The price of gas rises and falls in cycles, but buyers of the Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in the United States the past three decades, have consistently had one complaint: the poor fuel economy of the truck.
Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields thinks the company has solved that problem with the 2015 model F-150 now rolling off the assembly line at Ford’s plant in Dearborn, Mich. The new version is 700 pounds lighter, owing to the body consisting almost exclusively of aluminum, instead of heavier steel.
Although the truck’s gas-mileage figures won’t be announced by the company until later this month, AP’s story notes:
The company says the 2015 truck will have from 5 percent to 20 percent better fuel economy than the current version, which gets up to 23 mpg. A figure in the higher end of that range might convince some buyers to switch brands, says Jesse Toprak, chief sales analyst for the car buying site Cars.com.
Fields told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” program that better fuel efficiency has been the “biggest customer unmet need, the biggest dissatisfier” in the past.
What about the effect cheap gasoline has on buyer behavior? He was asked whether consumers care less about fuel economy when gasoline is as cheap as it has suddenly become — around $3 a gallon, or even less in some places.
“They’re much smarter these days,” Fields said, adding that prices are volatile. “Our long-term view is, over time, the price of a barrel of oil is gonna go up. It’s a non-renewable resource.”
(Photo: Ford Motor Co.)
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.
When he died, the patriot Paul Revere was embalmed in V8 juice, tanning lotion and several energy drinks. Surprisingly, he reappeared at a relatively recent conference of the Massachusetts Association of Automobile Dealers, looking fit and ready for another ride. The dealers had prayed for his second coming. They hoped that even though his previous ride was only one horsepower, he would consent to try a low-horsepower vehicle and ride the state, warning their brave residents that Tesla is online and in-store sales of electric cars coming. The dealers’ marketing folks felt that a reincarnated Revere would do wonders for their shaky image as wheeler dealers (excuse the pun). His deep, holier-than-thou, Fred Thomas-type voice (you know, the actor-turned-politician-turned-actor who now sells most anything on TV for money) would convince all but his former peer group (dead people) that Tesla was anti-American.
“What did Tesla do wrong,” asked Revere? Oh, it’s trying to sell its non-horse, torque-engine vehicles directly to modern-day patriots. Can you imagine euthanizing horsepower? Tears came to Revere’s eyes. But there’s more, paraphrasing a former automaker and cabinet officer Charles Wilson, one of the dealers indicates that what’s good for automobile dealers was and will always be good for America. What Elon Musk, the head of Tesla Motors, wants to do is eliminate dealerships. If the present case before the courts in Massachusetts is won by Tesla and Teslas are sold online, from a storefront, or shopping mall, surely Ford, Chrysler and General Motors will not be far behind. Forget capitalism, forget free markets, forget competition, even forget, Paul, your membership in the old Tea Party in Boston (you know, the taxation-without-representation crowd). Forget everything you fought for. By eliminating dealerships, Tesla will cost jobs. Dealers soon will have to close their doors. Bypassing dealers to sell cars will also first limit and then end our community philanthropy — you know, Little League teams, Fourth of July concerts, community picnics, jerseys for kids etc. Tesla’s headquarters is in California, and it’s a crazy state with Hollywood and all that. Californians act like foreigners. Tesla’s founder believes in global warming, he isn’t satisfied with life in America and he is developing a spaceship where the elite can, someday soon, travel to a second home and ruin our local economy. Losing dealers will make every community less American. Sure, vehicle costs may come down and emissions may improve, but what American is unwilling to pay extra to save his or her friendly auto dealer?
Revere was puzzled. He was a merchant way back then and he believed that competition and the free market were part of the American Dream. (To be honest, he also feared riding and did not understand how he could ride a multiple-horse powered vehicle. He had only mounted one horse.)
But he understood what the dealership folks were trying to tell and sell him. While in his heart, he was a bit ambivalent, he finally said he would do the famous ride again, and this time, because mileage capacity had increased and population of Massachusetts had grown, he agreed to try to go farther west than in his famous, poet-legitimized and sanctified ride.
