Let freedom ring: Oil companies, capitalism and fuel choice

It’s a free county, ain’t it? Americans have many choices that are denied to citizens of other less-fortunate nations. But we forget how many decisions are made for us, sometimes out of necessity, such as paying taxes; sometimes out of greed, such as the monopolistic actions of oil companies in denying many Americans the ability to purchase alcohol-based fuels at their corner gas station. Try it someday! On your way home from work, on your shopping trip to your friendly supermarket or on your way to see a movie at your favorite theater, make a stop for fuel at a gas station. Make sure to have some gasoline in your tank, because it likely will take you a lot of time to find a gas station that sells E85 or even E15.

Now, I went to Harvard Law School for four days, before I decided that there were too many lawyers around and memorizing case studies was not my forte. But Harvard provides significant value added, apart from being near Harvard Square and Boston. I was exposed to terms and content related to antitrust, restraint of trade, collusion and monopolies. Now, I didn’t stay long enough to know whether those concepts applied to oil companies that restrict consumer choices of alternative fuel. Probably not, because I am sure, by now, one of my Harvard colleagues would have filed a well-reimbursed case to break open the fuel market to options like ethanol, methanol and more. But whether legal or not, oil companies deserve their comeuppance for limiting many of us who, too often, are required to use more expensive, environmentally harmful gasoline, instead of existing, safe, alternative fuels.

How do they do this? Well, if you are a gas station owned or franchised by an oil company, your contract and rules related to behavior often prevent you from adding a pump or adding to an existing pump to sell E15 or E85. As relevant, since oil companies generally require the stations they own to buy fuel from them, and since they don’t sell E15 or E85, adding a pump would be akin to waiting for the hereafter (and acting on faith that you will get there).

Wait, there is more! Every now and then an oil company wants to publicly show it is a bit beneficent (for image purposes), but don’t hold your breath with respect to proof that image and reality are the same. Sure, you might find an alternative-fuel pump near the rear side of the garage proximate to the men’s room, or, if you are lucky, on the side of the station near the air pump. Most oil-company-owned stations and franchisees are generally precluded from putting an alternative-fuel pump under the covered island or space out front. They also face restrictions on advertising alternative fuels as an available product and oil-company pricing limits competition from alternative fuels.

Congress has refused to enact open fuels legislation, which would require oil companies to open up their gas stations to other fuels. Ongoing efforts by public and private sector advocates, as well as nonprofit groups, to encourage policies that would convert older cars to flex-fuel vehicles and to encourage Detroit to build more FFVs could well lead to a large consumer market for alternative fuels and generate a positive market reaction among independent gas companies and, perhaps, even some smart oil companies. While I have been wading through the pros and cons of allowing oil companies to increase exports to other nations, I do believe that if increased exports are in the nation’s future, they should be approved only if the oil companies agree to require their stations and franchises to offer alternative fuels in a primary space alongside gasoline. A bit of tat for tat is in the public interest. Let freedom ring for consumer! Let capitalism mean competition for gasoline and alternative fuels at your nearby gas station! Oh, I forgot, alternative fuel station!

From lab to market, it’s a long haul

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.

Is butanol the next big thing in biofuels?

Fuel Freedom recently learned about a man named David Ramey who drove his 1992 Buick Park Avenue from Blacklick, Ohio to San Diego using 100 percent butanol, without making any adjustments to his engine.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be big news. But with the EPA now considering cutbacks in the 2014 biofuels mandate, some producers of ethanol are starting to turn to butanol as a way of getting around the limitations of the 10 percent “blend wall” that is threatening to limit ethanol consumption. This could be another breakthrough in our efforts to limit foreign oil.

Butanol is the alcohol form of butane gas, which has four carbons. Because it has a longer hydrocarbon chain, butane is fairly non-polar and more similar to gasoline than either methanol or ethanol. The fuel has been demonstrated to work in gasoline engines without any modification to the fuel chain or software.

Since the 1950s, most butanol in the United States has been manufactured from fossil fuels. But butanol can also be produced by fermentation, and that’s where another opportunity for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels exists.

The key is a bacterial strain called Clostridium acetobutylicum, also named the Weizmann organism for pioneering biological researcher Chaim Weizmann, who first used it to produce acetone from starch in 1916. The main use for the acetone was producing Cordite for gunpowder, but the butanol, a byproduct, eventually became more important.

