Reducing personal vehicle demand for gasoline is the quickest and most effective way to cut our consumption of crude oil, and by extension, make our nation more secure.
Hybrid vehicles could be one of the best available options to achieve this goal.
In recent years, the more imaginative solution has been fuel cells: the powering of vehicles by burning hydrogen so as to release energy with water as a byproduct. It’s “clean,” and therefore appealing, but only if you look at the tail pipe emissions. Despite tremendous investments of taxpayer and industry money into fuel cell powered personal vehicles during the past 20 years, the technology is simply not ready yet. It’s still not industrially scalable or commercially competitive with existing alternatives.
What about compressed natural gas cars and propane cars by extension? There are enough buses in Washington and other big cities driving around on “clean” natural gas, but the simple fact is that for personal vehicles, natural gas is still considerably more expensive than gasoline refined from crude. Natural or not, gas is a fossil fuel, despite the belief of some politicians on Capitol Hill.
Then there’s also the safety concern. Careful observers will note that the CNG buses have humps on their roofs. That’s not for aesthetics, but for safety reasons. That’s where the CNG tanks are held, safely away from points of possible collision with other vehicles, poles or buildings. Personal cars need to find ways to shield their CNG tank from collision, puncture and catastrophic explosion. And then the infrastructure is not available. How many gas stations can individual car owners pull up and refill on CNG? So that’s an alternative vehicle option still on the drawing boards.
Last but not least, there’s been a lot of talk about coal-to-liquids providing synthetic gasoline. The Fischer-Tropsch technique for converting coal into synthetic petroleum-based fuel, be it synthetic oil, gasoline, or natural gas, has been around since the 1920s. It provided much of the German military’s fuel in World War II and helped South Africa ride out the embargo. It has the selling point of being clean gasoline — nitrates and sulfurs are filtered out in the process. It also has the advantages of being comparatively cheap. A barrel of synthetic oil can be made for perhaps under $50 today.
But its production also consumes a lot of water and emits a lot of CO2 in the process. So synthetic oil hurts the environment, despite its burning more cleanly, even more than real crude does. Once you tack on environmental controls and carbon capture on a barrel of synthetic fuel, you have added about another $20. That makes it a much more risky proposition when the price of crude drops below $100. Add on the need to sequester or bury the carbon and the price shoots up even further.
Carbon-to-liquids still makes sense for the U.S. Air Force as an alternative fuel, but only if the base production costs can be driven down through scale by adding civil aviation to the potential demand. The use of CTL in aviation can serve as the best platform, given its large built-in profit margins, to develop CO2 capture and related technologies that can be passed on to other fossil fuel industries, including older coal-burning power plants. On the other hand, for personal vehicles, CTL synfuel is neither cost effective nor clean enough.
Then, there are the electric cars. That’s a move in the right direction in principle, since electricity is part of the future for vehicles. But pure electric cars still have some serious drawbacks.
Along with kerosene-, gasoline-, coal- and even wood-burning cars, there were electric cars more than a hundred years ago. What held back electric cars back then is still what holds them back today: the battery technology. Batteries are heavy and voluminous and don’t hold charges well, which means that a pure electric car, in order to get good mileage, winds up carrying more weight and space dedicated to batteries than it can handle. It becomes something you can only dependably drive short distances.
An analogy would be an airplane powered by bio-ethanol. Modern aircraft would have less than half the range if they were powered by fuel that by weight and volume carried fewer BTUs than modern jet fuel. So a pure electric car is still today more a great “concept car” than anything you’d want to own from a practical standpoint.
Nevertheless electric cars shouldn’t be abandoned just because of the battery problem. Electric motors are efficient in terms of converting energy into motion, so even if the batteries are not as efficient, we still want to play with the electric motor.
That’s how hybrid vehicles came about. A resourceful engineer determined that braking energy could be converted and stored to get a car moving again.
So a hybrid vehicle uses a smaller gasoline engine to get the car moving and a battery to capture the energy converted back from motion as the brakes are applied. Then a small electric engine converts the captured energy back into motion again. It’s not a perpetual motion machine, because friction and conversion of gasoline to motion to electricity and back to motion means there are always losses at every step of the process, but it’s a marvelously efficient system compared to what most people drive today.
Hybrid vehicles do sell for a premium over regular gasoline-fired vehicles. That has been a deterrent, even factoring in government tax breaks. After 10 years of being on the market, the Toyota Prius has sold only 1 million copies, which is about 1 percent of the total national car park. When gasoline was down in the $2 dollar a gallon range, a hybrid vehicle didn’t seem very competitive to most people, but when gasoline briefly peaked around $4 a gallon last summer, the waiting time for a new hybrid stretched into months and even used hybrids couldn’t be found on car dealer lots. The market will find a new equilibrium, as gasoline continues to come down commensurately.
The Prius is the most fuel efficient car that Consumer Reports has tested. It rates it a real-world fuel consumption of 44 miles per gallon.
The problem remains that even modern hybrids have trouble with their batteries. The constant charging and discharging of the battery creates buildup on the battery plate and shortens its useful life. And then when the battery has to be replaced, once proud owners of a hybrid are often shocked. Because of the increase in cost of precious and rare metals that the batteries require — the bulk of which are being mined only overseas these days — the new replacement battery cost is close in some cases to the Blue Book value of the entire car.
Now that last year’s spike in commodities prices is on the downswing and the precious and rare metals a bit cheaper, the replacement cost of the battery should be a bit less. Also, the increased demand for hybrids has probably led to an increase in the Blue Book value of the used hybrid, so the shock is probably a bit less for hybrid owners when they need to buy a replacement battery.
Even more encouraging is news that a foreign research team has announced it figured out how to tweak the traditional lead-acid battery by coupling it to a capacitor, and have it substitute for the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries that the Prius uses. If this discovery gets independently tested and corroborated, the new battery should last four times longer than the best lead-acid batteries, produce 50 percent more power, and cost between a quarter to a third that of NiMH batteries, not to mention a sixth of that of lithium-ion batteries that are used on high-performance cars. That in itself will go a long way in helping hybrids take off with the car-buying public.
Another great advantage of the hybrid gasoline/electric vehicle is that it allows significant reductions in consumption of gasoline without creation of new infrastructure in order to power or service the vehicles. Bio-ethanol requires massive conversion of farmland and forest, as well as investment in transportation and storage with new trucks, pipelines and tanks, while fuel cell or CNG-powered vehicles will similarly require new infrastructure. But nothing stops a hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle from pulling up to an existing gasoline station and filling up with regular unleaded gasoline. Repairs can be made by existing maintenance shops.
The next-generation hybrid, or “plug-in” hybrid, is unfortunately not ready, at least not for all Americans. Some Toyota Prius and other hybrid owners have purchased kits and upgraded their vehicles on their own so as to be able to plug them into household current overnight which makes them even less dependent on gasoline and more of an “electric car.” The problem is that if all Americans were to move to “plug in” hybrids all at once, the national electric grid would be severely stressed.
The antiquated national power grid has already become over-burdened through the massive annual growth of the Internet and all its related servers and personal computers. The United States also largely removed the responsibility of some individual utilities to maintain and upgrade their portion of the grid since the government deregulated the electric power industry in the 1990s.
If millions of new plug-in hybrids are thrown on top of the current power infrastructure, the nation would likely experience some serious rolling brownouts and occasional blackouts.
Even if the grid were not a problem, it wouldn’t be environmentally smart to move to plug-ins without cleaning up the other end of the power equation: the old coal-burning plants. It would be shifting the pollution to another point source and the CO2 creation from one location to another. The responsible move would be to push for retrofitting of coal-burning plants to newer pollution-control technology and new CO2 capture and recycling technology.
Talk of powering the new plug-in hybrids with electricity from solar and wind collection stations is essentially that — just talk — despite the mandates from local power utility commissions that are trying to force the issue of renewables on providers with unrealistic short and medium term targets while trying to cap consumer price hikes.
The grid does not extend to many of these sun-rich and wind-rich zones where collectors can be cost-effectively built. The existing grid must be upgraded before we go and add new and costly high tension power line corridors to the solar and wind collection areas. Those improvements to the grid will cost billions of dollars, at a time when the financial markets are recovering from last year’s crash. To add the cost of new power line corridors to solar and wind collection points will not only increase the total infrastructure costs, it will delay conversion to plug-in hybrids for many years to come.