But just as he gave them the okay, the dealerships received an email from a colleague in Boston that Tesla had won in the Massachusetts court. One dealer started crying. Several others criticized “those activist judges.”
Revere asked to read the email. It indicated that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously determined that the Mass. State Automobile Dealers “lacked standing to block direct Tesla sales under a state law designated to protect franchises owners from abuses by car manufacturers” (Reuters, Sept. 15, 2014). Succinctly, the law was tied to the franchise relationship rather than unaffiliated manufacturers like Tesla.
The court’s finding should make it easier for Tesla to secure positive rulings in many other states. Earlier this spring, senior officials from the Federal Trade Commission strongly indicated that laws outlawing direct sales harmed consumers. Revere, after looking at the email, felt guilty that he had all but agreed to replicate his famous ride. But he was consoled by the fact that freedom and competition won out, at least in the Tesla case in Massachusetts, and that at least consumer democracy was alive and well in the state. He couldn’t help but muse on the fact that Texas, a state supposedly committed to minimal regulation and almost zero interference by government concerning businesses and citizens’ lives, turned its back on Tesla because of lobbying by dealers. Tesla cannot sell directly in Texas. But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” After driving a Tesla (with no horsepower), Revere went back to the halo- lit neter lands happy. We haven’t heard from him since. But on faith alone, his experience with reincarnation likely would have made him a fan of Tesla’s electric cars and other alternative fuels.
To understand why hedge fund managers and speculators like biofuels, it is necessary to understand what has always driven the fuel that Henry Ford envisioned would power his first Model T’s. Originally, biofuels were seen as the solution to the possibility of a dwindling supply of fossil fuels as well as rising cost of these fuels. But, biofuels come with their own set of challenges. To understand what is now driving this sector, we need to understand the environmental impact of biofuel development as well as the state of the fossil fuel marketplace.
If there’s an Achilles’ heel to the efforts being made to introduce compressed natural gas (CNG) into the country’s vehicles, it is that somebody is going to come along with a liquid fuel that works much better.
CNG has many things going for it. Natural gas is now abundant and promises to stay that way for a long time. That puts the price around $2 a gallon, which is a big savings when gas costs $3.50 and diesel costs $3.70 per gallon. Trucks — mid-sized delivery trucks and big 18-wheelers — are the target market. Delivery vans usually operate out of fleet centers where a central compressor can be installed to service many vehicles. Meanwhile, pioneering companies such as Clean Energy Fuels are busy building an infrastructure at truck stops along the Interstate Highway System to service long-hauling tractor-trailers on their cross-country routes.
But there is a weakness. As a gas, CNG requires a whole new infrastructure. Compression tanks must be built at gas stations, much stronger than ordinary gas tanks and tightly machined, so gas does not escape. Even under compression, CNG has a much lower energy density than gasoline. This requires special $6,000 tanks that must still take up more space. In passenger vehicles they will devour almost all the trunk space, which is why vendors are concentrating on long-distance tractor-trailers.
As a result, there always seems the chance that some liquid derivative of methane is going to come along and push CNG off the market. Methanol has been a prime candidate since it is already manufactured in commercial quantities for industrial purposes. M85, a mixture of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline, is legal in the United States, but has not been widely adopted.
Now a new candidate has emerged in the long-distance truck competition — dimethyl ether or “DME.” Two methane ions joined by a single oxygen molecule, DME is manufactured from natural gas and has many of the same properties as methanol. It is still a gas at room temperature but can be stored as a liquid at four atmospheres or -11o F. It can also be dissolved as a gasoline or propane additive at a 30-70 percent ratio. In 2009 a team of university students from Denmark won the Shell Eco Marathon with a vehicle running on 100 percent DME.
So is it practical? Well, we’ll soon find out. Volvo has just announced it will release a version of its D13 truck in 2014 that runs on DME. At the same time, Volvo pushed back the launch of its natural gas version of the same line, meaning it may be changing its mind about which way the technology is going to go. In case you haven’t been keeping abreast, Volvo is now the largest manufacturer of heavy trucks in the world, having acquired Mack, America’s oldest truck company, in 2000.
So does that mean that CNG may turn out to be a dead end and Clean Energy Fuels is going to get stuck with a lot of unused compressor pumps? Well, hold on a minute. Technology does not stand still.
Last week at the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif., Ford and BASF unveiled a new device for the Ford F-450 CNG fuel tank. It’s called a Metal Organic Framework (MOF), a complex of clustered metal ions built on a backbone of] rigid organic molecules that form one-, two-, or three-dimensional structures. Lots of surface area is created, making MOFs porous enough to hold large amounts of gaseous material such as methane.
MOFs create the possibility that on-board CNG tanks will not have to operate under extremely high pressure or extremely low temperatures. Like a metallic sponge the high-surface material soaks gas right up, where it can be easily dislodged as well. According to BASF and Ford, the same amount of natural gas that requires 3,600 pounds per square inch (PSI) can be stored in an MOF tank at close to 1,000 PSI. That makes a big difference when it comes to designing an automobile.
So does that mean natural gas is going to be able to hold its own against DME and other liquid competitors? Well, wait a minute, there’s still more. Not only is MOF technology good at storing methane, it also works with hydrogen! That means the hydrogen-fuel cell — still the favorite among Japanese manufacturers — may be able to work its way back in the game as well.
In fact, Ford isn’t playing any favorites. Equipped with its new MOF tanks, the F-450 will offer drivers a choice of seven — that’s right, seven — different fuel options using the same internal combustion engine. “Ford has no idea which of these fuels will make the most sense,” Ford’s Jon Coleman told Jason Hall of Motley Fool. “So we need to build vehicles that have the broadest capability and the broadest fuel types so our customers can choose for themselves.”
That’s the name of the game. It’s called Fuel Freedom.
The Energy Information Administration has done us an enormous favor by producing a simple chart to make sense of where the development of energy storage technology is going. Energy storage, as the EIA defines it, includes heat storage, and a quick look at the chart reveals that those forms that involve sheer physical mechanisms – pumped storage, compressed air and heat reservoirs – are much further along than chemical means of storage, particularly batteries.
The EIA divides the development of technologies into three phases – “research and development,” “demonstration and deployment” and “commercialization.” It also ranks them according to a factor that might be called “chances for success,” which is calculated by a multiple of capital requirements times “technological risk.”
As it turns out, only two technologies that could contribute to transportation are in the deployment stage while three more are in early development. The two frontrunners are sodium-sulfur and lithium-based batteries while the three in early stages are flow batteries, supercapacitors and hydrogen. The EIA refers to hydrogen as one of the ways of storing other forms of energy generation, particularly wind and solar. But hydrogen is also being deployed in hydrogen in hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles that have already been commercialized.
Other than building huge pumped-storage reservoirs or storing compressed air in underground caverns, the chemistry of batteries is the most attractive means of storing electricity, which is the most useful form of energy. Batteries have always had three basic components, the anode, which stores the positive charge, the cathode, which stores the negative charge, and the electrolyte, which carries the charge between them. Alexander Volta designed the first “Voltaic pile” in 1800 by submerging zinc and silver in brine. Since then, battery improvements have involved finding better materials for all three components.
Lead-acid batteries have become the elements of choice in conventional batteries because the elements are cheap and plentiful. But lead is one of the heaviest common elements and becomes impractical when it comes to loading them aboard a vehicle.
The great advantage of lithium-ion batteries has been their light weight. The lithium substitutes for metal in both anode and cathode, mixing with carbon and iron phosphate to create the two charges. Li-ion, of course, is the basis of nearly all consumer electronics and has proved light and powerful enough to power golf carts. The question being posed by Elon Musk is whether they can be ramped up to power a Tesla Model S that can do zero-to-60 with a range of 300 miles.
