A Glimpse of the Alternative Fuel Future

Source: By MATTHEW L. WALD, New York Times • Posted: Friday, August 3, 2012

The red bars reflect 2010 consumption and the yellow bars the range of possible consumption in 2050.  

National Petroleum CouncilThe red bars reflect 2010 consumption and the yellow bars the range of possible consumption in 2050. 

While a variety of new fuel technologies are advancing, policy makers can be assured that the internal combustion engine will remain dominant for decades, the National Petroleum Council told the Department of Energy on Wednesday in a report.

The report from the council, an advisory agency, was drawn up in response to requests from the department for counsel on how to accelerate the adoption of new fuels and technologies, from compressed natural gas to fuel cells to biofuels, between now and 2050. One of the nation’s biggest energy problems is that nearly all of its ground transportation fuel is derived from oil.

But looking ahead to 2050 poses challenges. Imagine making prognostications for 2012 in 1974; could we have foreseen the Prius or the Volt in the era of the Ford Pinto and the Volkswagen Rabbit?

The National Petroleum Council tried to sidestep the uncertainty by saying up front that of all the various possibilities – hybridized vehicles, vehicles running on biofuels or compressed or liquefied natural gas, and battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles – it is far too soon to pick winners and losers.

But at a briefing by the council, one member, William Reinert, the national manager in charge of the advanced technology group for Toyota’s American sales unit, put it bluntly. “Internal combustion engines are likely to be the dominant propulsion system for decades to come,” he said. Hybrids like his company’s Prius and vehicles running on natural gas, diesel or cellulosic biofuels have internal combustion engines at their heart, he pointed out.

The panel said that substantial increases in vehicle efficiency were possible but that total energy use was likely to grow because the number of miles driven by Americans would increase by 60 to 80 percent. (Note: the study was based on the assumptions of the Energy Department’s 2010 annual energy outlook, which appeared before the recent downturn in vehicle miles traveled became clear.)

Growth in “vehicle miles traveled” has intermittently faltered over the years as well as recently.

Using lightweight materials, improving vehicle aerodynamics, reducing rolling resistance and making other changes could improve the fuel economy of light-duty vehicles by 50 percent, the group found, and hybridization and electrification of vehicles could have far larger benefits. Heavy-duty vehicles could be made to go twice as far on a unit of fuel, which ultimately might turn out to be natural gas and not diesel.

But the news on another front, greenhouse gas reduction, was disappointing. The Energy Department had asked whether the transportation sector, which includes heavy-duty vehicles, railroads and ships, could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Even that number would fall short of the White House’s stated goal of a total reduction of 80 percent by mid-century.

S. Sariq Yousufzai, vice president of Chevron, said the industry was “moving tin the right direction” on emissions. Nonetheless, “if you draw a line in the sand that says you must be at 50 percent, we don’t get there,” he said. The degree of emissions reduction depends on progress in making fuels from cellulosic sources, or the portions of crops that are not food, and on advances in making battery-powered electric vehicles whose energy comes from renewable or nuclear sources.

Converting vehicles to natural gas would be a step towards greenhouse gas reduction and towards energy independence. Yet even though it has been on the agenda for more than 20 years, it has not been successful so far in the light-duty market, where most of the nation’s automotive fuel is burned.

But another member of the study group, Michael Gallagher, a former chairman of Cummins-Westport, a joint venture between a Detroit-based maker of diesel engines and a Canadian firm that specializes in natural gas, predicted that the change in gas drilling and the success of shale technology would change that.

Twenty years ago, he said, switching to natural gas would save a driver about 50 cents a gallon. “Fifty cents a gallon is interesting but not enough to get people to overcome the barriers,” which include building lots of fueling stations, Mr. Gallagher said. But now, he said, it is more like $1.50 a gallon, “and people are starting to get out their pocket calculators.”

The online version of the report includes a calculator of sorts, a dashboard that allows readers to vary the assumptions and see the results in 2050.

Meanwhile, again demonstrating the difficulties of making predictions, the biggest alternative-fuel effort today, corn-based ethanol, is stumbling because of the Midwestern drought and the stunted corn crop. This week a coalition of corn users, mostly dairy farmers and companies that raise poultry, cattle and hogs, asked the Environmental Protection Agency to cut the ethanol requirement to reduce the demand for corn.

Current rules mandate production of 13.2 billion gallons this year, which the coalition said would require about 4.7 billion bushels of corn. But the entire harvest may amount to less than 12 billion bushels this year, the coalition said, down from 13 billion last year, when the ethanol mandate was smaller. Thus ethanol could take nearly 40 percent of this year’s corn crop, the organizations said. And the requirement for ethanol in 2013, when most of this year’s harvest would be used, is even higher.

But the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group representing corn farmers, promptly issued a statement calling for the E.P.A. to keep the mandate intact. The material left over at ethanol factories, called distiller’s grains, are still animal feed, Bob Dinneen, president of the group, pointed out, and reducing the mandate would not lower corn prices, he said.

In fact, high corn prices are making ethanol more expensive at the pump, so it is not selling as well. Waiving the quota, he said, “would simply reward oil companies that have long sought to repeal this very important and successful program,” he said in a statement.