Once set loose on almost any substratum, Clostridium acetobutylicum will produce significant amounts of butanol. Anything used to produce ethanol — sugar beets, sugar cane, corn grain, wheat and cassava, plus non-food crops such as switchgrass and guayule and even agricultural byproducts such as bagasse, straw and corn stalks — can all be turned into butanol. (Of course, not all of these are economical yet.)

Given the modern-day techniques of genetic engineering, researchers are now hard at work trying to improve the biological process. In 2011, scientists at Tulane University announced they had discovered a new strain of Clostridium that can convert almost any form of cellulose into butanol and is the only known bacterium that can do it in the presence of oxygen. They discovered this new bacterium in, of all places, the fecal matter of the plains zebra in the New Orleans Zoo.

DuPont and BP are planning to make butanol the first product of their joint effort to develop next-generation biofuels. In Europe, the Swiss company Butalco is developing genetically modified yeasts from the production of biobutanol from cellulosic material. Gourmet Butanol, a U.S. company, is developing a process that utilizes fungi for the same purpose. Almost every month, plans for a new butanol production plant are announced somewhere in the world. Many refineries that formerly produced bioethanol are now being retrofitted to produce biobutanol instead. DuPont says the conversion is very easy.

What are the possible drawbacks? Well, to match the combustion characteristics of gasoline, butanol will require slight fuel-flow increases, although not as great as those required for ethanol and methanol. Butanol also may not be compatible with some fuel system components. It can also create slight gas-gauge misreadings.

While ethanol and methanol have lower energy density than butanol, both have a higher octane rating. This means butanol would not be able to function as an octane-boosting additive, as ethanol and methanol are now doing. There have been proposals; however, the proposals are for a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent butanol (E85B), which eliminate the fossil fuels from ethanol mixes altogether.

The only other objection that has been raised is that consumers may object to butanol’s banana-like smell. Other than that, the only problem is cost. Production of butanol from a given substratum of organic material is slightly lower than ethanol, although the increased energy content more than makes up for the difference.

Ironically, the EPA’s decision to cut back on the biofuels mandate for 2014 is now driving some refiners to convert to butanol, since its greater energy density will help it overcome the 10 percent “blend wall.”

“Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, an industry group, said butanol was a ‘drop-in’ fuel, able to be used with existing gasoline pipelines and other equipment because it does not have a tendency to take up water, as ethanol does,” The New York Times reported last October. “‘It’s more fungible in the existing infrastructure,’ he said. ‘You could blend it with gasoline and put it in a pipeline — no problem.’

“Butanol would also help producers get around the so-called blend wall, Mr. McAdams said…With the 10 percent limitation, ‘you don’t have enough gasoline to put the ethanol in,’ he said. ‘You don’t have that problem with butanol.’”

So here’s to butanol. It will be yet another big step in reducing our dependence in foreign fuels.

Take me shopping for eggs, copper and corn starch

Good news for a world often filled with bad news has recently been generated by two major U.S. universities, both in regards to the efficacy of alternative fuels. Maybe the announcements will lend confidence that America can find a way to balance economic growth with environmental concerns. Increasing success over time will mean that (paraphrasing in part, the late Sen. Robert Kennedy) the nation will not have to accept “what is” with respect to the dominance of gasoline as a fuel, but can consider “what could be” concerning the use of alternative, cleaner, safer, environmental-better and cheaper fuels.

Stanford University professors, in a paper co-authored by Dr. Matthew Kanan, assistant professor of chemistry, announced that they have developed a copper catalyst that can efficiently convert carbon monoxide and water into ethanol. Quoting from a recent MIT Technology Review (April 2014), “while the work is still experimental, it’s significant because the group was able to synthesize ethanol and other desired products with so little energy input.” The Stanford researchers envision a “two-step process in which carbon dioxide is first converted into carbon monoxide using either existing processes or more energy-efficient ones that are currently under development. Then, the carbon monoxide would be converted to ethanol or other carbon-based compounds electrochemically. The key to the new catalyst is preparing the copper in a novel way that changes its molecular structure.”

How long will it take to get from idea to market? If the copper-based process survives further lab tests and evaluations, and if it is then converted into a prototype that is able to produce ethanol fuel, a big push to convert the prototype to real-world status from both the private sector and government would be warranted.