Tesla is not planning any technological breakthrough, but will use brute force to try to scale up. Enlarging li-ion batteries tends to shorten their life so the Tesla will pack together thousands of small ones no bigger than a AA that will be linked by a management system that coordinates their charge and discharge. Musk is betting that economies of scale at his “Gigafactory” will lower costs so that the Model X can sell for $35,000. According to current plants, the Gigafactory will be producing more lithium-ion batteries than are now produced in the entire world.
In the sodium-sulfur battery, molten sodium serves as the anode while liquid sodium serves as the cathode. An aluminum membrane serves as the electrolyte. This creates a very high energy density and high discharge rate of about 90 percent. The problem is that the battery must be kept at a very high temperature, around 300 degrees Celsius, in order to liquefy its contents. A sodium-sulfur battery was tried in the Ford “Ecostar” demonstration vehicle as far back as 1991, but it proved too difficult to maintain the temperature.
Flow batteries represent a new approach where both the anode and cathode are liquids instead of solids. Recharging takes place by replacing the electrolyte. In this way, flow batteries are often compared to fuel cells, where a steady flow of hydrogen or methane is used to generate a current. The great advantage of flow batteries is that they can be recharged quickly by replacing the electrolyte, rather than taking up to 10 hours to recharge, as with, say, the Chevy Volt. So far flow batteries have relatively low energy density, however, and their use may be limited to stationary sources. A German-made vanadium-flow battery called CellCube was just installed by Con Edison as a grid-enhancement feature in New York City this month.
Supercapacitors use various materials to expand on the storage capacity devices in ordinary electric circuits. They have much shorter charge-and-discharge cycles but only achieve one-tenth of the energy density of conventional batteries. As a result, they cannot yet power vehicles on a stand-alone basis. However, supercapacitors are being used to capture braking energy in electric trams in Europe, in forklifts and hybrid automobiles. The Mazda6 has a supercapacitor that uses braking energy to reduce fuel consumption by 10 percent.
The concept of “storage” can be also be expanded to include hydrogen, since free hydrogen is not a naturally occurring element but can store energy from other sources such as wind and solar. That has always been the dream of renewable energy enthusiasts. The Japanese and Europeans are actually betting that hydrogen will prove to be a better alternative than the electric car. Despite the success of the Prius hybrid, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai (which is Korean) are putting more emphasis on their fuel cell models.
Finally, methanol can be regarded as an “energy storage” mechanism, since it too is not a naturally occurring resource but is a way to transmit the potential of our vast reserves of natural gas. Methanol proved itself as a gasoline substitute in an extensive experiment in California in the 1990s and currently powers a million cars in China. But it has not yet achieved the recognition of EVs and hydrogen – or even compressed natural gas – and still faces regulatory hurdles.
All these technologies offer the potential of severely reducing our dependence on foreign oil. All are making technical advances and all have promise. Let the competition begin.
The Ford Motor Company stepped front-and-center in the effort to fine alternatives to high-priced imported oil last week with the announcement that it will offer compressed natural gas (CNG) tank as an option in the F-150 pickup truck, its most popular brand that currently sells 700,000 models a year.
Now it won’t come cheap. There’s a $250-$350 charge for the vehicle to come “prepped” from the factory. That means putting hardened valves, valve seats, piston and rings into the V6 engine. But after that, there’s a $7-9000 charge for installing the CNG tank in the cargo bay – made considerably more expensive than in Europe because safety standards are interpreted in a way that makes them much more expensive. This lifts the showroom price from $24,000 to around $32,000. That’s a big chunk but Ford swears you’ll make it back in three years by substituting fuels.
With the price of gas at around $3.80 per gallon and the oil-equivalent of natural gas at around $1.20, those savings should add up fast. Of course all this assumes that the price differential won’t narrow to its traditional level, but that doesn’t seem very likely now. Electrical plants have shown a tendency to move quickly back to cheaper coal if the price of gas rises, but the difference between the crack spread and the spark spread seems to have separated permanently, much to natural gas’s advantage.
