Can Butanol Be the New Ethanol?

Even as the ethanol industry is wobbling over the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to cut back on the ethanol mandate in 2014, a new candidate has emerged as an additive to gasoline – butanol.

Virgin Airways founder and CEO Richard Branson has announced that his Virgin Green Fund will be cosponsoring a groundbreaking butanol manufacturing plant in Luverne, Minnesota.  “Butanol is the future of renewable fuel,” said Branson, who is already using renewable jet fuel for his airline.  “It’s hugely versatile and can be used to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, and plastics, which gives us scope to enter a range of markets,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Corn ethanol now dominates the $26 billion gasoline additive market, drawing the glucose content out of 45 percent of the nation’s corn crop (the protein is fed to animals).  Branson’s butanol would use a similar feedstock – corn, sugar cane or cellulosic biomass – but would produce a fuel that has 84 percent of gasoline’s fuel density compared to ethanol’s 66 percent, although ethanol has a higher octane rating.  The implication is that butanol could be mixed at higher blends, giving it almost the same range as gasoline.

Both butanol and ethanol are made through a process that employs yeasts to ferments the glucose from organic material into alcohols.  Methanol, the simplest alcohol, has one carbon joined to a hydroxyl ion while ethanol has two carbons and butanol has four.  Octane, the principal ingredient in gasoline, has eight carbons without the hydroxyl ion.

As far a butanol is concerned, it’s not as if people haven’t tried this before.  Both BP and Royals Dutch Shell have experimented with producing butanol from organic material but have found the process harder than they anticipated.  “There is certainly a potential, but there have been quite considerable problems with the technology,” Clare Wenner, of the London-based Renewable Energy Association, told Bloomberg.  “It’s taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago.”

Gevo’s plant in Minnesota, for instance, has been running at only two-thirds of its 18 million gallon-a-year capacity because of a contamination in its yeast fermenting facility in September 2012.  Similar instabilities in the microbial-based process have dogged the efforts to break down cellulose into simple molecules.  There operations can often be performed in the laboratory but become much more difficult when moved up to a commercial scale.

Branson is confident these obstacles can be overcome.  He’s already got Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla on board in Gevo and Total, the French oil company, has also taken a stake.  Together they have enlisted big ethanol producers such as Big River Resources and Siouxland Ethanol to commit to switching their manufacturing process to butanol.  Butamax Advanced Biofuel, another Minnesota refiner funded by Dupont and BP, is also in the process of retrofitting its ethanol plant to butanol.  Taken together, these facilities would be able replace 1 billion of the 14 billion gallons of ethanol now being produced every year.

Whether this would be enough to make a bigger dent in America’s oil import budget remains to be seen.  The 14 billion gallons of ethanol currently substitutes for 10 percent of our gasoline and about 6 percent of our total oil consumption.  The Environmental Protection Agency has limited ethanol additives to 15 percent of the blend, mainly to protect older cars.  (In Iowa, newer cars are running on an 85 percent blend.)  Now the reduction in the 2014 mandate is making the ethanol industry nervous about overcapacity.  Butanol is less corrosive of engines and the 16 percent blend could give it an edge.

On another front, T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it may turn a profit for the first time since its founding in 1997.  Clean Fuels is concentrating on supplying compressed natural gas for trucks, signing major contracts with Frito-Lay, Proctor & Gamble, United Parcel Service and Ryder.  It is also attempting to set up a series of filling stations on the Interstate Highway System.  The use of CNG requires an entirely new infrastructure, however, rather than the easy substitution of liquid and butanol.

The dark horse here is methanol, which is liquid and fits easily into our present infrastructure but would be synthesized from natural gas.  Somehow, methanol has not attracted the attention of Branson’s biofuels and Pickens’ CNG.     All of these efforts hold promise, however, and would make a huge dent in our annual $350 billion bill for oil imports, which constitutes the bulk of our $450 billion trade deficit.  So good luck to all and may the best fuel win – or all of them, for that matter.

Oil and Natural Gas Prices and the Future of Alternative Fuels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altruism Aside, Is Ethanol A Competitive Alternative Fuel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Says Cars Have to Fill a Parking Space?

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

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

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

Here’ a list of some of the contenders:

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

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

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

There’s Gold in Them Thar’ Flares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Hydrogen Cars the Future – Again?

The hydrogen car may be on the road to another comeback – again.  At the annual auto show in Los Angeles last week, both Honda and Hyundai unveiled “concept cars” of hydrogen models they expect to be available by 2015.  As a result, the automobile press has been filled with stories its revived prospects.

