of CO2 over a 100-year period. Technologies capable of capture and conversion of methane will help mitigate the global-warming potential of these emissions.

There are several interesting things going on here. First, ARPA-E has chosen the goal of reducing emissions rather than reducing dependence on foreign oil as the motivating force of the project. Alcohols do burn cleaner than gasoline. In fact, the whole California effort that put 15,000 methanol cars on the road in the 1990s was aimed at reducing air pollution, not replacing oil imports. This may satisfy environmentalists, who tend to see natural gas as just another fossil fuel and would prefer to pursue cellulosic ethanol in order to remain “carbon neutral.”

Second, although the chemical synthesis of methanol, butanol and other potential fuels is already economical, employing biotechnology gives the whole plan a “green” tinge. Chemical processes are regarded as “old economy” and unlikely to attract investment from Silicon Valley and other centers of venture capital, whereas biotechnology has a New Age sheen to it. Already ARPA-E has handed out $20 million to small startups and others have been forthcoming.

Finally, by latching onto natural gas flaring, ARPA-E is addressing a problem that is gaining more and more attention, particularly the publication of a paper in Science last week claiming that will be no climate benefits in switching from diesel and other crude-oil-based fuels to natural gas derivatives. Indeed, flaring is now said to consume the equivalent of one-third of America’s consumption of crude oil. Obviously, anything that addresses this will get attention.

So how are thing going?  Last week Robert J. Conrado and Ramon Gonzalez, two researchers in the Department of Energy, issued a progress report in Science. Basically, the news is that while there’s still lots of optimism about the idea, nothing much has been accomplished yet.

Conrado and Gonzalez note that the process of biological conversion involves three steps:   1) the “activation” of the stable methane molecule so it becomes chemically receptive; 2) the conversion of methane to formaldehyde and other intermediates; and 3) the synthesis of these intermediates into alcohols and other fuels through bioreactors. All three steps need improvement. “To access small-scale and time-varying resources [i.e., flared gas at remote wells], process intensification leading to an order-of-magnitude increase in volumetric productivities is needed and will require technological breakthroughs in [all] three areas.”

One institution that is working on the problem is the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Blake Simmons, manager of the lab’s biofuels and biomaterial science group, says the challenges are daunting but he remains optimistic. “There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and multiply off natural gas,” he said in an interview with Phys.org. “The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do. People have been trying to express this class of enzymes for a couple of decades, so this won’t be a slam dunk. But we have the collective experience and capabilities at Sandia to figure it out.”

And so the search for a clean, green conversion of methane to a liquid fuel goes on. In the meantime, however, it might be worth opening the door to methanol and other chemically synthesized products just as a placeholder.

Can Sochi Lead To A New Alternative Energy Coalition?

During the late 1980s, I had the good fortune, thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, to lead and facilitate an Aspen Global Forum between Russian and U.S. leaders in Sochi; the site of the present Olympics. The subject was economic development in the then already fragmenting, Soviet Union.

Sochi was beautiful but back then was a relatively small resort city for vacationing Russian nomenklatura. I have three memorable funny stories (at least for me) related to Sochi. I will try linking them, for better or worse, with the need for alternative fuels.

Getting to Sochi at the time provided a unique experience. The U.S. delegation which included a former U.S. Senator, several Wall Street titans, the editor of a major national newspaper, leading members of the Denver business community and myself (I was a Dean at the University of Colorado at the time) were told when we arrived at the Moscow airport in a snowstorm, we had to fly out of Moscow’s second smaller airport. We all dutifully were taken by shuttle, very slowly given the snow, to what seemed like an old, a very old facility. We quickly boarded what appeared to be a jet plane on its last legs. It was late at night and the snow was still blowing strong. The plane’s seats were broken and the bathrooms didn’t work. The cabin crew was nice but spoke only in difficult to understand broken English. Not an auspicious start to the trip. Two members of our delegation asked the pilot for 10 minutes to go into the terminal (an exaggeration of the term) to buy two or three bottles of vodka to give us courage and calm our nerves. They did get permission. It turned into a fun flight.

After we checked into the Intourist Hotel in Sochi, we all went to bed. One of the members of our delegation was a smart, tough, but very funny reporter and op-ed writer for the Rocky Mountain News. She came down the next morning and indicated most of her winter clothes were stolen from the room, while she was sleeping. I went up to the Manager of the hotel and told him what had happened. He was dutifully contrite. Every day while we were there, the reporter received a nice gift of new winter clothing to wear in the snow. At the end of the week, I thanked him and said, next time, have them take my clothes!  He laughed. I was serious!

The Russian delegation hosted us in the summer home of an apparently famous Russian oligarch, whose name I forget, about 100 or so miles from Sochi. They took us there in big Army helicopters. We flew over and between the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus. The mountains were covered with much snow and looked gorgeous. One of the Russian guides opened the door so we could get a closer view. A big mistake! A member of the U.S. delegation, a well-known war experienced woman journalist, based I believe at the time in D.C, shouted close the f….n door. “I have covered many wars and been shot at. I survived. I don’t want to go down in a helicopter. We can look at the snow through a window.” She was right. At that point the helicopter seemed tilted at a significant angle to please us. We all were a bit scared but didn’t want to hurt our Russian hosts. She had no such fear. The door was closed.

If anything, except fuzzy memories, ties these stories together, it’s the snow and the mountains and a thought about building a coalition around alternative and renewable fuels to save the beauty of both and to the jobs they provide both up and down stream.

Based on the over 50 degree temperatures in Sochi during the current Olympics and the lack of abundant snow, The New York Times indicated that Daniel Scott, a professor of global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, was stimulated to project the future of winter sports. He noted that with a rise of global temperature possible by 2100 of 7 degrees Fahrenheit, there might not be many snowy regions left to hold the Winter Olympics.  He concluded “that of the 19 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics, as few as 10 might be cold enough by midcentury to host them again. By 2100 the number will shrink to six.”

Of the 960,000 winter sports industry jobs are supported by winter sports in the U.S. 27,000 have already been lost because of lack of snow, according to a recent NRDC report. More will be gone next season if snow fall totals continue to decline.

If we can easily check the box on one or more of the following: concern for the health of the economy, concern for the environment, concern for the quality of our water supply and the availability of water, concern for the future of the ski industry and winter sports off and on mountains, then even if we don’t ski, and even if greenhouse gas is not a top priority for some , we should be able to foster a strong coalition between environmentalists, business, nonprofits,  natural gas and renewable fuel  advocates. Its mandate would be to work on speeding up use of alternative natural gas based transitional fuels  and helping place electric cars on a faster and cleaner track to market acceptance. The strategy is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it will at least get the country started on a path that will reduce harmful environmental impacts of gasoline including significant GHG emissions and other pollutants. It may also help slow down the browning of our mountain areas and the closure of winter resorts and the manufacturing and retail sectors that serve them.

America needs a good dose of pragmatism and probability curves to guide its fuel policies. Advocates of natural gas based fuels and renewables should be able to coalesce around the President’s agenda with respect to weaning the nation off gasoline (one of the biggest carbon emitters) and gasoline only vehicles.

Assuming electric utilities continue to switch from coal to cleaner natural gas; scholars suggest that electric cars will be of help in reducing total carbon emissions. But EV’s are not yet ready for prime time for most low, moderate and middle class households, in light of the relatively low mileage secured on a single battery charge, the absence of retail distributers, the small vehicle size and price. When they are, let the competition begin, remembering all the while that real change in emissions and reduction of pollutants, will come after the conversion of large numbers of existing cars to flex fuel vehicles and their ability to use natural gas based fuels. Back to Sochi and indeed to the mountains throughout America, when we are asked every Christmas whether there is a Santa Claus, lets us be able to look up at magnificent snow-capped mountains and collectively say, yes there is a Santa Claus and then sing loudly, Let it snow, Let it snow, Let it snow.

 

No Sex-Just Smirking; No Lies-Just No Strategic Thinking; No Videotapes- Just Lots Of words And Ideology

According to several well-known writers of blogs and columns, based on a recent study by North Carolina State University, EDV’s (electric cars, hybrids and plug ins) are not all they are cracked up to be. Because they may be powered by a coal or natural gas utilities, they spew pollutants, because hybrids may use gasoline, they emit ghg and other pollutants, because their production processes are “dirty,” they generate more pollutants than gasoline.

Electric cars in China have an overall impact on pollution that could be more harmful to health than gasoline vehicles…  EDVs ghg reduction will not make a big difference because the total number of vehicles in the U.S. only produces about 20 percent of all carbon emissions.”

I have seen higher numbers than stated by the writers concerning carbon emissions by cars and trucks fueled by gasoline. It is not clear whether the North Carolina study compared general supply chains to supply chain specifics. For example, EV engines use a proportionately large share of aluminum. Its mining probably emits more ghg than materials used in non evs. Yet, its use in cars, given its lighter weight, produces less emissions.

More relevant, perhaps, while recently there has been some retreat because of rising natural gas costs compared to coal costs, in the long term future, (perhaps aided by government regulations of carbon emissions,) conversion of coal based power generation to natural gas will  again trend upward and lower the total ghg allocated to EDVs.

The bloggers and columnists as well as the North Carolina scholars seem to believe in the theory that if you build it they will come.  Indeed, the most frequent comments on the models used in the study relate to one model, that is, a 42 percent EDV market share by 2050. It presumes a government cap on emissions.   Apparently, according to this model, any ghg reductions caused by EDVs will soon be filled up by other emitters. According to the study’s author, Joseph DeCarolis, ( interviewed by Will Oremus, a critic of the paper in his article in Future Tense, Jan. 27),   “It’s that there all this other stuff going on in this larger energy system that effects overall emissions.” I would add based on the study, DeCarolis presumes ghg emissions are fungible and equilibrium will result in 2050.

Diminishing the ghg importance of  EDVs ,  more than three decades out,  shifts  issues and initiates arguments over whether or not government should have a tougher cap; whether or not other sectors of the economy will illustrate more or less ghg emissions; whether or not technological advancements focused on ghg reduction across the economy will remain almost static; whether or not businesses will accept ghg reduction as a must or as part of  “conscientious capitalism” both to sustain profits and quality of life.

The continued development and increased sales of edvs are important to the nation’s long term effort to reduce ghg and other pollutants. But, until evs among edvs increase mileage per charge to remove owner fear of stalling out in either remote or congested places like freeways and until the price comes down and size increases for families with children, they will at best constitute a relatively small share of the new market for cars in the  near future. Even if the total numbers of edvs significantly increase their proportion of new car sales, many years will pass before they, will collectively, play a major role in lessening the nation’s carbon footprint.

Perfectibility not perfection should be a legitimate goal for all of us concerned with the environment. Individuals and groups concerned with the economic and social health of the nation should drop their ideological bundling boards. (Some of us are old enough to remember the real origins of the bundling board. Because of a shortage of space in many homes, it was used to separate males and females who often slept together before they were married in revolutionary days. I am not sure it was abandoned because mores changed, houses got bigger or people got splinters. I have no videotapes!)

2014 should witness the development of a non-partisan,non- ideological coalition of environmental, business, non-profit, academic  and government leaders to embrace  the need for an effective transitional alternative fuel strategy for new and existing cars and EDVs.  The embrace should respond to national and local objectives concerning the environment, the economy, and security and consumer well-being.   A good place to start would be to extend the use of natural gas based fuels, including ethanol and methanol.

Simultaneously, the coalition should encourage Detroit to expand production of flex fuel cars and the nation to implement a large scale flex fuel conversion program for existing cars.  Added to the coalition’s agenda should be development of a more open fuels market and support for intense research and development of EDV’s, particularly EVs.  Hopefully, evs will soon be   ready for prime time in the marketplace. Succinctly, we need both alternative fuels and evs.

Oil and Natural Gas Prices and the Future of Alternative Fuels

I love Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, especially the music from the spring. I love the optimistic line from the poem by P.B. Shelley, “if winter comes can spring be far behind.”  The unique cold weather, the Midwest, East Coast and even the South, has been facing this year will soon be over and spring will soon be here. Maybe it will be shorter. Perhaps, as many experts indicate, we will experience a longer summer, because of climate change. But flowers will bloom again; lovers will hold hands without gloves outside, kids will play in the park… and natural gas prices will likely come down to more normal levels than currently reflected.

Last Friday’s natural gas price according to the NY Times was $5.20 per thousand cubic feet. It was “the first time gas had crossed the symbolic $5 threshold in three and half years, although (and this is important) the current price is still roughly a third of the gas price before the 2008 financial crisis and the surge in domestic production since then.”

Why? Most experts lay the blame primarily on the weather and secondarily on low reserves, a slowdown in drilling, and pipeline inadequacies. The major impact so far has been on heating and electricity costs for many American households, particularly low and moderate income households and the shift of some power plants from natural gas back to coal.

I wouldn’t bet more than two McDonald’s sandwiches on where natural gas prices will be in the long term. But I would bet the sandwiches and perhaps a good conversation with a respected, hopefully clairvoyant, natural gas economist-one who has a track record of being reasonably accurate concerning gas prices- that come cherry blossom time in Washington, the price of natural gas will begin to fall relatively slowly and that by early summer, it will hover between 3.75 to 4.25 per thousand cubic feet.

Natural gas prices over the next decade, aided by growing consensus concerning reasonable fracking regulations as reflected in Colorado’s recent regulatory proposals, and EPA’s soon to be announced regulations, should be sufficiently high to reignite modest drilling passions, improvements in infrastructure and increased supplies at costs sufficient to maintain an advantage for natural gas based fuels when compared to oil based fuels at the pump.

The present relatively low price of oil (Bent Crude $107 a barrel; WTI $97.00 a barrel) and its derivative gasoline ($3.30 a gallon) may impact the cost differential between gasoline and natural gas based fuels. But the impact could go both ways. That is, if the price of oil per barrel continues to fall and translate into lower costs for gasoline, the price differences between natural gas based fuels and gasoline would narrow. Conversely, if the price of oil goes lower than $90 a barrel, its present price, it likely will impede future drilling, particularly in high cost, hard to get at environmentally sensitive areas. This fact combine with renewed economic growth in the U.S., Europe and Asia, as well as continued tension in the Middle East and continued speculation could well result in a return to higher gasoline prices.

Clearly, the relationship between the cost of natural gas based fuels (CNG, ethanol and methanol) and gasoline is a critical variable in determining consumer behavior with respect to conversion of existing cars to flex fuel cars and the purchase of new natural gas cars (Based on the national pilot involving 22 states lead by Governor Hickenlooper(D) and Governor Fallin(R), as well as interviews with carmakers, creation of a deep predictable market for CNG fueled vehicles will bring down the price of such cars and give them competitive status with gasoline fueled vehicles).

The odds are that the lower costs of natural gas based fuels will serve as an incentive to buyers and existing owners to use them. That is, assuming problems related to fuel distribution as well as access and misinformation concerning the affect alternative fuels have on engines are resolved by public, non-profit, academic and private sectors. Maybe I will up my bet!

Can the Methanol Revolution Start on Indiegogo?

Indiegogo, the crowd-funding site normally populated by documentary filmmakers may seem like an unlikely place to try to launch the methanol revolution. But Scott Morris is ready to give it a try. shutterstock_154960103

The Alabama native has experience in driving and servicing racing cars, so he knows the role that methanol has played in places such as Indianapolis, where the Indy 500 cars raced on methanol since the 1960s until finally pressured recently to give it up by ethanol producers.

“If racing cars going 200 miles per hour can run on methanol, why can’t ordinary consumer vehicles?” asks the (tk-year-old native of Alabama.  “The government has been shoving various alternative fuels down the public’s throat for some time but it obviously isn’t working,” he says. “We’ve got something here that’s going to be driven by consumer desires and nothing else.”

That “something” is a plan to open methanol stations around his native Montgomery with the promise of a free tuneup that will allow drivers to use methanol without any problems, a warrantee on the converted engine, and a chance to fill up at a methanol pump for a cost of about half the price of a gallon of gasoline.

“Ultimately, our business plan is shaped around the idea – give the consumer what they want,” says Morris. And what they want is a cheaper fuel that’s good for America and not sending dollars overseas to countries that could be funding terrorism.”

What Morris has discovered as a car mechanic and fledging entrepreneur is what a lot of experts also recognize – that there’s a huge market opportunity in turning our abundant natural gas supplies into a liquid fuel that could replace gasoline. All it would take is a little engine adjustment and a little initiative.

“What we’re doing is converting the customer’s car to methanol for free,” says Morris. “Then we give them a warrantee against any damage. [This is opposed to the reluctance of the auto companies, which are saying they will not honor warrantees on cars built before 2001 if they use methanol.]  “Then they can fill up at one of the methanol stations in Birmingham we’re going to open up. But if they can’t find a methanol station, they can still use gasoline.

“To me that’s the free market,” he adds. “Give the customer a choice and see which fuel wins.”

Morris is confident that at a per-mile cost that is 40 percent lower than gasoline, methanol is ready to win the day. But he needs some help in getting started.

“We already have the support of one of the nation’s largest methanol producers,” he says. “They’ve pledged $200,000 but we have to match it with $300,000 of our own money.” That’s where Indiegogo comes in.  Morris has posted under the title, “Kiss Gasoline Goodbye.”

“There is a fuel that costs as much as 40 percent LESS per mile driven and can easily replace gasoline, without requiring you to buy a new car or pay to have yours converted, and can be sold at the gas stations we already have in America,” he tells prospective contributors. “Methanol is that solution. Methanol can be made form almost anything . .. Currently natural gas is the most viable feedstock and will be for many years to come.  But coal is a close second, and we have a LOT of coal. Between natural gas as coal, we have enough to fuel every vehicle in the USA for the next 400 years!”

Unfortunately, Crimson Fuel has a long, long way to go. With 33 days left on its Indiegogo campaign it has still only raised $100. Beyond that it will have to deal with the lack of approval from the Environmental Protection Agency in using methanol in gasoline engines.

In truth, Morris’s campaign is pretty quixotic at this point. But he’s recognized all the advantages of methanol and has a sound business plan. If nothing else, it’s a way of getting out the news. With all its advantages, the methanol revolution is bound to start somewhere. Birmingham, Alabama just might be the place.

Altruism Aside, Is Ethanol A Competitive Alternative Fuel?

I was a bit under the weather this past weekend. I thought it would be a good time to catch up on some reading; something assumedly simple- the relatively recent literature concerning the ability of ethanol, particularly E85, to compete with gasoline and the capacity of consumers to make rational decisions in their choice of alternative fuels.

By Sunday night, apart from watching the Denver Broncos happily beat New England on TV, and the amusing dialogue and extensive media time generated by Seattle’s cornerback, Richard Sherman, concerning his athletic and his academic prowess; I spent about 10 hours reviewing several well cited pieces concerning the price relationship between ethanol and gasoline. I also read the intense, often seemingly less than civil debate in papers authored by two professors at Iowa State (Dermot Hayes and Xiadong Du)  and two at MIT (Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith) concerning methodology associated with defining the relationship between ethanol and gasoline prices. (The Iowa and MIT faculty vigorously attacked each other, sometimes personally, over mistaken attribution of research funding sources. More important, the Iowa folks generally argued that their data suggested a link between ethanol production and the price of gasoline. They indicated that, as ethanol production increased the price of gasoline decreased relative to the price of crude oil.

The MIT folks poo poo’d their distant colleagues’ findings. They indicated that their empirically based models illustrate only a statistically insignificant set of relationships concerning ethanol, gasoline and crude oil prices. They also opined that the Iowa writers misapplied the crack ratio –the relationship of gasoline to crude oil prices- and did not use or mistakenly used the crack spread ratio (the weighted average of the gasoline and distillate products produced by a barrel of crude oil minus the cost of crude). Put in another way, what the Iowa writers recorded was correlation not causation. (I know the etymology but we need to help the economists among us find a better set of terms than crack spread and crack ratio. For a minute, I thought that the texts described a line up at a police station or FBI statistics about drug use.)

What can we learn from recent literature about the effect of ethanol production and gasoline prices at the pump?