All this is good news for those looking to substitute some of our abundant natural gas for foreign oil in our transport sector. In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made right now:
Clean Energy Fuels of Newport Beach, CA already has a network of 360 natural gas fueling stations at truck stops along Interstate highways and is trying to build a complete national infrastructure. NGV stations cost $750,000 a pop but Clean Energy is looking at the long term. The ready availability of filling stations will help spur the conversion of giant 18-wheel diesel haulers, which most people see as the ripest target for conversion.
Heavy-duty fleet vehicles are making rapid progress. Buses and garbage trucks are in the forefront. Eight out of ten new vehicles bought in 2012 by Waste Management, the leader in the field, were powered by natural gas.
There are now 120,000 gas vehicles on the road in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles of America, the trade group. Unfortunately, this constitutes only a tiny fraction of the 15.2 million NGVs worldwide. Iran, Pakistan and Argentina, improbably, are the leaders. We’re behind in making the transition, but there’s plenty of room to catch up.
In a report issued in June, Citi Research estimated that one-quarter of the world’s present consumption of oil could be replaced by natural gas under present conditions. More than 9 million barrels per day could be replaced in truck transport, 2 million of these in the US. Another 3 million b/d could be opted out in marine transport and 200,000 b/d in railroad locomotives.
All this would be fairly easy to transact since it involves large commercial organizations with centralized decision-making. Sooner or later, however, this approach is likely to run up against limits. The stumbling block will be the vastly more decentralized system of private automobiles, which still consumes 60 percent of our oil and involves a car in every garage and a gas station on every other corner. Here the problem of building an infrastructure and achieving widespread distribution is much more difficult.
The problem comes because reformers are viewing natural gas as a fuel instead of a feedstock. Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are the most readily available options – and both are legal – but in the end they are going to have their limits. It will make much more sense to use methane as a feedstock for the manufacture of liquids, methanol in particular. These will be much easier to transport and will substitute for gasoline in current car engines with only minimum adjustment – nothing like the $8000 required for the F-150. Valero has just opted to build a $700 million methanol manufacturing plant in St. Charles, Louisiana in anticipation of this demand. All depends on whether the Environmental Protection Agency decides to give a go-ahead to use methanol in car engines. The matter is pending.
So the effort to use our abundant natural gas resources to reduce our dependence on expensive, unpredictable and unreliable foreign sources of oil is making headway. Ford’s decision to equip the F-150 with CNG is a beginning. But there’s more to come.
Nobel-Prize-winning chemist George Olah recently put methanol front and center again with a powerful Wall Street Journal editorial arguing for the conversion of carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants into methanol for use as a gasoline substitute in our car engines. Co-writing with University of Southern California trustee Chris Cox, Olah noted, “Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol — a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel — can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.”
The authors argued that President Obama’s recently announced policy of mandating carbon sequestration for emissions from coal plants wastes a potentially valuable resource. “At laboratories such as the University of Southern California’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute [founded by Olah], researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and “sequestering” carbon dioxide — the Obama administration’s current plan is to bury it — this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships.”
Olah, of course, has been the principal advocates of methanol since his publication of “Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy,” in 2006.
To date, he has been recommending our growing natural gas supplies as the principal feedstock for a methanol economy. But the emissions from the nation’s coal plants offer another possibility.
This is particularly important since indications are that the Environmental Protection’s Agency’s assumption that a regulatory initiative will “force” the development of carbon-sequestering technology may be mistaken. A recent report from Australia’s Global CCS Institute said that, despite widespread anticipation that carbon capture will play a leading role in reducing carbon emission, experimental efforts have actually been declining.