“For a long time, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles were seen as a tantalizing technology to help reduce society’s reliance on oil,” Brad Plumer wrote in the Washington Post. “But the vehicles themselves were seen as forbiddingly expensive. Not the pendulum may be swinging back.”

“Toyota made a decagon – the fuel-cell car is going to be a big part of our future,” wrote Bradley Berman in The New York Times, quoting Toyota spokesman John Hanson.  “Today Toyota is not alone,” he continued. “Four other carmakers – General Motors, Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz – are also promising fuel-cell cars in the next few years.”

The prospect of an automobile running on hydrogen is indeed perpetually attractive.  Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe.  When combined with free oxygen in the atmosphere it “combusts” to produce H2O – water.  There are no other “exhausts”. Thus hydrogen promises transportation absolutely clean of any air pollution.  No global warming, either.

But it isn’t quite that simple.  The question that always presents itself is, “Where do you get the hydrogen?” Although hydrogen may be the most common element on earth, all of it is tied up in chemical compounds, mostly methane and water.  Accessing this hydrogen means freeing it up, which requires energy.

Most of our commercial hydrogen is made by “reforming” natural gas, which splits the carbon and hydrogen in methane to produce carbon dioxide and free hydrogen. That doesn’t help much with global warming.  Another method is to split water through electrolysis. That is a much cleaner process but requires a considerable amount of electricity. Depending on what power source is used, this can produce zero or ample emissions. If it’s coal, the problem is made much worse. If it’s clean sources such as solar or nuclear, then there can be a strong advantage. In the 1930s, John Haldane proposed giant wind and solar farms that would generate hydrogen that could fuel all of society. Such facilities generating hydrogen for transportation would be a step toward such a utopia.

Even then, however, there are problems.  Hydrogen is the smallest molecule and leaks out of everything.  It is very difficult to transport.  Joseph Romm, a disciple of alternative energy guru Amory Lovins, was appointed head of hydrogen car development program under President Bill Clinton and worked for two years on its development.  In the end, he became very disillusioned and wrote a book entitled The Hype About Hydrogen, in which he argued that the idea really wasn’t practical. Romm is now one of the country’s premier global warming alarmists on

What has apparently brought hyfrohgen cars back to the forefront has been the substitution for platinum as the principal catalyst in the fuel cell process.

A fuel cell produces an electric current by stripping the electron off a hydrogen atom and running it around a barrier that is otherwise permeable to a naked proton.  The proton and electron are reunited on the other side of the barrier, where they combine with free oxygen to form water.  Until recently, platinum was the only substance that could fill this barrier function. This made fuel cells very expensive and raised the question of whether there was enough platinum in the world to manufacture fuel cells in mass production.  But several platinum substitutes have now been found, making fuel cells considerably cheaper and more accessible.

Estimates are now that next year’s Hyundai and Honda FCVs will sell for about $34,000, which puts them in the range of electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius.  (The Tesla, a luxury car, is  priced in a much higher range,)  The problem then becomes fueling.  The FCV offers considerable advantages over the EV in that it has a range of 300 miles, comparing favorable to gasoline vehicles.  It can also be refilled in a matter of minutes, like gasoline cars, whereas recharging  an EVs can take anywhere from  20 minutes to three hours. But hydrogen refueling stations have not materialized, despite former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promise of a “hydrogen highway.” At last count there were 1,350 EV recharging stations around the country but only ten hydrogen stations, eight of them In Southern California.

All this suggests that neither hydrogen cars or electric vehicles will be sweeping the country any time soon.  Neither the Chevy Volt nor the Nissan Leaf have sold well and are not expected to do much better next year.  If you read the press stories carefully, you soon realize that the reason the automakers are constantly cycling back and forth between electric and hydrogen cars is that they are trying to meet California’s requirements for low-emissions vehicles that will allow them to continue selling in the state. The problem, as always, is consumer resistance..  The automakers can manufacture all the hydrogen and electric cars they want but consumers are not always going to buy them, especially at their elevated price.  So the manufacturers will end up dumping them on car rental agencies where they will sit on the back lots, as did the first generation of EVs.

There is, however, one type of alternative that succeeded handsomely in California and had widespread consumer acceptance, although it is completely forgotten today.  That is methanol.  In 2003, California had 15,000 cars running on blends of up to 85 percent methanol.  Consumers were extremely happy and did not have to be dragooned into buying them.  Refueling was easy since liquid methanol slots right into our current gas stations. Cars that run on methanol can be manufactured for the same price as cars that run on gasoline.