1. Most independent experts, not affiliated with advocacy groups, seem willing to support as fact that increased ethanol use, at times, will lower the price of gasoline or slow the increase in the price of gasoline. But the caveat is “somewhat.” They disagree on how much on either side of zero. The recent conventional wisdom, stimulated by the Iowa study that ethanol has and likely will reduce the wholesale price by $.89 cents to $1.09 per gallon seems wrong. It appears to reflect an overstatement based on analyses and models that do not accommodate the many complex variables affecting price and costs (e.g. costs of refining, rapid changes in the costs of corn, the costs of distribution, the lack of infrastructure, the unanticipated increases or decreases in costs of crude oil based on investor speculation, escalation or de-escalation of tension in Middle East, uncertain federal policy, etc.). If I were a betting person, I would place my bet on Knittel and Smith’s conclusions that, over time, the price impact of ethanol at the pump on gasoline prices is likely marginal at best.

2. However, to be fair, some scholars and practitioners in the energy business believe that if gasoline is blended with a larger proportion of ethanol (e.g. E85), the price of a gallon of fuel could well drop, given the idiosyncrasies of the present market.  If this occurs and the reduction appears to consumers as beneficial, a number of observers think that owners of flex fuel vehicles (new or converted) could be enticed to switch to E85. What they generally don’t know, is the cross over point where alternative fuels like E85 become a viable option to drivers because the prices seem to be a good deal. A smart and astute participant in a recent forum on alternative fuels indicated that “people drive to COSTCO or Wal-Mart to save 5-8 cents a gallon on gasoline. Why wouldn’t they switch to E85 blends, if they reflected similar or indeed larger savings and fuel stations were accessible?”

Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t! If the price is low enough, many drivers will likely engage in personal opportunity costing. But what is low enough? Getting gas at Wal-Mart and Costco is different from getting E85. Gas is a familiar product to most drivers. Consumers of E85 will have to surmount doubts over product safety, stimulated, I believe erroneously, by groups such as the AAA. Further, because E85 will get fewer miles per gallon, drivers will probably think about perceived price savings in the context of miles per gallon and extra trips to the fuel station (If they forget to do the personal math, they will be reminded to do so by oil companies).

3. Uncertainty exists concerning how much consumers will pay for ethanol based on personal preferences or commitments to societal well-being, what I call the altruism thing.

As one author put it, “ …the demand for ethanol (E85) as a substitute (E10) is sensitive to relative fuel prices: a  $.10 per gallon increase in ethanol’s price relative to gasoline leads to a 12-16% decrease in quantity of ethanol demanded. Price responses are considerably smaller, however, than they would be if households had identical willingness to pay for ethanol as a gasoline substitute and… results imply that some households are willing to pay a premium for ethanol.”

Why? Maybe to improve the environment, provide support for farmers, to express concern over national security, etc. A recent report from Brazil indicates that some Brazilians are willing to pay more for alternative fuels because of what seem to be altruistic reasons. Before we say hallelujah, I should note that we don’t really know the numbers seeking salvation. They are not your average household but rather as one economist notes they are likely “marginal” households in terms of numbers. Further, several respected survey firms in the U.S. doubt that goals related to the larger community or nation, even if consumers articulate them in their living rooms, will overcome large differences between the price of E85 and gasoline, if they occur.

Similarly, altruism or civic values will not overcome fear of engine damage or the need for relatively long trips to fuel stations to secure alternative fuels. The pews, at least until we know more, probably will remain filled with a proportionately large share of guilty drivers on Saturday or Sunday.

The Fuel Freedom Foundation is involved in three state pilot projects aimed at converting existing cars to flex fuel cars; cars that will permit their owners to use natural gas based fuel such as ethanol and, when it is legal, methanol. Hopefully the pilot projects, combined with strategic federal, state, foundation and private sector supported research, will expand knowledge concerning consumer decisions and variables such as the importance of price differentials, altruism, distance, access, etc.

A study supported by Fuel Freedom Foundation recently completed by the respected independent Resources for the Future optimistically noted that “…we see alternative pathways for bring a lower-cost E85 to the pump. If and when ethanol produced by the newly patented, NG-driven Celanese process becomes available, owners of FFVs could realize substantial cost savings, up to $0.83/gge in 2015. If and when cellulosic ethanol becomes available at projected cost for full-scale productions, owners of FFFs could realize similar cost savings.”

Sleep easy! Good Times are coming for the nation and the consumer.

Who Says Cars Have to Fill a Parking Space?

You’ve seen them zipping around city streets or squeezed into some illegal-looking space between a normal car and a fire hydrant.  At first you might have thought they were some kind of joke. Who would drive such a thing?  But the new mini-electrics are catching on and may be on the way to revolutionizing urban driving.

There is now a whole menu of them – the Chevrolet Spark, the MINI E, the Toyota IQ, the Fiat 500. Oddly, many of them are available only in California. That seems like a mismatch because they’re obviously better suited for the densely populated cities of the Northeast than California freeways. But those are the vagaries of state incentives and government mandates.