The problem is the laborious task of storing endless amounts of carbon dioxide in huge underground repositories plus the potential dangers of accidental releases, which have aroused public opposition. Olah and Cox write, “By placing the burden of expensive new carbon capture and sequestration technology on the U.S. alone, and potentially requiring steep cuts in domestic energy to conform to carbon caps, the proposal could send the U.S. economy into shock without making a significant dent in global emissions… In place of expensive mandates and wasteful subsidies, what is needed are powerful economic incentives. These incentives should operate not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well.”
All this brings into stark relief the diverging paths that China and the United States have taken in trying to find some alcohol-based fuels to substitute in gas tanks. While Olah has been advocating a transformation to a methanol economy in this country, China is actually much further down the road to developing its own methanol economy. There are now more than a million methanol cars on the road in China and estimates show the fuel substitutes for 5-8% of gasoline consumption — about the same proportion that corn ethanol provides in this country.
In this country, the proposal has been that we derive methanol from our now-abundant supplies of natural gas. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2003 but curtailed its experiment because gas supplies appeared to be too scarce and expensive! Instead, the main emphasis has been on tax incentives and mandates to promote corn ethanol.
China has vast shale gas supplies and could benefit from America’s fracking technology. We could benefit strongly from China’s greater experience in developing methanol cars. The pieces of the puzzle are all there. Perhaps Olah’s proposal may be the catalyst that puts them all together.
Ironically, all this began with a Chinese-American collaboration in 1996. At the time, China had little knowledge or interest in methanol but was persuaded by American scientists to give it a try. Ford provided a methanol engine and China began ramping up its methanol industry and substituting it for gasoline. As a result, China is now the world’s largest producer of methanol, with about one-quarter of the market.
A year ago the Chinese national government was about to mandate a 15% percent methanol standard for gasoline when it ran into opposition from executives in its oil industry. Those leaders have since been deposed, however, and the 15% mandate may go ahead this year. In the meantime, provincial governments have developed their own standards, with the Shanxi province west of Beijing in the lead.
Ironically, because methanol is only half the price of gasoline, many local gas stations are diluting their gasoline with methanol anyway in order to shave their costs. As a 2011 Energy Policy article by Chi-jen Yang and Robert B. Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment reported, “Private gasoline stations often blend methanol in gasoline without consumers’ knowledge… In fact, its illegal status makes methanol blending more profitable than it would be with legal standards. Illegally blended methanol content is sold at the same price as gasoline. If legalized, standard methanol gasoline would be required to be properly labeled and sold at a lower price than regular gasoline because of its reduced energy content. Such unannounced blending is now common in China.”
So both countries are feeling their way toward a methanol economy. As Olah points out, the problem in the U.S. is that the various advantages given to ethanol have not been extended to methanol.“One means of addressing this inequity would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard Act of 2013, which would put methanol, natural gas, and biodiesel on the same footing as ethanol (but without subsidies and without telling consumers which one to choose) for use in flex-fuel cars.”
In China, the concern is about coal supplies but this could be alleviated with help from America’s fracking industry or by implementing Olah’s new technology for tapping coal exhausts.
Either way, the pieces are all there. It may be time to start putting them together.
You can see them from outer space. The flames from natural gas flares in the Williston Basin of North Dakota now throw off a nighttime glow larger than Minneapolis and almost as big as Chicago. All that energy is going up in smoke.
Ceres, a Boston nonprofit organization, issued a report last week illustrating that the huge surge in oil production in the Bakken Shale has outrun the drilling industry’s ability to cope with the natural gas byproduct. “Almost 30% of North Dakota gas is currently being burned off,” the report said.
The report also states, “Absolute volumes of flared gas have more than doubled between May 2011 and May 2013. In 2012 alone, flaring resulted in the loss of approximately $1 billion in fuel and the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of adding one millions cars to the road.”
The loss rate has actually been reduced from 36% in 2011, but production has tripled in that time, meaning that an additional 266 billion cubic feet (BCF) a day is going up in smoke.
Moreover, according to the report, North Dakota gas contains other valuable products. “The natural gas from the Bakken formation contains high volumes of valuable natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as propane and natural gasoline, in addition to dry gas consisting mostly of methane. It is potential worth roughly four times that of the dry gas produced elsewhere in the United States.”
“There’s a lot of shareholder value going up in flames,” Ryan Salomon, author of the report, told Reuters.
So why can’t more be done to recover it? Well, unfortunately, according to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the spread between the value of gas and oil, which has stayed pretty close historically, has now increased to 30 times in favor of oil in the Bakken. Even nudging up gas prices to $4 per thousand cubic feet (MCF) in recent months hasn’t made much difference. Consequently, it isn’t worthwhile trying to collect gas across widely dispersed oil fields.
Encouraging this waste is a North Dakota statute that exempts flared gas from paying any severance taxes and royalties during the first year of production. Since most fracking wells have a short lifespan, gushing forth up to 60% of their output in the first year, this makes it much easier to write off the losses.
Nonetheless, all this adds up to a colossal waste. As of the end of 2011, the amount of gas being flared each year in North Dakota was the equivalent of 25% of annual consumption in the United States and 30% Europe’s. The high burn off has moved the country up to fifth place in the world for flaring, only behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq, and ahead of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Although the World Bank says worldwide flaring has dropped by 20% since 2005, North Dakota is now pushing in the opposite direction. Altogether, 5% of the world’s gas is wasted in this way.
Efforts are being made to improve the situation: with big hitters are doing their part. Whiting Petroleum Corporation says its goal is zero emissions. Hess Corporation, which has a network of pipelines, is spending $325 million to double the capacity at its Tioga processing plant, due to open next year. Continental, the largest operator in the Bakken, says it has reduced flaring to 11% and plans to reduce it further. “Everybody makes money when the product is sold, not flared,” Jeff Hunt, vice chairman for strategic growth at Continental, told Reuters.
But it’s all those little independent companies and wildcatters that are the problem. Storage is impossible and investing in pipeline construction just too expensive. Entrepreneurs are doing their part. Mark Wald, a North Dakota native who had left for the West Coast, has returned to start Blaise Energy Inc., a company that is putting up small gas generators next to oil wells and putting the electricity on the grid. “You see the big flare up there and you say, `Something’s got to be done here,’” he told the Prairie Business.
But the long-term solution is finding new uses for natural gas and firming up the price so that its collection is worthwhile. What about our transport sector? We still import $290 billion worth of oil a year at a time when as much as half of that could be replaced with domestic gas resources. Liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas, conversion to methanol, conversion to ethanol – there are many different ways this could be promoted right now. Ford has just introduced an F-150 truck with a CNG tank and an engine that can run on either gas or gasoline. With natural gas selling at the equivalent of $2.11 a gallon (and even cheaper in some parts of the country), the new model can pay off the additional $9,000 price tag in two to three years. There are now an estimated 12,000 natural gas vehicles on the road and the number is growing rapidly. “This is an emerging technology in a mature industry,” Ford sustainability manager Jon Coleman told USA Today.
But an even better way to harvest this energy might be to design small, transportable methanol converters that could be attached to individual gas wells. Methane can be converted to methanol, the simplest alcohol, by oxidizing it with water at very high temperatures. There are 18 large methanol plants in the United States producing 2.6 billion gallons a year, most of it consumed by industry. But methanol could also substitute for gasoline in cars at lower cost with only a few adjustments to existing engines. The Indianapolis 500 racers have run on methanol for more than 40 years.
The opportunities in the Bakken are tremendous – and the need to end the waste urgent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that production in the Bakken is due to rise 40%, from 640,000 to 900,000 barrels per day by 2020. North Dakota has already passed Alaska as the second-biggest oil producing state and now stands behind only Texas, where pipeline infrastructure is already built out and less than 1% of gas is flared.
The increased production, matched with the expanding technology for using gas in cars, presents an enormous opportunity.