Stanford’s “breakthrough” — if the process becomes marketable and can generate lower-priced, environmentally-safe ethanol that is capable of fueling flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and older, converted FFVs — will be significant, even perhaps a disruptive technology. With the proper support, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, increased use of the copper catalyst will minimize and maybe even end the food vs. fuel and land-use allocation fights, as well as help resolve GHG emissions and other pollutant issues that have sometimes frustrated the use of corn-based ethanol and muted receptivity to natural-gas-based ethanol. Technological improvements concerning production reflected in recent life-cycle analysis of corn-based ethanol and reasonable assumptions concerning the cost and environmental benefits of natural-gas-based ethanol, combined with the success of Stanford’s copper catalyst approach, could offer owners of FFVs (both converted and new vehicles) a wider variety of alternatives to secure ethanol that, clearly, will be cheaper, safer and better for the environment.

Stanford’s good news was matched by Cornell’s. Dr. Yingchao You and Dr. Hao Chen announced that they had discovered that a component of corn starch and the yolk shell structure of eggs improve the durability and performance of lithium batteries. In this context, they note that lithium-sulfur batteries are a very solid alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Stabilization problems related to its capacity can be resolved by using amylopectin, a polysaccharide (mainly good old corn starch).

Enveloping the battery’s lithium sulfur cathodes, with an encasing resembling the shell of an egg yolk (sulfur coated with an inexpensive polymer) also apparently improves the battery’s durability and performance.

Cornell has initiated a startup company to take the new and improved starch, egg-yolk shell battery to market. Maybe sometime soon, moderate and middle-income owners of electric cars that are less expensive than what is now available will be able to reduce their fear of driving long distances and feel confident about the life and efficiency of the batteries in their vehicles.

I avoided chemistry, physics and engineering in college. I knew I was not destined to become neither city planner nor designer at MIT when my first student-planned bridge went under water instead of over it. While my efforts were applauded by the Malthusians among my colleagues, they were not regarded highly by professors. Since graduation, unless supported by respected colleagues with a background in relevant sciences and engineering, I have been hesitant to suggest approval of science-driven energy innovations. I am a policy and program person. However, after review and discussions with trusted experts, I believe the Stanford and Cornell initiatives have a good chance to see the light of day, or, more appropriate, see the light in the market place. If one or both do, we will all be better off and the number of feasible alternative transportation fuels available to the consumer will grow. Hooray for copper, starch and eggs.

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.

Is Elon Musk the next Henry Ford?

Elon Musk doesn’t mind making comparisons between himself and Henry Ford. Others are doing it as well.

In announcing his plans for a “Gigafactory” to manufacture batteries for a fleet of 500,000 Teslas, Musk said it would be like Ford opening his famous River Rouge plant, the move that signaled the birth of mass production.

The founder of PayPal and current titular leader of Silicon Valley (now that Steve Jobs is gone), Musk is not one for small measures. The factory he is now dangling before four western states would produce more lithium-ion batteries than are now being produced in the entire world. And that’s not all. He’s designing his new operation to mesh with another cutting-edge, non-fossil-fuel energy technology – solar storage. His partner will be SolarCity (where Musk sits on the board), run by his cousin Lyndon Rive. Together they are looking beyond mere automobile propulsion and are envisioning a world where all this solar and wind energy stuff comes true.

So, is Musk a modern-day Prometheus, bringing the fire to propel an entirely new transportation system? Or, as many critics charge, is he just conning investors onto a leaky vessel that is eventually going to crash upon the shores of reality? As the saying goes, we report, you decide.

One investor that is already showing some qualms is Panasonic, which already supplies Tesla with all its batteries and would presumably help the company fill the gap between the $2 billion it just raised from a convertible-bond offering and the $5 billion needed to build the plant. “Our approach is to make investments step by step,” Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga told reporters at a briefing in Tokyo last week. “Elon plans to produce more affordable models besides [the] Model S, and I understand his thinking and would like to cooperate as much as we can. But the investment risk is definitely larger.” Of course, this is Japan, where “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Corporate executives are not known for sticking their necks out.

Another possible investor is Apple, which has mountains of cash and, at least under Steve Jobs, was always willing to jump into some new field – music, cell phones – to try to set it straight. This is a little more ambitious than the Lisa or the iPod and Jobs is no longer around to steer the ship, but Apple and Musk officials held a meeting last spring that stirred a lot of talk about a possible merger. A much more likely scenario, according to several commentators, is that Apple would become a major player in the Gigafactory.

And a Gigafactory it will be. Consider this. The three largest battery factories in the country right now are:

1)    The LG Chem factory in Holland, Mich. is 600,000 square feet, employs 125 people and produces 1 gigawatt hour (GWH) of battery output per year.

2)    The Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn. is a 475,000 square-foot facility with 300 employees puts out 4.8 GWH per year.

3)    A123 Systems’ battery factory in Livonia, Mich. is 291,000 square feet, employs 400 people and produces 0.6 GWH per year.

Both LG and Nissan received stimulus grants from the Department of Energy, built to overcapacity and are now operating part-time.

Now here’s what Musk is proposing. His Gigafactory would cover 10 million square feet, employ 6,500 people and produce 35 GWH per year of battery power. Basically, Musk’s operation is going to be ten times better anything ever built before, at a time that most of what exists isn’t even running fulltime. Does that sound like something of Henry-Ford proportions? Similar to Ford’s $5 a day wages, perhaps?

There are, of course, people who think all of this is crazy. In the Wall Street Journal blog, “Will Tesla’s $5 Billion Gigafactory Make a Battery Nobody Else Wants?,” columnist Mike Ramsey expresses skepticism over whether Tesla’s strategy of using larger numbers of smaller lithium-ion is the right approach. “Every other carmaker is using far fewer, much larger batteries,” he wrote. “Tesla’s methodology – incorrectly derided in its early days as simply using laptop batteries — has allowed it to get consumer electronics prices for batteries while companies like General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co. work to drive down costs without the full benefits of scale. Despite this ability to lower costs, no other company is following Tesla’s lead. Indeed, in speaking with numerous battery experts at the International Battery Seminar and Exhibit in Ft. Lauderdale a few weeks ago, they said that the larger cells would eventually prove to be as cost effective, and have better safety and durability. This offers a reason why other automakers haven’t gone down the same path.

But Musk has managed to produce a car that has a range of 200 miles, while the Leaf has a range of 85 miles and the Chevy Spark barely makes 82. Musk must be doing something right. And with Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico all vying to be the site of the Gigafactory, it’s more than likely that the winning state will be kicking in something as well. So, the factory seems likely to get built, even on the scheduled 2017 rollout that Tesla has projected.

At that point, Musk will have the capacity to produce batteries to go in 500,000 editions of the Tesla Model E, which he says will sell for $35,000. Sales of the $100,000 Model S were 22,000 last year. Does this guy think big or what?

To date, Silicon Valley doesn’t have a terribly good record on energy projects. Since Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers fell under Al Gore’s spell in 2006, its earnings have been virtually flat and the firm is now edging away from solar and wind investments. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla’s spotty record in renewables was also the subject of a recent 60 Minutes segment. But, as venture capitalists say, it only takes one big success to make up for all the failures.

Will Tesla’s Model E be the revolutionary technology that, at last, starts making a dent in oil’s grip on the transportation sector? At least one investor has faith. “I’d rather leave all my money to Elon Musk that give it to charity,” was the recent evaluation of multi-billionaire Google founder Larry Page.

Building the Natural Gas Highway: The Journey of Thousands of Miles Begins in Newport Beach