Most of them have a highly limited range.  125 miles is good and some are as low as 75. (A regular gas-powered vehicle can go 400 miles on a full tank.)  But they’re a niche model, obviously suited for running around town and finding a parking space in the vehicle-choked precincts of places like New York City. They can get up to the equivalent of 125 miles per gallon and with some newer accessories don’t take up to seven hours to recharge. Most important, they are getting down into a price range where they are accessible. Leasing prices are impressive (some of them are only available by lease) and with the incentives that the Golden State is offering, people in California can say they are getting a really good deal.

Here’ a list of some of the contenders:

  • Chevrolet Spark.  Originally produced as the Daewood Matiz by GM’s Korean division, the all-electric Spark went on sale in California and Oregon in 2013.  The car is a 146-inch-long four-door hatchback that sells for $27,000.  With a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 California rebate, however, it comes in at well below $20,000. The Spark can be leased for $199 a month. With an optional connector, it can be charged up to 80 percent in 20 minutes.
  • Fiat 500e.  An electric version of a car that has been sold in Europe since the 1950s, the 500e went on sale in California last year, selling 645 units. Range is barely 100 miles but it gets the equivalent of 116 mpg. The car is priced at $32,000.  Fiat says it will be available in several more states in 2014.
  • Chrysler’s Smart FortwoThe Smart Fortwo is a model that looks like you could fold it up in your back pocket or park it in your living room. Manufactured in France, it is barely eight feet long. It sells everywhere in the United States. Previously built for gasoline and diesel, the new all-electric model sells for only $12,000 and leases for $99 a month. You’re starting to see them more and more on the streets of New York City.
  • Toyota Scion IQPositioned as a direct competitor to the Fortwo, Toyota’s “city car” sold as a 3-cylinder gasoline engine until the electric version was introduced last year.  Estimated range is only 50 miles with a three-hour recharge, so it’s really limited to city driving. The price is high – $35,000 – and right now it’s only available for fleet purchases and car share programs. The first 30 units were bought by the University of California at Irvine.
  • Mitsubishi i-MIEV EV.  Introduced in Japan in 2008 and soon sold almost everywhere but in the United States, the “i” version was finally brought to these shores in 2011, a slightly larger version with some additional features.  The American version has a range of only 62 miles but was ranked by the EPA as the most fuel-efficient car in America until surpassed by the Honda Fit EV in 2012. It sells for $23,000.
  • Honda Fit EVStill only available on a lease basis, the Fit EV goes for $259 a month. Introduced only in California and Oregon in 2011, it is now available in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island as well. The car only has an 80-mile range but is highly fuel efficient.

Getting people to accept the proposition of driving around city streets in something that looks like it could be sold on the floor of FAO Schwarz, of course, is an entirely different matter. In test driving a city car for The New York Times, Jim Motavalli reports a neighbor commenting, “It’s adorable, but I’m afraid it would be crushed by a Suburban.” The idea of weaving in and out of traffic in what amounts to a tin can is certainly not for everyone. But electric vehicles have lots of torque at the lower end of the spectrum and can be easily maneuvered. Plus if nothing else, they are loaded with safety features.

To anyone familiar with the dense urban streets of Athens or Buenos Aires, city cars would be a familiar sight. And of course the more there are of them, the less dangerous driving becomes. The progress of mini-cars is slow but you’re seeing more and more of them. In the end, they may revolutionize urban driving.

A Big Year for Natural Gas Vehicles

“The NGV market experienced a growth spurt in late 2013, and that is expected to continue in early 2014, with new engineers and vehicles coming to market.”

That’s the conclusion of a very optimistic report issued by Navigant Research on the progress of natural gas vehicles – particularly NG trucks and buses – in the United States and the world.  (The report, sorry to say, costs $4000 but the executive summary can be seen online at http://www.navigantresearch.com/research/natural-gas-trucks-and-buses.)

“As the cost of oil climbs and emission from large diesel and gasoline engineers garner more scrutiny, fleets and governments are increasingly looking for alternative to fulfill their needs at lower costs and with lower emissions,” says the study.  “At the same time, new drilling techniques and new pipelines make natural gas a significantly more competitive vehicles than a decade ago.  The result is growing markets for medium duty and heavy duty NG trucks and buses.”

Indeed, the Navigant report does not anticipate an expanding market for natural gas vehicles in general but sees growth concentrated in the area of trucks and buses, particularly fleet vehicles for large corporations and municipalities.  The great advantages here are: a) vehicles can be bought in bulk; b) they can be fueled at central depots, and c) fleet vehicles tend to pile up the mileage, which means a quicker payback period from savings over gasoline.

In Palmdale, California, AT&T has converted its utility trucks to compressed natural gas in an effort to save money on fuel and cut down on carbon emissions.  “The vans are large enough to accommodate bulky gas canisters hidden beneath the floor,” reports Robert Wright in the Financial Times.  [http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/9f06bea8-69ea-11e3-aba3-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2osEhWAna]  The conversion costs $6,000 but operating costs will be reduced 10 cents per mile, meaning the initial investment will be recouped after 60,000 miles.  Most utility fleet vehicles hit that number within two years.

Some municipalities are even finding it worthwhile to switch to natural gas in smaller vehicles.  In Conway, Arkansas, the police department’s Chevy Tahoes are being converted to run on natural gas.  The effort is being promoted by Southwestern Energy, which will be building two CNG filling stations in the area.  Trussville, Alabama is scheduled to make the same conversion next year.

