Japan bets big on hydrogen fuel cells

Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?

Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.

Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.

But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.

The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.

This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.

What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.

So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.

In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.

Can supercapacitors replace batteries?

The electric car depends on batteries, and before EVs become a large chunk of our automotive fleet, there are probably going to be some changes.

Right now, Elon Musk is betting he can produce millions of small lithium-ion batteries not much bigger than the ones you put in your flashlight and string them together to power a $35,000 Tesla Model E over a range of 200 miles at speeds of up to 70-80 mph. The Model E also will also need an infrastructure of roadside “filling stations” and home chargers, although the best superchargers still take more than 20 minutes to achieve 80 percent capacity.

But there is another way to store electricity, long familiar to the designers of electrical circuits. It’s the capacitor, a device that stores a small current by static electricity rather than a chemical reaction. Capacitors sit in all of your electrical devices, from radio circuits to the most sophisticated laptops, and are essential to providing the steady electric current needed to run such electronics. But what if the concept of capacitors could be scaled up to the point where they could help power something as big as an electric vehicle? Granted, it’s a long, long way from the 1.5-volt capacitor in your iPad and powering a 4,500-pound Tesla along the Interstate, but researchers are out there probing and are already thinking in terms of a breakthrough.

Right now there’s a huge separation between the things that batteries can do and the things that capacitors can do. In a way they are complementary — the strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other. But researchers are working toward a convergence — or perhaps just a way of using them in tandem.

A battery employs chemistry by splitting ions in the electrolyte so that the negative ones gather on the cathode and the positive on the anode, building up a voltage potential. When they are connected externally an electric current flows. Batteries have a lot of energy density. They can store electricity up into the megawatt range and release a flow of electricity over long periods of time. The process can also be reversed, but, because the reaction is (once again) chemical, it can take a long time.

Capacitors store electrons as static electricity. A thundercloud is a great big capacitor with zillions of electrons clinging to the almost infinite surface area of individual raindrops. And as everyone knows, this huge stored capacity can be released in a “bolt of lightening.” Capacitors can be recharged almost instantly but also they release their energy almost instantly, rather than the even flow of a battery. One of their major uses is in flash photography. But their capacity for storing power is also limited. On a pound-for-pound basis, the best capacitors can only store one-fifth to one-tenth the equivalent of a chemical battery. On the other hand, batteries can start to wear out after five years, while supercapacitors last at least three times as long.

Back in the 1950s, engineers at General Electric, and later at Standard Oil, invented what have come to be called “supercapacitors.” Basically, a supercapacitor changes the surface material and adds another layer of insulating dielectric in order to increase storage capacity. Surface area is the key and engineers discovered that powdery, activated charcoal vastly increased the capacity of the storage plates. Dielectrics were also reduced to ultra-thin layers of carbon, paper or plastic, since the closer the plates can be brought together, the more intense the charge. Since then they have begun experimenting with graphene and other advanced materials that may be able to increase surface area by orders of magnitude. All of this means that much more electricity can be stored in a much smaller space.

But the problem of low energy density remains. Even supercapacitors can only operate at about 2.5 volts, which means they must be strung together in series in vast numbers in order to reach voltage levels required to power something like an electric car. This creates problems in maintaining voltage balance. Still, some supercapacitors are already being employed in gas-electric hybrids and electric buses in order to store the power siphoned off from braking.

Researchers in the field now see some possibility for convergence. Most exhilarating is the idea that the frame of the car itself could be transformed into a supercapacitor. Last month, researchers from Vanderbilt University published an online paper entitled, “A Multifunctional Load-Bearing Solid-State Supercapacitor,” in which they suggested that load-bearing materials such as the chassis of a car or even the walls of your house could be transformed into supercapacitors to store massive amounts of electricity on-site. Combined with advances in evening the flow of electrons from supercapacitors, this opens up whole new avenues of approach to the electric car.

All of these developments are a long way off, of course. Still, supercapacitors support the possibility of pulling out of your driveway in the morning and returning at night in your EV without needing to gas up with foreign oil at your nearest filling station.

Shakespeare and Julia Child on monopolies, competition and alternative fuels

You must remember the famous community activist who once asked, “To be, or not to be, that is the policy and behavior question; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously high, constantly shifting gasoline prices or to take arms against a sea of troubles generated by monopolistic fuel markets and open them up and end them.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare, now that we need him, is no longer available. But his question, articulated by his political friend Hamlet, still needs to be answered. I suggest we respond to his query in the context of another question: Is competition in the market for vehicular fuel a public good and in the public interest? Ah ha, you ask, why must we ask this question? Don’t we live in a capitalist or quasi-capitalist nation? Gosh, ever since we all were kids, were we not brought up on the wisdom of free markets and their ostensible link to freedom and democracy, a trifecta holy grail?