California still is seen as the state that exports innovation, despite the fact that it has seen some tough economic times of late. In this context, I was pleased to see the recognition granted by the Orange County Register (Nov 6) to the Clean Energy Fuel Corporation, and its efforts to build the Natural Gas Highway. I was even more surprised to find out that the corporate offices were located near my own office. Clearly, the popularity of natural gas and its derivatives, ethanol and methanol, are on the uptake since the President’s State of the Union address indicating the nation’s economy and environment  would benefit if it weaned itself off oil and by implication gasoline. Even before Obama’s speech, there was a growing recognition among many Americans– including environmental and business leaders– that natural gas could become the core of a strategy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) and other pollutants, lowering the costs of vehicular fuel, and reducing dependency on oil imports, thus providing funds for investment in the U.S. Clean Energy Fuels Corporation, located in Newport Beach, is making it easier for consumers to access natural gas for their vehicles. According to the story in the Register, it has invested more than $300 million in the last two years on natural gas fuel stations across the nation. Most of the more than 400 stations that they have developed and  offer only compressed natural gas (CNG), a fuel that works better for comparatively short trips ( e.g. buses, taxis, garbage trucks, short hall trucks, local consumers ). Current and future placement of stations will increasingly offer liquid natural gas (LNG). LNG works better than CNG for long distance trips. Are the leaders of the Clean Energy Fuel Corporation nuts?  Maybe they are…but I don’t believe so.  While, the Corporation has yet to turn a profit (apparently after 15 or 16 years), since going public in 2007, their market value is now more than 1 billion dollars. Their phones are ringing. Large retailing companies relying on trucks, long distance trucking companies, bus manufacturers, taxis and bus companies seem to be gravitating toward use of cheaper natural gas as a fuel. But these users and potential users need assurances that natural gas fuel stations will be reasonably accessible. Clean Energy Fuel aims to provide such assurances. Many respected financial analysts believe that the Clean Energy Fuel Corporation is on the cusp of and will benefit financially from the increased acceptance and growth of alternative transportation fuels, particularly natural gas. Assuming both the sizable price gap between oil and natural gas remains and the corresponding price gap between natural gas fuel and gasoline as well as between natural gas and diesel fuel stays relatively large; Clean Energy Fuel Corporation’s future looks bright. Yes, it will have rivals. Shell Oil, according to the Register article, apparently is going to start selling LNG at existing truck stops. Soundings that I have picked up from natural gas leaders, CEOS of businesses dependent on trucking and diverse investors suggest an evolving interest in developing both CNG and LNG fuel stations and the Natural Gas Highway. In this context, 22 states, under the bipartisan leadership of Governor John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado and Governor Mary Fallin (R) of Oklahoma, have initiated a collaborative project to buy CNG outfitted cars from Detroit to replace old state vehicles, when their time passes. Detroit in turn has promised to develop a less expensive CNG vehicle for the participating states which could ultimately benefit consumers. Given recent projections of the market for natural gas fuel by government and reputable private and nonprofit groups and increased advocacy for alternative fuels by a coalition of environmental, nonprofit and business groups, I wouldn’t bet against Clean Energy Fuel’s future health. My hope, however, is that it and, indeed, its competitors add room for natural gas derivatives such as ethanol and methanol in their planned natural gas stations.  Apart from generating use by owners of flex fuel cars now in existence, their agreement to do so would encourage (the relatively inexpensive and easy) conversion of existing vehicles to flex fuel vehicles. Significantly, EPA has certified the use of E10 in all vehicles, E15 in vehicles after 2001 and E85 in approved flex fuel vehicles. Hopefully, EPA will soon certify methanol as well as approve an expanded list of conversion kits for existing older vehicles. These approvals are possible, if not probable, given the environmental, economic and consumer benefits of alternative fuels and the evolving politics of fuel. Allowing oil companies to sustain the very restrictive rules now governing the vehicular fuel market will continue to prop up America’s dependency on imported oil as well as support relatively high fuel costs and increased environmental degradation.   President and CEO Andrew Littlefair of Clean Energy Fuel indicated, “With cheaper, abundant fuel, a network of stations, [and] redesigned engines …the time for natural gas transportation has arrived.” I would add, the time for natural gas based ethanol and methanol has also arrived. I commend Clean Energy Fuel for its initiative in developing the Natural Gas Highway. The Company, borrowing from President John Kennedy, has begun an important journey of thousands of miles in Newport Beach. Contrary to (and paraphrasing) the poet Robert Frost, hopefully the road they are building will be very well travelled.  Maybe a couple of leisurely  lunches near the ocean in beautiful Newport Beach could convince my colleagues at Clean Energy Fuel  to consider working with producers of natural gas based ethanol and methanol as well as interested states and localities to  extend  the Natural Gas Highway to ethanol and methanol. It would be good for traffic and their bottom line, good for development of related commercial activities and, most important, good for America

It’s not the oil we import that makes us vulnerable, it’s the price

The United States Energy Security Council has written a brilliant report explaining why neither increased production nor improved conservation will solve our oil problems or free us from dependence on world events.

The Council numbers 32 luminaries from across the political spectrum, including such diverse figures as former National Security Advisors Hon. Robert McFarlane and Hon. William P. Clark, former Secretary of State Hon. George P. Shultz, Gen. Wesley Clark, T. Boone Pickens and former Sen. Gary Hart. The study, “Fuel Choice for American Prosperity,” was published this month.

The report wades right in, pointing out that even though our domestic production has increased and imports are declining, we are still paying as much or more for imported oil than we did in the past. The report states, “Since 2003 United States domestic oil production has risen sharply to the point the International Energy Agency projects that the United States is well on the way to surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer by 2017. Additionally fuel efficiency of cars and truck is at an all-time high. As a result of these efforts, U.S. imports of petroleum and its products declined to under 36% of America’s consumption down from some 60% in 2005.”