The switch to natural gas will receive a big boost in 2014 when Cummins Westport, a Connecticut company, introduces a 12-liter NG engine that is designed to sell between the existing 9- and 15-liter products.  “This will is expected to provide robust growth for the day cab market in North America,” says Navigant.  Volvo Trucks will also be taking aim at that market niche with a 13-liter LNG dual fuel engine.

Hovering behind all this is the effort by T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels to build a “natural gas highway” across America.  CLNE, which trades on the NASDAQ, plans to sell natural gas at truck stops along the nation’s interstate highway system.  The company is even planning to build its own liquid natural gas terminal in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Natural gas is a better transportation fuel than gasoline,” says the indomitable Pickens, who is engaged to be married for the fifth time at age 85.  “It’s cheaper, it’s cleaner and it’s a domestic resource.”

In fact the market is now getting so crowded that providers are starting to bump up against each other.  In the Northwest, Clean Energy is objecting to plans by Puget Sound Electric, Portland-based NW Natural and Spokane-based Avista Utilities to build filling stations for natural gas vehicles.  “We feel that because of their monopoly status, regulated utilities will have an unfair advantage entering the natural gas refueling market,” said Warren Mitchell, chairman of Clean Energy.   “Choices in the marketplace are a good thing,” responded Ben Farrow, of Puget Sound.  “We don’t want to compete unfairly.”

Nevertheless, despite all this activity in the United States, Navigant actually sees Asia as natural gas’s prime growth market.  By 2020 the report anticipates annual sales of 400,000 medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses, but the Asian Pacific will account for an astounding 76.2 percent of these sales while North America will provide only 12.7 percent and Europe 8.6 percent.  With 1.2 million NGVs on the road by that time, China and the United States will represent a combined 96 percent of the world market.

Compressed natural gas still has its problems.  Even when stored at 3,600 pounds per square inch, compressed gas takes up five times the space of a gas tank holding the same amount of energy.  This means that on a Chrysler Ram 2500 pick-up the tank still occupies nearly half the truck’s rear cargo bay.  Obviously, the bigger the truck or bus, the better it will be at accommodating this bulk.  But when it comes to ordinary passenger cars, finding room for the gas tank will be much more difficult.  That is why there is still only one NG passenger vehicle – a Honda Civic – on the road today.

Converting passenger vehicles to natural gas will probably require a liquid fuel.  Methanol and butanol, both of which can be made from natural gas feedstock, are likely candidates. But that still lies ahead. For now, the progress of CNG among heavy duty trucks and buses is an encouraging sign that we may be able to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

There’s Gold in Them Thar’ Flares

Walter Breidenstein may be the only CEO in America who still answers the company phone himself. If his operation is still something of a shoestring, it’s because he’s spent four years trying to duel with perhaps the most formidable foe in the country, the oil companies.

“I’ve been trying to get into North Dakota for four years to show them there’s a way to make money by stopping flaring,” says the 48-year-old who started his entrepreneurial career at 15 by washing dishes. “The oil companies have done everything they can to keep me out of the state and the bureaucracy has pretty much goes along with them. The companies know that as soon as they acknowledge we’ve got a workable system here, they’d have to buy one of our rigs for every well in the state.”

North Dakota, in case you haven’t heard, has become one of the biggest wasters of natural gas in the world by flaring off $1 billion worth a year while producing carbon emissions equal to 1million automobiles.  But oil is what the drillers are after and, as it was in the early days of the oil industry; gas is regarded pretty much as a nuisance. The result is gas flares that make the whole state look like neighboring Minneapolis from outer space.

The flaring has generated a lot of negative publicity, environmentalists are up in arms and landowners have sued over lost royalties. The big guys are starting to move into the state. The New York Times ran an article this week about new pipeline construction, fertilizer factories and GE’s “CNG in a Box,” which will capture flared gas and sell it asnatural gas.

Breidenstein has a different idea.  “Somewhere around 2000 I started reading about methanol technology and realized it was a very undervalued resource,” he says. “Then I read George Olah’s The Methanol Economy in 2006 and that convinced me.  At Gas Technologies we’ve been trying to put Olah’s vision into practice.”

Gas Technologies has developed a $1.5 million portable unit that captures flared gas and converts it to methanol. “It’s a very accessible device,” says Breidenstein.  “You can move it around on a flatbed truck.”  The company ran a successful demonstration of a smaller unit at a Michigan oil well last fall but still hasn’t been able to break into North Dakota.

“The oil companies’ attitude is that money is no problem as long as they don’t have to spend it,” says Breidenstein.  “I’ve been in the business 25 years and I know where they’re coming from. But the problem is no one is forcing them to deal with flaring. And as long as they can keep throwing that stuff into the atmosphere for free, nobody’s going to look for a solution.”

You’d think with a billion dollars worth of natural gas being burning off into the atmosphere each year, though, there’d be some say to make money off it and that’s what frustrates Breidenstein.