Sure we were! But the presented wisdom apparently didn’t mean all markets, and most important for this article, the market where most of us purchase fuel. By and large, the market for fuel is limited to a single, generally similar, primary product — gasoline. Competition, when it exists, generates from relatively small price differences, more often than not. Overblown value propositions in advertising concerning engine performance benefits from brand X or Y notwithstanding.

Consumers who, many times, assiduously read the papers or go online to find out where different brands of tires are cheapest or travel miles to visit dealers to get a perceived “good deal” on a car are frequently constrained to their neighborhood gas stations or the stations located near the nearest shopping center or big box store. While price may be a key factor in driving their decision as to which station will fill up their tank, absence of diverse fuel alternatives results in a relatively narrow band of prices per gallon and a competitive floor on consumer savings and costs.

Opening up gas markets will be tough. The oil industry controls or strongly influences over 40 percent of the stations and holds a big, profitable stick concerning what can be sold and how it can be sold at its franchised facilities. Prices are set low enough to scare independents into selecting less-than-favorable locations, or pricey enough to give them some room to keep their own costs relatively high.

To date, state pilot or demonstration programs concerning alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol have had mixed results. Why? Their costs of production and their environmental/GHG costs are lower than gasoline. Are we Americans just dumb? No. Initiatives to date have had to surmount problems including: consumer access to fuel stations with flex-fuel pumps (their costs range from $50,000 to over $100,000); a growing but still relatively small percentage of flex fuel autos compared to the total number of vehicles; the lack of consumer information concerning their own flex-fuel vehicle’s ability to use ethanol; the fear generated by some interest groups often related to the oil industry about the impact of alternative fuels on engines; the seeming ability of the oil industry to manage local prices; and the decisions by supply chain participants, particularly retailers to raise alternative fuel prices to capture immediate profits (reducing their intermediate and long-term ability — as the new kid on the block — to compete with gasoline.)

Evidence from Brazil suggests that demand emanating from an educated public, combined with a commitment to increase the pool of alternative-fuel vehicles and readily accessible fuel stations with ethanol pumps will cause a reduction in gasoline prices. Juliano J. Assunção, Joao Paulo Pessoa and Leonardo Rezende noted in a December 2013 London School of Economics publication, “Our estimates suggest that the model prediction is correct and that as the percentage of flex cars increase by 10%, ethanol and gasoline energy equivalent prices per liter fall by approximately 8 cents and 2 cents, respectively. Considering the volume of sales and size of the flex fuel fleet in 2007, a rough estimate suggests consumer savings to the order of 70 million Reais in the Rio de Janeiro state that year. Our estimates also show that the price gap as well as the price correlation between the two fuels has increased with the increased penetration of flex fuel cars.” Other studies have suggested similar positive impacts.

A U.S. recipe appears clear and consistent with America’s assumed belief in letting the market decide most resource allocation issues connected to the production of non-social welfare related goods and services. Ingredient one: Amend laws and regulations to encourage individual owners to convert older cars to flex-fuel automobiles; ingredient two: mix the resulting converted cars with newer flex-fuel vehicles to create a large flex-fuel pool; ingredient three: liberally sprinkle in enough information to inform consumers and potential-ethanol-supply-chain participants, including potential blenders and retailers, of the potential demand for ethanol as a fuel; ingredient four: add real, solid seasoning to the mix by fostering development, distribution and the sale of natural-gas-based ethanol to achieve significant increased environmental and cost benefits. Julia Child couldn’t build a better dish for the nation as it simultaneously tries to expand the viability of renewable fuels, and Shakespeare’s friend, Hamlet, would not need antidepressants.

CNG moves ahead on all fronts

The effort to substitute compressed natural gas for foreign oil in our gas tanks is moving ahead on all fronts across the country, in scores of municipal departments that are converting their fleets, in new gas stations that are opening and with entrepreneurs who are looking for ways to speed up the conversion.

Leading the pack is Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ effort to put the nation’s natural gas resources to work in the transport sector. Clean Energy Fuels has targeted long-distance, heavy-duty trucks, which tend to stay on the Interstate Highway System and can be services at massive truck stops. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Clean Energy Fuels is building stations in Pittston and Pottsville that will serve trucks on heavily the traveled I-81 and I-476. They are scheduled to open later this year.

But much of Clean Energy Fuels’ real success is coming from the fleet conversion for major shipping firms that rely heavily on truck transportation. The company has had particular success with UPS. Fueling depots were recently opened in Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas. The carrier E.J. Madison, LLC has deployed a fleet of 20 long-haul LNG trucks that will utilize a CEF network of stations that stretches from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville is emerging as a hub of CEF activity as the company has opened a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal there as well. LNG is more difficult to handle than compressed natural gas but has much greater energy density.