Good news, right? Well, unfortunately not so fast. The report adds, “None of this has had any noticeable downward pressure on global oil prices. Over the past decade the price of crude quadrupled; the value of America’s foreign oil expenditures doubled and the share of oil imports in the overall trade deficit grew from one third to about 5%. Most importantly, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has doubled. Despite the slowdown in demand, in 2012 American motorists paid more for fuel than in any other year before.”

How can it be that all this wonderful effort at improving production still has not made a dent in what Americans pay to fill up their cars? The problem, the study says, is that OPEC still has enough monopolistic market leverage to keep the price of oil where it wants. “While non-OPEC supply has been increasing and while the world economy is growing by leaps and bounds, OPEC, which holds some three quarters of the world’s economically recoverable oil reserves and has the lowest per barrel discovery and lifting costs in the world, has failed to increase its production capacity on par with the rise in global demand. Over the past four decades, world GDP grew fourteen-fold; the number of cars quadrupled,; global crude consumption doubled. Yet OPEC today produces about 30 million barrels of oil a day (MBD) – the same as it produced forty years ago.”

This means that even though we’re doing very well in ramping up supply and reducing demand, the overall distribution of reserves around the world still weighs so heavily against us that we’re basically spinning our wheels as far as what we pay for oil is concerned. The Council sums it up succinctly: “What the U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf is the price of oil much more so than the black liquid itself.”

So, what can we do? The Council says we have to change our thinking and come up with an altogether new approach: “If we are to achieve true energy security and insulate ourselves from countries that whether by design or by inertia effectively use oil as a economic weapon against us and our allies, America must adopt a new paradigm – one that places oil in competition with other energy commodities in the sector from which its strategic importance stems: the transportation fuel market.”

In other words, quite simply, we have to find something else to run our cars. “Although this may appear to be a daunting task, our country — and the globe — is abundant in energy resources that are cost-competitive with petroleum.”

In fact, there are numerous alternatives available. We have natural gas that can be used in a variety of ways, we have biofuels and we have electricity; all of which exist in abundant supply. What prevents us from using many of these alternatives is a regulatory regime and political inertia that prevents them from being employed. “Cutting into oil’s transportation fuel dominance has only been a peripheral political objective over the past forty years with inconsistent support or anemic funding from one Administration to the next. Competing technologies and fuels to the internal combustion engine and to gasoline and diesel have often been viewed as political pet projects by the opposing party. . . . What we must do is relatively simple: level the playing field and end the decades-old regulatory advantage that petroleum fuels have enjoyed in the transportation fuel market. By pursuing a free market-oriented policy that has as its primary objective a competitive market in which fuels made from various energy commodities can be arbitraged against petroleum fuels, the United States can lead the world in placing the best price damper of them all – competition – on oil.”

The Council is particularly critical of the “multiplier” system that has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to become the arbiter of which alternative vehicles win favorable regulatory approval. The Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards have now been set so high — 54.5 mpg by 2025 — that no one realistically expects them to be achieved. But automakers can win “multipliers” by manufacturing alternative-fuel vehicles that are counted as more than one car, thus lowering the fleet average. The value of this multiplier, however, is determined solely by the EPA.

But as the study points out, the EPA has a conflicting mandate. On the one hand, it is supposed to be cutting gasoline consumption but on the other it is concerned with cutting pollution and carbon emissions. (Just why the EPA and not the Department of Energy is administering the CAFE program is a question worth asking.) So the EPA tends to favor cars that do not necessarily improve energy consumption, but cut emissions. Thus, it awards a two times multiplier to electric vehicles and fuel cell cars by only 1.3 times for plug-in hybrids and compressed natural gas. Meanwhile, flex-fuel vehicles, which could do most for reducing oil consumption, get no multiplier at all.

The Energy Security Council has many other good recommendations to make as well. I’ll deal with them at length in a later column. But for now, the takeaway is this: Greater production and improved efficiency will only get us so far. The real key to lowering gas prices and freeing ourselves from foreign dependence is to develop alternatives to the gasoline-powered engine.

If Mother Jones and the Wall Street Journal can agree on this

When Nobel Laureate George Olshutterstock_155499944ah wrote his Wall Street Journal op ed recently announcing a new process that can turn coal exhausts into methanol, it reverberated all the way across the political spectrum and into Mother Jones.