“Our rig costs between $1 and $2 million dollars,” he says.  “But by capturing all the products of flared gas, you can make around $3500 per day.  That puts your payback at around three to four years.  But the oil companies don’t think that way. They won’t look at anything that goes out more than six months.

That puts things in the hands of state regulators and so far they have sided with the oil companies. “By statute, the oil companies are allowed to flare for a year it there’s no solution that’s economical,” says Alison Ritter, public information officer for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.  “There’s nothing we can do to require them to buy from one of these boutique firms. Many oil companies have already committed their gas to pipeline companies and they can’t back out of those contracts.”  Still, the pipelines may not be built for years. “You have to understand, the Bakken Oil Field is 15,000 square miles, the size of West Virginia,” adds Ritter.  “It’s hard to service it all with infrastructure. We’re building pipelines as fast as we can.” Of 40 applications for flaring exemptions submitted this year the state has approved two and denied one, with the other 37 pending.  While they are pending, flaring goes on.

Of course if Gas Technologies were to start receiving orders right now, they’d be hard pressed to produce a half-dozen of them let alone the 500 that the state might require. “We’ve had talks with venture capitalists but if you’re not from Silicon Valley, they’re not interested,” says Breidenstein.  “But we’ve got a business model here and we know it can work.”

At least someone has taken notice. This year Crain’s Detroit Business rated Gas Technologies Number One in the state for innovative technology, ahead of 99 other contenders, including General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Whirlpool, Dow Chemical and the University of Michigan.  “Because the Walloon Lake company’s patents are potential game-changers, its patents rank high on the value meter with a score of 156.57 (anything over 100 is considered good),” said the editors.

It may not be long before others start noticing as well.

A Thanksgiving Feast of Alternatives

Over the river and through the wood

To grandmother’s house we go.

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh\

Through white and drifted snow.”

Thanksgiving has come and gone, Christmas is coming, and that makes me think of alternative fuels and finding something to replace gasoline in our engines.

What, after all, was the horse and sleight except an old-fashioned means of transportation?  It had served humanity since the Bronze Age.  It has often been said that Julius Caesar and George Washington used essentially the  same transportation technology in pursuing their wars

All this held through the early days of the 20th century. There is a famous scene Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, written in 1875, where the adventurers go to investigate a mysterious submarine – in a horse and carriage!  When people started assembling on the New York docks in 1913 to hear reports of the missing Titanic, half of them arrived in horses and carriages.

We eventually made the energy transformation to the “horseless carriage” of automobiles but it wasn’t easy. People were afraid of the new invention.  They didn’t know how to work it. They fretted over the extraordinary speeds that could be reached – 30 miles an hour!  They did not like the nasty exhausts that some new technologies produced.

Nor was it ever certain which means of propulsion for the new “automobiles” would prevail. There were three contenders – the electric car, the steam car and the internal combustion engine running on any number of fuels.  Gasoline was not the foremost possibility. When Henry Ford built his first model in 1895, called the “quadricycle,” he designed it to run on corn ethanol, which seemed like a reasonable alternative.

The steam car set speed records of 200 miles per hour and the electric showed great promise as a gadabout town car. But the internal combustion eventually prevailed. Why?  The steam car, running on coal, took too long to warm up – about 20 minutes.  The electric car had a very short range, as it still does today. The internal combustion engine was awkward because it required the driver to hand-crank the engine from the front.  There was also a question of whether there would be enough fuel available to run large numbers of cars.  At the time, oil was still a relatively rare commodity, marketed mainly for the “lamps of China.”  But when Spindletop gushed forth in 1901, questions about the oil supply faded.  And when Charles Kettering invented the electric starter in 1912, the battle was over.

Still, Henry Ford didn’t particularly like gasoline and never gave up on the idea that ethanol was a better alternative.  Gasoline had a lower octane rating, was much more toxic (particularly when blended with tetra-ethyl lead to raise its octane rating) and emitted more pollutants. It was also more explosive and required complex refining, whereas ethanol was relatively easy to produce. Ford had roots in farm country and as late as 1925, with the farm belt in a chronic recession, he argued that farmers should be growing their own fuel. “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything,” he told The New York Times. “There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”

These ideas still resonate today.  Making auto fuel from crops has become a reality since we add 10 percent corn ethanol to our gasoline supplies, cutting our dependence on foreign oil.  There is still talk about using the much larger portions of “crop wastes” to produce cellulosic ethanol, although the technology to do this economically has not emerged yet.  Electric cars are getting another run as battery life and range are extended.  And there is a range of other alternatives – compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), hydrogen fuel cells and methanol derived from natural gas, coal or any number of organic sources, including garbage, crops and crop wastes.  We have a regular Thanksgiving feast of options before us.  It’s just a question of finding out what works best.

So remember, no technology is forever.  The holiday revelers sleighing toward grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving never dreamed they might one day be making the same trip across 300 miles of countryside at speeds of 60 miles an hour. And today when you’re speeding down the Interstate in a car powered by gasoline from Saudi Arabia, you may not dream that in ten years you could be driving a car running on switchgrass grown on the scrubland of South Dakota or natural gas pumped from the Marcellus in Pennsylvania.  Yet stranger things have happened.  You never know where that path over the river and through the woods is going to lead.