Rapidly expanding in Florida, CEF has just announced a grand opening of a CNG filling station that will service the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), which provides public transportation throughout the Tampa metropolitan area. The opening kicks off a plan to convert HART’s entire fleet of public services buses and vans to compressed gas.

Just last week Clean Energy Fuels CEO Andrew Littlefair was in the news telling The Motley Fool that Tesla’s electric cars will not be in competition with CEF’s efforts. “Tesla and electric vehicles are really great for certain applications,” he told interviewer Josh Hall. “But hauling 80,000 pounds of cargo, natural gas is really well suited for that.”

However, even if Clean Energy Fuels doesn’t think CNG can compete with electric at the passenger-car level, others do. Last week the Wawa convenience store chain announced it will partner with South Jersey Gas to open CNG fueling stations in southern New Jersey. “Compressed natural gas gives us an opportunity to increase the convenience we offer our customers and positions us for the future as well,” Brian Schaller, vice president of fuel for Wawa told the press. “We’re excited about the growth potential.” With 600 stores on the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida, Wawa has plenty of room to grow.

Pennsylvania is becoming a hotbed of compressed gas progress as the state seeks to take advantage of the Marcellus Shale. The state has adopted a funding program to help businesses convert. One of the first to take advantage is Houston-based Waste Management, which received an $806,000 grant from the State Department of Community & Economic Development to switch 25 of its waste and recycling collection vehicles to CNG. Pennsylvania-American Water Company has also announced plans to convert its fleet with a $315,000 state grant. American Water, the largest water utility in the state, operates out of Scranton.

Nebraska is a long way from any natural gas drilling but the Uribe Refuse Services company of Lincoln has announced it will convert its entire fleet of 17 trucks to natural gas over the next few years. The first trucks were displayed in the city last week on Earth Day.

Oklahoma is a big oil-and-gas producing state and is making a major effort to convert state vehicles to natural gas. In 2011 Gov. Mary Fallin joined 15 other states in a multi-state memorandum of understanding committing them to purchase NGVs for the state fleet. The state now has 400 CNG vehicles and is pushing the federal government to convert its fleet in the state as well. Oklahoma is building CNG gas stations to match and now stands third in the nation behind California and New York.

The natural gas industry is putting its shoulder to the wheel on this effort. The American Gas Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) have teamed up to sponsor “Add Natural Gas (+NG),” an effort that is encouraging entrepreneurs and mechanics to convert ordinary passenger cars already on the road to CNG. “Fleets across the country are already using natural gas vehicles to save money and reduce emissions,” says the group’s website. “However, natural gas can be used to fuel any vehicle. To demonstrate this, we worked with automotive engineers to add natural gas as a fueling option for some of the most popular vehicles on the market today.”

Performance CNG LLC is a Michigan startup that has been inspired to take up the initiative. The company recently had a hybridized 2012 Ford Mustang GT demonstrated as part of +NG’s campaign and is currently trying to raise $55,000 in capital on Indiegogo, an international crowd funding site. More than half the money would go to EPA emissions testing.

Not everyone is convinced that CNG is the way to go. Clean Energy Fuel’s stock has done poorly since January, based on investor skepticism that its market is not that big and that some liquid natural-gas based fuel – methanol of butanol – will prove easier to handl

Of myths, oil companies and a competitive fuel market

I do not wish to join the intense dialogue concerning whether or not the government should allow exports of crude oil. Others are already doing a good job of confusing and obscuring the pros and cons of selling increased amounts of America’s growing oil resources overseas.

What I do want to do is just focus on the logic of one of the oil industry’s major arguments for extending the permitting of exports — again, not on the wisdom of exporting policy. Permit me to do so in the context of the industry’s long-standing argument concerning the pricing of gasoline to U.S. consumers. The argument is that more oil drilling in the U.S. will lower the price of gas and put America on the path to oil “independence.”

In somewhat of circuitous manner, oil companies are using the opposite of their domestic advocacy for “drill, baby, drill” policy as a way to keep prices lower at the pump. Their yin is that producing more oil in the U.S. and sending significant amounts overseas, combined with declining vehicular fuel demand, will lower gas prices. Economist Adam Smith would applaud the simplicity if he were alive and well. Their yang presents a bit more complicated set of “ifs.” That is, the industry presumes that fulfillment of the yen (excuse another pun) to export will result in more U.S. oil being drilled because of increased world demand generated by the assumed ability of the U.S. to produce oil at less costs than the world price for oil. It will also help foster infrastructure development in the U.S. to break up current log jams concerning oil transportation. Finally, it will facilitate more efficient refineries, allowing them to specialize in different types of oil. The yin and yang will result in (marginally) lower prices of gasoline — so goes the rhetoric and oil-industry-paid-for studies.

Paraphrasing Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” the oil companies hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” But, before Americans run out and buy stock, note the price of gasoline does not directly reflect oil production volume. Indeed, gas prices, despite increased supplies, have gyrated significantly and now hover nationally over $4 a gallon. Generally, oil and gas prices relate to international prices, tension in the Middle East and investor and banker speculation — not always or directly domestic costs. Stockholders and executives of oil companies function not on patriotism but on profit and to the extent that the law permits, they will sell overseas to get the best price — in effect, the best dollar over payment for a barrel of oil. Consumers, I suspect, are rarely a significant part of their opportunity costing.

Unfortunately, lack of strong empirical evidence tempers the company’s argument that increased world demand will stimulate good things like refinery efficiency and log-jam-ending infrastructure. Maybe if the price per barrel is right (clearly, higher than it is now) and seems predictable for more than a small period of time, refinery and infrastructure developments will be positive. But, the costs to the consumer, in this context, will be higher. It will also be higher because shale oil is tight oil and more risky and costly to drill.

Oil independence is a myth suggested by oil industry and a non-analytical media. Certainly, the oil boom and less vehicular demand have generated less imports and less dependency. But we still buy nearly 300 billion dollars’ worth of oil every year to respond to need and we still produce far less than demand.

Somewhere in the dark labyrinth of each major oil company is a pumped-up (another pun), never-used, secret justification for franchise agreements impeding the sale of alternative fuels in their retail outlets. To alleviate guilt, it may go something like this: “Monopolies at the pump will allow us to make larger profits. You know we will someday soon want to give back some of the profits to consumers by lowering the price of gasoline.” If you believe this still-secret beneficence, let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is another way to steady the gasoline market and lower consumer costs. Inexpensive conversions to allow older vehicles to use safe, cheaper and environmentally better alternative fuels (as opposed to gasoline), combined with expanded use by flex-fuel owners of alternative fuels, would add competition to the fuel market and likely reduce prices for consumers. Natural-gas-based ethanol is on the horizon and methanol, once the EPA approves, will follow, hopefully shortly thereafter. Electric cars, once costs are lower and distance on single charges is higher, will be a welcome addition to the competitive mix.

The Battle Over Ethanol Takes Shape

The decision isn’t scheduled until June but already opposing sides are converging on Washington, trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol.

Last week almost 100 members of the American Coalition for Ethanol descended on the nation’s capital for its annual “Biofuels Beltway March,” buttonholing 170 lawmakers and staffers from 45 states.  The object was to send a message to EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy to up the ante on how many billions of gallons the oil refining industry will be required to purchase this year.

The ethanol program is currently in turmoil.  The latest problem is rail bottlenecks that have slowed shipments and created supply shortages over the winter months.  Record-breaking cold and four-foot snow pack have been partly responsible but the rail lines are also becoming overcrowded.  With all that oil gushing down from the Bakken and Canadian crude now finding its way into tank cars as the Obama Administration postpones its decision over the Keystone Pipeline, ethanol is getting tangled in traffic.  .

“Ethanol for April delivery sold for about $3.02 a gallon on the Chico Board of Trade, an 81 percent increase over the low price during the past 12 months of $1.67 a gallon reached in November,” reported the Omaha World-Herald last Friday  “This weeks settlement price of $2.98 a gallon was the highest since July 2011.”  With only so much storage capacity, some ethanol refineries have been forced to shut down until the next train arrives to carry off the inventory.  As ethanol becomes mainstream, it is becoming more and more subject to market events beyond its control.

But the big decision will be EPA’s ruling in June.  In accord with the 2008 Renewable Fuel Act, Administrator McCarthy must set a “floor” for amount of ethanol refiners will have to incorporate into their blends during 2014.  The program ran into trouble last year when the 13.8 billion gallon requirement pushed ethanol beyond the 10 percent “blend wall” where the auto companies will not honor warrantees in older cars.  Refiners were forced to purchase compensating Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which exploded in value from pennies to $1.30 per gallon, forcing up the price of gasoline.  Contrary to expectations, gasoline consumption has actually declined over the last six years, from 142 billion gallons in 2008 to 134 billion in 2013 as a result of mileage improvements plus the lingering effects of the recession.  Last November McCarthy proposed reducing the 2014 from 14.4 billion gallons to 13 billion.  The industry has been crying “foul” ever since.

But there are other ways to fight back.  Last week in Crookson, gas stations were offering Minnesota drivers 85 cents off a gallon for filling up with E-85, the blend of 85 percent ethanol that many see as the real solution to the blend-wall problem.  “We want the public to understand there are different ratios of gasoline and ethanol and how they can save you money,” Greg LeBlac, of the Polk County Corn Growers, told the Fargo Valley News. 

