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Kicking the oil habit. How to get alternative fuel cars on the road. Lots of them. Right now.

Peter Gray is an economist at the Environmental Law Institute.

How to get alternative fuel cars on the road. Lots of them. Right now.

For years I had been substance-dependent, and it was time to get out. The stuff had always made life easier-until the after-effects kicked in. As friends warned me it would, it was starting to ruin my health. Sure, it was relatively cheap, but I could no longer dodge the fact that kids were dying so foreign cartels could feed my habit. I had to do something. Oil was ruining my life.

What I got my hands on was one answer to U.S. petroleum dependence-natural gas, a fuel that's cheap, clean, and domestically abundant [see "Energy Without Emirs," October 1990]. There I was, wind in my hair, tiger in my tank, driving a standard full-size Chrysler and enjoying as smooth a ride as Lee Iacocca ever promised. The only thing missing was the gasoline.

Any serious discussion of breaking our petroleum addiction has to focus on transportation. Vehicles drink nearly 12 million of the 18 million barrels we use daily, and most of that goes into cars, trucks, and buses. Transportation is 97 percent oil-dependent, while electricity generation is only 5 percent. Although oil use for purposes besides transportation has dropped 20 percent since the mid-seventies, vehicles have boosted their demand by about the same amount. As a result, we're back to the oil consumption peak of 1976, with less crude in the ground and little hope for stability in the major oil-rich countries. But we have the tools to get the oil-monkey off our backs-if only we'd choose to use them.

Of the contenders to replace oil, compressed natural gas and electricity are the most immediately promising. Both are cleaner than gasoline. