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The seven-month-long plunge in oil prices appeared to be enough to re-establish gasoline as the default fuel for motorists, while stunting the progress of replacement fuels.
But attendees at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit would have thought differently. Prominently displayed were various alternative vehicles that have been making headway and are just building momentum in the auto market, so they may be able to shrug off the precipitous fall in oil prices.
Also exhibited in Detroit was the first generation of hydrogen vehicles from Japan, which are challenging both the gasoline monopoly and the electric car, which is much more popular in America and Europe. The Honda FCV concept car boasts a driving range of about 300 miles and a refueling time of just three minutes, marking another step forward for the hydrogen fuel industry. California, where the cars are to be introduced later this year, is already preparing its “hydrogen highway,” which will make the cars feasible for drivers. Toyota’s fuel-cell offering, the Mirai — which also runs on hydrogen — is also scheduled to hit showrooms this year.
Chevrolet has had middling success with its electric-gasoline hybrid the Volt, but the maker has another generation planned with its concept car, the Bolt. The car will be made of extremely lightweight material and will have an all-glass roof and aluminum wheels for further weight reduction. Its lithium-ion battery will give the car a range of 200 miles and a recharging time of 40 minutes for an 80 percent charge. The price of $30,000 is likely to expand the market for electric cars.
Analysts note that oil is not used much for electricity anymore. The 1980s are the benchmark and generally remembered as the “Valley of Death” for renewables. Wind and solar were undercut by falling oil prices and lost their place in the generation of electricity. At the time, oil was providing 17 percent of our electricity. Now it provides barely 5 percent, and wind and solar energy have not felt any effect from oil prices.
Of course, natural gas has largely replaced oil, and a drop in gas prices could cut into the advance of renewables. Gas prices have traditionally been between one-sixth and one-twelfth of oil prices but have uncoupled themselves in recent years. This could work both ways, since gas prices have not fallen by the same degree that oil prices have.
Gas still holds its edge, however, and this means the attempt to use natural gas as an oil substitute may not slow. T. Boone Pickens has had some success in switching long-haul trucks to compressed natural gas, and this effort may be slowed only a little by gasoline’s new low price. However, if natural gas prices fall as well, then it may be able to keep pace with lower oil prices. The possibility that cheaper natural gas might encourage the conversion to methanol as a gasoline substitute would also be encouraged by falling natural gas prices.
That leaves the big question of whether ethanol can survive in the face of falling gasoline prices. In the first place, low gas prices are not likely to last forever. Some analysts are predicting crude oil prices will probably bounce back to $75 a barrel in the near future. Second, ethanol is protected by the federal mandate that says each gallon must contain 10 percent ethanol. If falling gas prices encourage the purchase of more gasoline – which it already has – then ethanol consumption must climb as well.
Ethanol has been under fire recently from studies that say it competes with food resources. The latest is a report from the World Resources Institute in Washington, which argues that “There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.” But the rapid development of cellulosic ethanol severely reduces the possibility that ethanol will compete with food crops. And the possibility that natural-gas-based methanol might begin substituting for ethanol makes the threat of competing with food crops even less.
Altogether, it appears that renewable energy and alternate vehicles are going to survive the dramatic fall in oil prices. Alternative vehicles and other related technologies are now too far along to be crushed by falling oil prices the way they were in the 1980s.
(Photo: The Toyota Mirai at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Credit: Vision Automotriz, Flickr)
Our friend John Brackett, one of the stars of the Fuel Freedom-produced PUMP, attended the giant SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) expo in Las Vegas last week.
What he found was the usual mind-blowing parade: thousands upon thousands of amazing, tricked-out vehicles. And of course ingenious technology, the product of some of the most intelligent minds who are in the business of making after-market car components.
What he found lacking, though, was fuel choice.
Here’s his report:
SEMA Exhibitors have solutions ready:
Fuel component manufacturers made it clear that dealing with ethanol and methanol fuels would be easy on their end. Companies that alter a car’s software said it’d be no problem running several fuels with their devices or programs. The car makers have put fuel choice into vehicles for a century with tens of millions already on the road. Every vehicle sold since the Oil Embargo[hyperlink to wiki Oil Embargo] should have had fuel choice. For the last quarter century, we’ve been able to update a car’s software to adjust to different fuels with no additional parts. There is no reason we can’t run on performance fuels right now.
American “Enginuity” is alive:
No two vehicles looked the same, and everyone had a different interpretation of their ideal driving experience. Even with such ingenuity, what 98.6 percent of the vehicles had in common was no fuel choice. I saw V8 engines installed in series, radial airplane engines, super-turbocharged cars, an ice cream-making Kia Soul, a wagon that unfolds into a beer stand, and a 3D-printed car. With so many options, what is holding us back from fuel choice?
Dollars per horsepower matters:
One could easily double, if not sextuple, the cost of a vehicle with some of the solutions at SEMA. Yet those solutions wouldn’t be displayed if there weren’t a demand. These companies spend millions of dollars to develop some very unique solutions for the aftermarket vehicle enthusiasts. Dollar for dollar, using ethanol or methanol over gasoline gives one a more powerful and exciting driving experience. On a naturally aspirated vehicle, adding 5-10 percent horsepower with an aftermarket intake and exhaust system will cost darn near $1,000. Why not choose a fuel that gives you that same power gain and costs 25-40 percent less to drive on?
Now watch Bracket’s video, and see how many incredible vehicles you can name:
Clean-energy entrepreneur Jigar Shah makes a case for investing in technology that will help the United States end its dependence on foreign oil, instead of just talking about it.
In a post for Unreasonable.is, he laments the lost opportunities: The U.S. has reduced its oil imports by 15 percent over the last two years as the country has ramped up its own oil production. But we “still imported an average 7.4 million barrels of crude oil per day during the first nine months of 2014—at a cost of more than $240 billion.”
Increasing fuel-economy standards in vehicles has gotten us only partway toward oil independence (he notes that as miles-per-gallon have vastly increased since the 1970s, so too has the weight of the cars Americans increasingly prefer: the large SUVs). He adds:
The predicted increase in oil drilling in the U.S. and Canada will get us even closer. But no matter how we slice the data, we will still depend on imported oil. Domestic drilling and fuel standards are not enough—we need fuel choice.
Shah writes that replacement fuels like methanol, hydrogen, electricity and other renewables are cheaper than gasoline or diesel.
However, the Government has not systematically put a plan in place to give American’s access to these fuels at local refueling stations. In fact, the Government regulations in place today make it difficult to add these fuel choices.
In addition to alternative fuels, vehicle efficiency technologies offer another off-ramp towards oil independence. With only one out of every seven gallons of gas being used to move the car forward, it is time to stop waging war in the Middle East and start the war against vehicle inefficiency.
He lists some interesting innovations for increasing fuel efficiency. Check them out.
To read the newspapers these days, you’d think that all the innovation in energy is involved in bringing down the cost of solar panels or building even bigger blades for windmills. But innovation still continues apace in oil and gas, both in pulling them out of the ground and in finding new ways to use them.
“We haven’t been giving the big oil companies enough credit,” said Dominic Basulto in The Washington Post. “ Sure, we may see their print ads or watch as they tout their accomplishments on TV, but deep down, many of us believe that the brightest minds have moved on to something new in energy innovation. But that’s not true.”
That’s important because if we’re going to use our abundant natural gas supplies to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we’re going to have to be sure the current superabundance of natural gas isn’t just a flash in the pan. Moreover, we’re going to need innovation in making the transition to methane-based liquid alcohol fuels easier as well.
As most people have heard by now, even our best technologies can’t extract more than about 10-20% out of an oil or gas reservoir from the earth. Simply doubling that rate would give us access to huge, new quantities of domestic fuels.
There’s also a concern that fracking wells will have a much shorter lifespan than traditional gas and oil wells. Then there’s all that natural gas being flared off in the Bakken. Ending that conspicuous form of waste will require some new technology.
All these problems are being tackled through innovation, however, and that’s what Basulto is talking about.
Although everybody knows about fracking — the technology of forcing sand and water into the rock to break it up — few realize that the real novelty that makes up the current upturn in production possible is horizontal drilling, which allows access to entire geological strata without making the territory look like a pincushion.
“Today, drilling rigs are so good that they can punch holes in the earth that are two miles deep, turn the drill bit 90 degrees, drill another two miles horizontally, and arrive within a few inches of the target,” said Robert Bryce, author of “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper,” a book about innovation in the energy industry. But horizontal drilling hasn’t stood still. ExxonMobil has developed an “extended reach” technology that can push outward several miles further deep in the earth. “Extended reach reduces our environmental footprint and in offshore applications will limit our presence in the marine environment,” says the company’s website. It may have been developments like this that prompted President Obama to give a green light to exploration off the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida last month.
The same innovations are occurring with natural gas fracking. Innovators have made an improvement called “sleeve technology” that surrounds the drill bit and allows highly accurate placement of stimulation treatments. The result is that wells can be drilled twice as fast as a few years ago, at a lower cost. With increased precision in both drilling and fracturing, wells are being made more productive as well. Erika Johnsen on Hot Air said, “Data from the Energy Information Administration’s Drilling and Production Report shows that a Marcellus Shale well completed by a rig in April 2014 can be expected to yield over 6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day (Mcf/d) more than a well completed by that rig in that formation in 2007.” That’s a huge improvement in the space of seven short years.
All this is good news for the effort of substituting natural gas-based ethanol or methanol for foreign oil in our cars. After all, one of the fundamental considerations is that there will be enough natural gas around to keep the price reasonable. With so many competing proposals for employing natural gas — electrical generation, the industrial revival, LNG exports, etc. — it’s crucial that we keep expanding production.
So it’s encouraging to hear the news from Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ baby, which has been building a “CNG Highway” across the country to service long-haul tractor-trailers. CEF has just completed the first leg of this nationwide network, connecting Los Angeles and Houston.
But much of the nation still lies outside the reach of natural gas pipelines and CEF is figuring out a way to serve them, as well. Last month the company opened a filling station in Pembroke, New Hampshire that will be served by a “virtual pipeline” of high-tech tractor-trailers making round-the-clock deliveries. This will allow the station to pump 10 million gasoline-gallon-equivalents (GGE), twice the volume of CEF’s largest existing station. More important, it will open up large areas of the country that have not had access to CNG. This natural gas-based substitute will sell for 30% less than gasoline.
Technology never stands still. Sometimes it forces us to give up things that have become familiar or even seemingly permanent. But as Robert Bryce said, the new technology is usually “faster, smaller, lighter, denser and cheaper.” And in the case of methane-based liquid fuels, it will mean freeing ourselves from foreign oil as well.