At the annual meeting of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (APFM) in Orlando last week, Anna Temple, product manager at WoodMac, made the case that the industry should forego efforts to raise the blend wall from 10 to 15 percent and instead shoot for the moon, leapfrogging all the way to E-85, where ethanol essentially replaces gasoline completely.  (The 15 percent only ensures starts in cold weather.)

“E-15 is a non-starter in terms of market share,” Temple told her audience, as reported by John Kingston’s in Platts.  She argued the incremental battle would absorb vast amounts of political capital yet still not be enough to absorb the 15-billion-gallon target for 2021.  Instead, Temple pointed to the growing fleet of flex-fuel vehicles that now numbers around 15 million, headed for 25 million in 2021 or 10 percent of the nation’s 250-million-car fleet.

“If U.S. drivers poured about 200,000 barrels-per-day of E-85 into their flex fuel cars in 2021, that would take care of about 17 percent of the scheduled ethanol mandate,” Temple said.  “It would only require that flex-fuel owners fill a 15-gallon tank eight times a year.”   The remainder would be absorbed in the 10 percent blend and ethanol producers would not have to cut output.

Platts’ Kingston checked the math and found that even this goal would leave ethanol consumption slightly above the blend wall at 10.5 percent.  “Still, the very modest number of eight fill-ups per flex fuel vehicles per year makes the whole blend wall issue seems a lot less daunting,” he confessed.

Of the 15 million people who own flex-fuel vehicles, of course, many don’t even realize it.  (The yellow gas cap or a rear-end decal are the giveaway.)  But the number of gas stations offering E-85 pumps is rising.  The Energy Information Administration now estimates the number at 2,500 with most of the growth taking place outside the Midwestern homeland.  California and New York each have more than 80 stations apiece.

The problem of rail bottlenecks can probably be solved by increasing the number of E-85 outlets and flex-fuel vehicles to bring supplies closer to the place of consumption.  Still, the industry would probably be happy to have a bigger renewable fuel mandate as well.

Outnumbered 100-to-1, Methanol Is Upbeat

“Why is it that we hear every day some new story about Elon Musk’s electric car, about Clean Energy Fuel’s efforts to build a CNG highway, or about some laboratory breakthrough that is at last going to bring us cellulosic ethanol, yet with methanol now cheaper than gasoline, you still never hear anything about it?”

That’s the question I posed to the three-member panel while serving as moderator for the wrap-up session at the 2014 Methanol Policy Forum in Washington last week.  The sponsors were the Methanol Institute, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and the Energy Security Council.

Anne Korin, co-director of IAGS, who earlier had moderated an even bigger panel that included former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Ambassador to the European Union Boyden Gray, had a very unusual answer.  “If I may be permitted to be a bit cynical here,” she said, “I think the reason may be because methanol doesn’t require any subsidies.”  The implication, of course, is that those who come to Washington begging for money receive a lot more attention from Senators and Congressmen than those who don’t.

The question of politics versus economics had been raised at the outset of the daylong conference by Korin’s co-director at IAGS, Gal Luft, in his opening remarks.  “We’ve all heard this business about the circular firing squad and how the various alternatives to foreign oil shouldn’t be fighting each other,” he told the audience of about 400.  “But you have to acknowledge the importance of what goes on in Washington.  You can’t just talk about production you need money.  If you’re not at the table, that means you’re probably on the menu.

Luft showed a chart illustrating that while corn ethanol production exceeds methanol production by a factor of only 5-to-1 (14 billion gallons/year as compared with 2 bg/yr), the amount of money spent lobbying for ethanol is 50-to-1 (less than $100,000 vs. $5 million).  “When you add in the politics of the farm belt, it’s probably closer to 100-to-1,” he added.

So was anyone discouraged?  Not at all.  The news from industry executives is that methanol production is ramping up everywhere due to the bonanza of the fracking revolution.  It seems like only a matter of time before the idea of replacing large portions of our fuel imports with domestically produced methanol begins to command attention.

“In the past decade we closed down five methanol plants in the U.S. and moved them all to China,” John Floren, CEO of Methenex told the gathering of 400 at the Capital Hilton.  “The price of gas had become just too high.  Now we’ve moved two plants back from Chile and are looking at a third relocation.  We’ve got 1000 people working on our Louisiana site.  The chemical industry is starting to build as well.”

Tim Vail, the CEO of G2X, another methanol producer, had a similar take.  “The U.S. is a great place to invest right now,” he told the audience.  “The argument was always that you had to go to the ends of the earth to build methanol plants because that gas wasn’t available here.  Now all that has changed.  Our big worry is labor shortages but the construction industry is responding to our needs.  It takes away a lot of anxiety about having your assets appropriated by other countries.  China may seem like a good place to invest, but can you really trust the rule of law?”

Philip Lewis, chief technology officer of Zero Emission Energy Plants (ZEEP) was equally upbeat.  “I think the whole shale thing is being underestimated,” he said at the close of the morning session.  “It’s another industrial revolution.  And it won’t happen anywhere else because we have the thing that makes it work – private ownership of the resource.  In France, the government owns all the mineral rights and no one wants drilling on their land.”

But governments do have control over other things in this country and there was some questioning of whether federal agencies will be receptive to methanol as a fuel substitute or additive.  Matt Brusstar, deputy director of the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, claimed that his agency had been in the lead of methanol development for 30 years.  “Charlie Grady, who was in our department, was a big supporter of methanol,” said Brusstar.  “He even wrote a book about it.”  (Unfortunately, a Google search for Charlie Grady and methanol turns up no mention of Grady or his book.)  Patrick Davis, the director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Department of Energy, was even less encouraging.  “The Office of Science does not currently have any projects to create methanol as an end fuel,” he said.  “It could take a decade to sell enough methanol-compatible vehicles before a widespread distribution network would be feasible.”

When I queried Brusstar about Robert Zubrin’s documentation of the multi-thousand-dollar fines that the EPA is imposing for unauthorized conversions of engines to methanol, [See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol,” Feb. 11] several government officials, plus Fuel Freedom Foundation director of research Mike Jackson, argued that faulty conversions can increase air pollution.

Despite the notable lack of enthusiasm from government agencies, however, there was a strong sense among the rank-and-file that methanol may be about to find a place in the sun.  “This is a much bigger crowd than we’ve ever had,” said one veteran of previous conferences.  “It’s a very exciting time for methanol.”














Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Putin , Ukraine and Oil

How many of you have ever been to Russia? It is a fascinating place filled with fascinating people. While in Russia facilitating an Aspen Global Forum of U.S. and Russian leaders,  I visited Nikita Khrushchev’s grave. He lies under six feet of earth — probably  banging his shoe and confessing that he still wishes he could have incrementally changed Russia.  He was not Gorbachev, but neither was he Rasputin.

On top of his grave was a very attractive gravestone. One half was white, the other half black. I asked the workmen what it meant.They explained the contrast by indicating that Khrushchev was part evil doer of black deeds, but also in part a good man who wanted to change Russia.

The gravestone seems to fit the current situation in Russia. It is a place of great thinkers, great writers, great dancers, great scientists and decent people, but it is also the land of Putin whose modus operandi is often dark and destructive. Putin is no Gorbachev!

In the present Ukrainian situation, the dark and dangerous side of Russian leadership is visible. Currently proposed Western sanctions are not persuasive. Paraphrasing, we won’t come to the G8 meeting in Sochi  and we won’t have any more relationships with your military are not earth shattering.Trade limits or sanctions, if announced, may hurt, but Russia’s ability to cut off natural gas to Europe and the Ukraine as a counter measure will marginalize any effort to develop meaningful  responses. Obama and his colleagues do not want to engage in military sanctions in order to counter Putin’s new version of our own Monroe Doctrine.

Speaking of energy, oil, and natural gas, most energy related U.S and Russian executives have not been told to slow down or avoid searching for new businesses in Russia. As a recent CNBC report indicated, “ the U.S. produces more natural gas than any other nation and Russia is now the biggest oil producer.” U.S. firms are seeking an increased stake in  Russian oil, which is light and good for gasoline.  U.S. companies are even building the rigs for Russian drillers. While the U.S. imports relatively little oil from Russia, this could change depending on price. Russia is still among the top five importers of oil to the U.S.  In light of the Russian actions in Crimea, the price of gas at the pump is expected to head up again. The stakes are high, and at the present time, no government leader in either nation has seriously suggested interfering with the export and import trade network between U.S. and Russia.

I suspect that the U.S. and Russia will eventually agree to a deal on some sort of a pullback in Crimea and the possibility of a monitored arrangement concerning Russians living in both Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. I could be wrong. Russia could insist on remaining in or even annexing the Crimea and it could invade part of Eastern Ukraine.  I pray neither happens!

Would we react militarily in some form or manner, as we have at times in the Middle East in order to secure oil and gas supplies for the Ukraine and other needy western nations? I think not!  Such a provocation would lead to war and is  beyond the pale  for even ardent proponents of “getting tough” with Russia.  Indeed, because Russia’s military is strong, the U.S. and the West will most likely avoid any significant direct military response to possible Russian occupation/annexation of of the Crimea and even eastern Ukraine.