The experiment only ended because natural gas, the main feedstock for methanol, had become too expensive.  In 2003, natural gas was selling as high as $11 per mBTU, making it more expensive than gasoline.  That was before the fracking revolution.  Today natural gas sells for less than $4 per mBTU and the industry is coping with a glut.  Methanol, which is already produced in industrial quantities, could sell for $1 less than motorists are now paying for energy equivalent in gasoline.  Moreover, methanol can be made from garbage and crop wastes and a variety of other sources that would reduce it’s carbon footprint.

Hydrogen and electric cars each have a future and it is good to see the auto companies keep experimenting with them.  But each has impediments that are going to be difficult to overcome. Methanol, on the other hand, is a technology that could be implemented today at a price that not require subsidies.  Even if it is only perceived as a “bridge” to some more favorable, low-carbon future, it is worth pursuing now.


Ford Leads the Way

The Ford Motor Company stepped front-and-center in the effort to fine alternatives to high-priced imported oil last week with the announcement that it will offer compressed natural gas (CNG) tank as an option in the F-150 pickup truck, its most popular brand that currently sells 700,000 models a year.

Now it won’t come cheap. There’s a $250-$350 charge for the vehicle to come “prepped” from the factory. That means putting hardened valves, valve seats, piston and rings into the V6 engine. But after that, there’s a $7-9000 charge for installing the CNG tank in the cargo bay – made considerably more expensive than in Europe because safety standards are interpreted in a way that makes them much more expensive. This lifts the showroom price from $24,000 to around $32,000. That’s a big chunk but Ford swears you’ll make it back in three years by substituting fuels.

With the price of gas at around $3.80 per gallon and the oil-equivalent of natural gas at around $1.20, those savings should add up fast.  Of course all this assumes that the price differential won’t narrow to its traditional level, but that doesn’t seem very likely now. Electrical plants have shown a tendency to move quickly back to cheaper coal if the price of gas rises, but the difference between the crack spread and the spark spread seems to have separated permanently, much to natural gas’s advantage.

All this is good news for those looking to substitute some of our abundant natural gas for foreign oil in our transport sector.  In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made right now:

Clean Energy Fuels of Newport Beach, CA already has a network of 360 natural gas fueling stations at truck stops along Interstate highways and is trying to build a complete national infrastructure.  NGV stations cost $750,000 a pop but Clean Energy is looking at the long term.  The ready availability of filling stations will help spur the conversion of giant 18-wheel diesel haulers, which most people see as the ripest target for conversion.

Heavy-duty fleet vehicles are making rapid progress.  Buses and garbage trucks are in the forefront. Eight out of ten new vehicles bought in 2012 by Waste Management, the leader in the field, were powered by natural gas.

There are now 120,000 gas vehicles on the road in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles of America, the trade group.  Unfortunately, this constitutes only a tiny fraction of the 15.2 million NGVs worldwide. Iran, Pakistan and Argentina, improbably, are the leaders. We’re behind in making the transition, but there’s plenty of room to catch up.

In a report issued in June, Citi Research estimated that one-quarter of the world’s present consumption of oil could be replaced by natural gas under present conditions. More than 9 million barrels per day could be replaced in truck transport, 2 million of these in the US. Another 3 million b/d could be opted out in marine transport and 200,000 b/d in railroad locomotives.

All this would be fairly easy to transact since it involves large commercial organizations with centralized decision-making.  Sooner or later, however, this approach is likely to run up against limits.  The stumbling block will be the vastly more decentralized system of private automobiles, which still consumes 60 percent of our oil and involves a car in every garage and a gas station on every other corner. Here the problem of building an infrastructure and achieving widespread distribution is much more difficult.

The problem comes because reformers are viewing natural gas as a fuel instead of a feedstock. Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are the most readily available options – and both are legal – but in the end they are going to have their limits. It will make much more sense to use methane as a feedstock for the manufacture of liquids, methanol in particular.  These will be much easier to transport and will substitute for gasoline in current car engines with only minimum adjustment – nothing like the $8000 required for the F-150. Valero has just opted to build a $700 million methanol manufacturing plant in St. Charles, Louisiana in anticipation of this demand. All depends on whether the Environmental Protection Agency decides to give a go-ahead to use methanol in car engines. The matter is pending.

So the effort to use our abundant natural gas resources to reduce our dependence on expensive, unpredictable and unreliable foreign sources of oil is making headway. Ford’s decision to equip the F-150 with CNG is a beginning. But there’s more to come.