Will falling gas prices hurt alternative vehicles?

Everyone is saying that falling gas prices will ruin the market for alternative fuels and vehicles. But it isn’t time to give up on them now.
Ethanol and methanol are still two liquid fuels that will easily substitute for gasoline in our current infrastructure. Ethanol is making headway, particularly in the Midwest, where it is still cheaper than gasoline and has a lot of support in the farm economy. The big decision will come when the EPA finally sets the quota for ethanol consumption for 2015 – if the agency ever gets around to making a decision. (The decision has been postponed since last spring.) A high number should guarantee the sale of ethanol no matter what the price of gasoline.

That leaves methanol, the fuel that has the most potential to replace gasoline and would it fit right into our present infrastructure but must still run the gamut of EPA approval and would require a change in habits among motorists. Methanol is still relatively unknown among car owners and is hindered by people’s reluctance to try new things. But the six methanol plants that the Chinese are building in the Texas and Louisiana region could break the ice on methanol. The Chinese have 100,000 methanol cars on the road now and are shooting for 500,000 by 2015. Some of that methanol might end up in American engines as well.

Another alternative that is still in play is the electric car. In theory, electric cars should not be affected much by gas prices because that is an entirely different infrastructure. The appeal is not based on price so such as the idea of freeing yourself from the oil companies completely and relying on a source of energy.

The Nissan Leaf has not been badly hit by oil prices. Tesla’s cars, of course, have not gone mass market yet, but the company is relying on a new breed of consumer who does not worry too much about the price and will appreciate the car for its style and performance. Elon Musk has shown no indication of backing down on his great Gigafactory, and Tesla is still aiming to have the Model III (its third-generation vehicle, which will come at a much lower expected price point of $35,000) ready by 2017.

This leaves natural-gas-powered vehicles as the only group that might be hurt by falling gas prices, and here the news is not too good. Sales of vehicles that have compressed natural gas as their fuel declined 7.2 percent in November. As David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar, told the Houston Chronicle’s Ryan Holeywell: “I hear all the time from dealers: As soon as gas starts to go down, people look at light trucks.”

CNG’s appeal has always been that it will be cheaper than regular gasoline, so plunging gas prices make it lose much of its appeal. It costs $5,000 to install a tank for CNG fuel, and that is not likely to attract a lot of takers with oil prices low. For a gas-electric hybrid, there is similar math. For the Toyota Corolla, the electric portion adds another $7,000 to the price. That’s why the CNG-based solutions never caught up with the light-duty vehicle. They are still attractive for high-mileage vehicles like buses and garbage trucks. “For the consumers doing the math, if gas goes below $3 per gallon, the payback period goes out a number of years,” Whiston told Holeywell. “And the break-even point makes sense for fewer people.”

The collapse in gas prices is not the end of the road for alternative fuels. In a couple of months, the price may be up again, and all those people who have rushed out to buy light trucks will be stuck with them. The changeover to alternative fuels is a slow process, fraught with false starts and misleading signals. But in the end, it will be well worth it to reduce our dependence on imported oil and achieve some kind of energy independence. Car buyers have very short memories and an inability to look very far into the future. Remember, it’s always a passing parade. Consequently, their reaction has been only short-term. But once people buy those trucks, they’re stuck with them for the next 5 to 10 years. If the price of gas goes up again, they may live to regret it.

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