Possible high impact economic sanctions — different from the ‘I won’t come to your meetings and you cannot come to ours’ brand — would not be favored by most Western European countries or even the Ukraine, as they are dependent on Russia’s natural gas.  At the present time, the real options we have to counter Russia’s nefarious activities are not the best ones. While we could fulfill some of our allies’needs by exporting natural gas and oil, the decision to do so deserves (and I suspect is getting) hard analysis, especially in light of domestic U.S economic, political and security concerns about supply as well as demand and a fear of environmental problems, as well as increased consumer costs at the pump here at home. If shipping overseas passes muster, moving natural gas to our European allies and Ukraine could work both in providing needed gas and in possibly negatively affecting the price of Russian gas. Despite acknowledging the theoretical goal of oil independence, the world, including the U.S., is oil and gas dependent. We are lucky to have natural gas in ample supply, and if sane environmental regulations are applied, we can limit related methane and GHG emissions as well as other pollutants. Finally, we have an evolving and growing alternative fuel sector testing and developing renewable fuels.  Opening up U.S. fuel markets and fuel stations to increasingly available flex fuel vehicles and alternative fuels for consumers, including natural gas based ethanol and methanol, as well as electricity, can make us less dependent.

Progress on Fuel Efficiency: More is needed

Every now and then I will read a White House Blog.  They’re sort of a fun read when you’re depressed about the state of the world and the country.  The content always somehow reminds me of  Gene Kelly dancing in the street in the middle of the rain, or that old (possibly New Yorker) cartoon where the patient tells the psychiatrist that he is not doing well and the good doctor says ‘no you’re just fine, you’re happy and healthy.’  Probably neither is the proper analog to the politically necessary positive nature of the White House blurbs.  I marvel at times at the President’s ability to seek a better America, especially given the politics of the present.  While his optimism and tenacity don’t always come through as “Morning in America,” I believe that his attitude is based on a reasonable outlook about what the nation can do, if it can engage in an honest dialogue about key environmental and alternative fuel issues.

Last week’s blog focused on the White House’s effort to increase fuel efficiency standards.  It notes correctly that the President’s legislative approach to the environment has resulted in the toughest fuel economy standards in history:

“Under the first ever national program, average fuel efficiency for cars and trucks will nearly  double, reaching an average performance equivalent to about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025….In 2011, the President also established the first-ever fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles, covering model years 2014 through 2018.”

More is to come! Increased fuel efficiency standards are currently being addressed by the Administration, and the EPA is hard at work developing Tier 3 rules.

The Administration’s record is a decent one and has benefited the environment, lessened ghg emissions, and strengthened the economy. Regrettably though, fuel efficiency regulations primarily apply to new cars.  They should be matched by a cost efficient and comprehensive federal effort to encourage the conversion of older non flex fuel vehicles; they also should encourage Detroit to continue producing larger numbers of flex fuel cars.

In this context, EPA and Detroit automakers need to reach a consensus concerning effective engine recalibration alternatives, as well as an extension of consumer warranties and related financial coverage of recalibrated vehicles.  Without permitting older cars to achieve the fuel efficiency and environmental advantages of flex fuel vehicles, we will not be able to respond to Pogo’s admonition and Commodore Oliver Perry’s initial statement (paraphrased): that we, as a nation, have met the enemy, and he is us!

To grant primacy to new or relatively new flex fuel cars would increase the nation’s ability to reduce ghg emissions and other environmental pollutants (e.g. NOx and SOx). There are well over 200,000,000 non flex fuel cars in the U.S. that cannot readily use available fuel blends higher than E-15 and will not be able to use natural gas based ethanol that hopefully relatively soon will come on the market.

Lowering the certification costs of conversion kits by the EPA and increasing the number of manufacturers of those kits would bring down their price from around 1,000 dollars to the near 300 dollar level that is common in the “underground” market.  Simplifying legal conversion could  —and indeed would —-make an important environmental difference.  Such action would also open up the fuel market to competition, and likely lower the price of gas at the pump for consumers. Finally, such actions would also support the President’s objective to wean the nation off of oil and gasoline.  Oh Happy Day!  Go for it Gene Kelly and the American Association of Psychiatrists!  It might be time to show some real love for environmentally and efficiency neglected and needy older vehicles.

Making the Case for Mars and Methanol

Robert Zubrin is one of those oddball geniuses who prowl around the peripheries of important national issues making suggestions that may seem completely off the wall but on closer inspection are revealed to have penetrating insight.

I first came across him a couple of years ago while writing about space exploration. Zubrin is perhaps the world’s leading advocate of manned trips to Mars. He’s written five books about making the trip to Mars, including How to Live on Mars (2008), which detailed how to establish a permanent colony on the red plant. None of this is going to happen soon, of course, and even though Zubrin is a highly trained aerospace engineer, it’s easy enough to dismiss him as a fatuous dreamer.

Except for one thing: he has also become the most knowledgeable and well versed advocate of substituting methanol from natural gas for imported oil as a way of breaking the back of OPEC.