          “Can Methanol Save Us All?” says the headline of a story on MJ, written by political blogger Kevin Drum. Although loath to admit he had    been reading the pages of capitalism’s largest broadsheet (he blamed the government shutdown), Drum admitted that he was intrigued. “George Olah and Chris Cox suggest that instead of venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it causes global warming, we should use it to create methanol,” he wrote.

Olah has been writing about a “methanol economy” for a long time, and he skips over a few issues in this op-ed.  One in particular is cost: it takes electricity to catalyze CO2 and hydrogen into methanol, and it’s not clear how cheap it is to manufacture methanol in places that don’t have abundant, cheap geothermal energy – in other words, most places that aren’t Iceland. There are also some practical issues related to energy density and corrosiveness in existing engines and pipelines. Still, it’s long been an intriguing idea, since in theory it would allow you to use renewable energy like wind or solar to power a facility that creates a liquid fuel that can be used for transportation. You still produce CO2 when you eventually burn that methanol in your car, of course, but the lifecycle production of CO2 would probably b less than it is with conventional fuels.

There are a few things we can cite here to set Drum’s mind at ease. First, methanol made from natural gas is already cost competitive. We don’t have to speculate. There is a sizable industry manufacturing methanol for industrial use from natural gas where it has sold for years at under $1.50 a gallon. That’s a $2.40-per-gallon mileage equivalent for gasoline (before further gains from methanol’s higher octane), making it at least 30 percent cheaper from what you’re now buying at the pump.

Of course Drum is referring here to Olah’s proposal to manufacture methanol by synthesizing hydrogen and carbon exhausts. This would be a more expensive process. But if it ever happened, the utilities would undoubtedly pay the processors to take the carbon dioxide off their hands, since it would allow them to go on operating their coal plants and using all that cheap black stuff coming out of Wyoming and West Virginia. It’s hard right now to factor up the costs but suffice to say, you would not be limited to geothermal from Iceland to make it happen.

As far as the corrosion issues are concerned, Drum can rest assured as well. It is true that methanol corrodes certain elastomers in current engines. They will have to be replaced with o-rings that can be bought at Office Depot for 50 cents. Any mechanic can perform the procedure for less than $200. Modifying current gasoline engines at the factory to burn methanol is also a surpassingly simple procedure – as opposed to altering an engine to burn liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas or hydrogen, which all require an entirely different assembly costing up to an additional $10,000.

The real rub mentioned by Drum, however, is the implication that if methanol can’t be shown to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, then there isn’t any sense in doing it. There’s a slight divergence of purpose here that isn’t always clear to people who can agree we ought to be looking for alternative fuels to replace gasoline.

For some people the issue is energy dependence and reducing the unconscionable $400 billion we spend every year on imports. As the United States Energy Security Council pointed out in a recent paper, even though we have reduced imports to only 36 percent of consumption, we are still paying the same amount for oil because OPEC functions as an oligopoly and can limit supplies. As the report concluded, “It’s not the black stuff that we import from the Persian Gulf, it’s the price.”

For other people, however, the amount of money we’re spending on foreign oil – and the international vulnerabilities it creates – is not the issue. The only thing that matters to them is how much carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere. Global warming is such an overriding concern that it supersedes everything else.

This was made clear in a recent article in Yale Environment 360 by John DeCicco, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and former senior fellow for automotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund, entitled “Why Pushing Alternative Fuels Makes for Bad Public Policy.”

The article argued against all forms of alternatives – ethanol, compressed natural gas, hydrogen and electric vehicles – on the grounds that none of them will do anything to reduce carbon emissions. “In the case of electric vehicles, an upstream focus means cutting CO2 emissions from power plants,” wrote DeCicco.

Without low-carbon power generation, EVs will have little lasting value. Similarly, for biofuels such as ethanol, any potential climate benefit is entirely upstream on land where feedstocks are grown. Biofuels have no benefit downstream, where used as motor fuels, because their tailpipe CO2 emissions differ only trivially from those of gasoline.

Instead, DeCicco argued that environmentally conscious individuals should concentrate on cleaning up power plants while support for alternative fuels should be limited to research and development.

By the time the power sector is clean enough and battery costs fall enough for EVs to cut carbon at a significant scale, self-driving cars and wireless charging will probably render today’s electric vehicle technologies obsolete. Accelerating power sector cleanup is far more important than plugging in the car fleet

All this short-changes the clear advantages that can come from reducing our huge trade deficit and replacing oil with homegrown natural gas. The less money we spend on imports, the more we will have for making environmental improvements and investing in complex technology such as carbon capture that can reduce carbon emissions.

In addition, DeCicco may be being too pessimistic about alternative fuels’ potential for reducing carbon emissions. As The New York Times reported in a recent story about natural gas cars, “According to the Energy Department’s website, natural gas vehicles have smaller carbon footprints than gasoline or diesel automobiles, even when taking into account the natural gas production process, which releases carbon-rich methane into the atmosphere. Mercedes-Benz says its E200, which can run on either gasoline or natural gas, emits 20 percent less carbon on compressed natural gas than it does on gasoline.” Besides, if the source of emissions can be switched from a million tailpipes to one power plant, it’s a lot easier to apply new technology.

Mother Jones and The Wall Street Journal have much more in common than they may realize. One way or another, it would benefit everyone if we could reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

A big flaring opportunity in North Dakota

Recently I wrote about how oil companies are flaring off $100 million worth of gas a month in the Bakken formation and what a huge waste or resources that represents.

Well, it didn’t take long for something to happen. A group of five law firms representing Bakken property owners sued 10 oil companies to end the practice. Their logic? It doesn’t involve environmental pollution or global warming. Instead, they’re arguing that the oil companies are depriving them of hundreds of millions in royalties by flaring off all that gas.

The case makes perfect sense. Gas is a valuable resource and the property owners are being deprived of huge amounts of money by wasting it. The case also avoids the complications that would come if the suit had been brought by the Sierra Club or Natural Resources Defense Council on environmental grounds. That would have involved all kinds of testimony about whether the flaring is really having an impact on the weather and what the level of damages might be. Instead, this is a straightforward case of dollars and cents. The property owners are being deprived of huge royalties. The oil companies have to compensate.

But beyond that, the lawsuit also offers a glittering opportunity to put methanol and its potential role in the transportation economy in the spotlight. So far, nobody’s talking about it much, but the conversion of natural gas into methanol could play a huge part in resolving this case.

The Bakken has developed so fast that the producers have not even been able to build oil pipelines into the area yet. Instead, the oil is being shipped by truck and rail. Burlington Northern has extended its lines into the region and most of the oil is now finding its way into major pipelines. As a result, Bakken production has leaped to 850,000 barrels a day, catapulting North Dakota into the number two position as an oil-producing state, behind Texas.

But the gas is a different thing. It can’t be stored in large quantities and pipelines are a long way from being extended and probably not worth it. Oil is now give times more valuable than gas at the wellhead, which gives drillers an enormous incentive to go after the oil and forget about the gas, hence the flaring. Thanks largely to North Dakota, we have moved into fifth place for flaring, behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq, and ahead of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The amount of gas flared around the world equals 20% of U.S. consumption. When we’ve moved ahead of Hugo Chavez, it’s time to do something about it.

So far, the proposed solutions have involved compressing natural gas or synthesizing it into more complex liquids. “The industry is considering and adopting various plans to flare less gas, including using the gas as fuel for their rigs and compressing gas into tanks that can be transported by truck,” reports The New York Times. “A longer-range possibility would be the development of projects that could produce diesel out of gas at or near well sites.” Hess, which already has a network of pipelines in the area, is rushing to complete a processing plant at Tioga that will turn gas into diesel and other more complex fluids.

But a better solution would be portable, on-site processing plants that can convert methane to liquid methanol, a far simpler process. Gas Technologies, a Michigan company, has just developed a conversion device that sits on the back of a trailer and can be hauled from well to well. “We have a patented process that reduces capital costs up to 70%,” said CEO Walter Breidenstein. “If we’re using free flare gas, we can reduce the cost of producing methanol another 40-5%.” Other companies are working on similar technologies for converting natural gas to methanol on-site.

All this would help bring attention to the role that methanol could play in replacing oil in our transportation economy. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2000 and found drivers were extremely happy with them. Methanol also fits easily into our current infrastructure for gasoline. But California gave up on the project because gas supplies seemed to be dwindling and the price was too high. Now we are flaring off 25% of the nation’s consumption in one state and methanol could easily be produced for $1.50 a gallon. It’s time to re-evaluate.

Of course, Walter Breidenstein will probably find that flared gas will not be offered for free. Those Bakken property owners still want their royalties. But the North Dakota lawsuit proves a spur for on-site methanol conversion and great opportunity to highlight the role methanol could play in our transportation economy.