Even if there were no delay in scaling up the grid, it really does not make sense to use it to deliver solar and wind power over long distances. High-tension power lines not only hum, they emit significant amounts of heat. Just like the iron at home, the metal in the power lines resists the passage of electricity and creates heat as a byproduct. That’s lost energy. The humming and heat released from high tension power lines is not intended or deliberate; it’s inevitable. Only when low cost, superconducting materials can allow electricity to pass without resistance through wires will an optimal solution be possible.
Right now, a significant percentage of the electric power that is delivered over high tension power lines over long distances is lost in the process. If power is produced from nuclear or coal cheaply and in large quantities, there is room to accommodate the significant loss over distance, but when a comparatively expensive source of power such as solar is coupled to the grid and over long distances, about half the electrical energy placed in the grid is wasted. Thus, the effective cost is up to twice that of using solar power where it is collected.
Conclusion: Customers who insist on buying plug-in hybrids should collect solar or wind energy at home and recharge with that power, and keep the plug-in hybrid off the grid. There’s a significant up front investment cost to putting a solar panel system into a house — in the tens of thousands of dollars — but in the long run it will pay for itself. Most people, however, will still not accept or be able to afford the added expense.
In parallel with hybrid (non plug-in) vehicles, clean diesels are a serious and under discussed option. German automobile makers such as Mercedes are leveraging cleaner diesel fuel required by new federal law since 2007 in the United States so as to introduce newer European diesel cars into the U.S. market. They use urea to capture pollutants that diesels create and are actually cleaner at the tail pipe than gasoline-burning cars with catalytic converters.
These new diesels also get great mileage. The Mercedes Benz “BlueTec” E320 gets almost 40 mpg in highway driving and almost 30 mpg in city driving. If people are still shy about buying hybrids out of fear of getting stuck with big battery replacement costs after a couple of years, buying a new clean diesel is smarter than buying a new gasoline-powered car, even a smaller one. The BlueTec can be fueled anywhere a truck can buy diesel. As clean diesels gain the trust of regulators and consumers, expect to see the technology migrate down from high-end German luxury cars to even the modest family sedan.
Efforts are already underway to marry the new cleaner diesel engines with electric motors. A Blue Tec diesel-hybrid is already in the works. In Europe, delivery firms already employ diesel hybrid truck fleets and the savings are substantial, and the reduced emissions just as significant. The progress is so promising that conversion to diesel-hybrids may become commonplace well before the electrical grid is upgraded to support mass use of plug-in hybrids.
Rapid conversion to high efficiency, low emission diesel-hybrids may even preclude the need for plug-in hybrids and remove the strain on the national power infrastructure. And if the tax on diesel at the pump that targets truck drivers is lowered or waived for personal car drivers, there may be even faster adoption of diesel-hybrids by consumers.
It is possible that conversion to gas or diesel hybrids and the retirement of current gas and diesel vehicles would reduce crude oil consumption by as much 50 percent. Currently, more than 67 percent of crude oil consumption is for personal driving.
Oil prices halved and gasoline dropped almost as dramatically after the United States reduced its daily consumption of oil by only about 10 percent. If consumption of gasoline for personal driving were to go down again another 30 to 40 percent — which might translate into an overall drop in consumption of crude oil of maybe 25 to 35 percent — the price of a barrel of oil could plunge.
That would be great news for Americans who’d be able to fill up the tanks of their new hybrid personal vehicles for $20 again and drive from 400 up to 1,000 miles or more before filling up again. It would also be bad news for trouble-making states such as Iran and Venezuela that could no longer depend on giant inflows of developed-country petrodollars in order to finance military buildups, nuclear weapons research, or fund terrorist and guerrilla activities. John M. Manoyan is a chemical engineer, nuclear physicist and is now
an investment advisor in San Francisco. Michael G. Frodl is a tax
attorney, former chairman of the Environmental Law Committee of the Bar
Association of Washington, D.C. and an advisor on emerging risks. They
are the cofounders of the Forum for Environmental Law, Science,
Engineering and Finance. Their personal views do not represent those of