Zubrin actually wrote his first highly informed book on the subject – Energy Victory – in 2008, before the fracking revolution began producing prodigious amounts of natural gas. At the time he was suggesting we use our abundant coal resources as the feedstock. Now that George Mitchell’s revolution has pumped up gas production to 24 times the level of 2007, the case is even stronger.

Zubrin has just published a 5,700-word article in the current issue of New Atlantis. I won’t do more than summarize it here, but I would recommend tying it up in a bow and giving it to everyone you know as a Valentine’s Day present. Zubrin wraps up all the major arguments for methanol and even manages to illuminate some obscure details about the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy toward methanol that eluded some of us for some time. Here are his major talking points:

  • OPEC still essentially controls the world price of oil. Even though non-OPEC production has increased 60 percent since 1973, 60 percent of the oil traded around the world is exported from OPEC countries and 80 percent commercially viable reserves are still owned by OPEC members. The price of oil is still set in the Persian Gulf.
  • This oligopolistic control has a huge impact on the American economy. Ten of the last 11 postwar recessions were preceded by sharp increases in oil prices. The recent upsurge in shale oil production won’t help much. The Energy Information Administration expects it to level off after 2016. By 2040 we will still be importing 32 percent of our oil.
  • Methanol made from natural gas is the only commodity that can realistically replace oil. “Methanol is not some futuristic dream touted by researchers seeking funding,” writes Zubrin. “Rather, it is an established chemical commodity, with a global annual production capacity of almost 33 billion gallons. It has recently been selling for around $1.50 a gallon.” Methanol’s energy content is only about 60 percent of gasoline, but the bottom line is that “pure methanol can get a car 30 percent farther down the road than a dollar of gasoline.”
  • Methanol has numerous environmental advantages. In fact, when California put 15,000 methanol cars on the road in the 1990s, it was for air pollution purposes, rather than cutting imports or reducing prices to motorists. Methanol burns cleaner, produces virtually no particulate matter or smog components, has none of gasoline’s carcinogenic aromatic compounds and reduces carbon emissions.  On pollution grounds alone, it would be worth making the transformation.

So why don’t we do it?  As Peter Drucker always said, in order to replace a well established technology, an upstart replacement must be 10 times as efficient to clear the institutional barriers. That’s a tall order. But as Zubrin details, there are some specifics that stand out:

  • In terms of sheer market capitalization, the oil industry far surpasses the auto industry. Thus, even though the auto industry might benefit from opening up to new fuels, the oil companies’ interest in maintaining the status quo overwhelms them. Zubrin documents how institutional investors that own large shares of the auto companies are even more heavily invested in oil. Several OPEC sovereign wealth funds also own huge slices of the auto companies. The Qatar Investment Authority owns 17 percent of Volkswagen, which has the highest auto company revenues in the world.  Its vice chairman sits on Volkswagen’s board.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency, through overregulatory zeal, has somehow ended up as one of the major impediments to methanol conversion, even though there would be vast environmental benefits. Although older cars can easily be converted to run on methanol at a cost of less than $200, the EPA no longer permits it. “Since 2002, the only way for a vehicle modification to be deemed lawful is if it receives certification ahead of time from the EPA or the California air-quality board. . . In 2009, the EPA specified massive fines that it may level against any individual or business that modifies a vehicles without advance certification, even if there is clear and compelling proof that no emissions increase had resulted, or even been risked, by such changes. In fact, even the use of unapproved engine parts identical to the certified brands would be considered an emissions violation . . . These fines are set at thousands of dollars for individuals and hundreds of thousands, or even millions, for manufacturers. For example, if a mechanic running his own small business converting cars to flex-fuel in his garage modified just a dozen cars, he would face a crippling fine of more than $105,000.”

In 2011 on National Review Online, Zubrin offered to bet anyone $10,000 he could modify his 2007 Chevy Cobalt (apparently in violation of EPA regulations) to run on 100 percent methanol and get 24 miles per gallon. He did it by replacing the fuel pump seal with a 41-cents replacement made from a synthetic rubber that resists methanol erosion. He also had to adjust the ignition timing for methanol’s higher octane. He would have won the bet but no one took him up.

As a way of moving the ball forward, Zubrin advocates the Open Fuel Standard Act, which has been sitting around in Congress since 2008. The present version would clear up some of the EPA’s restrictions and require at least 30 percent of each carmaker’s new vehicles be flex-fuel by 2016, moving up to 50 percent by 2107. The modification would only add about $200 to the price of the car.

Zubrin is one of those American treasures, an independent thinker operating outside the world of “policymaking” who dares think differently and big. His ideas for colonizing Mars may never get off the drawing boards.  But his proposal for substituting methanol as a domestic alternative to imported oil certainly deserves the greatest attention.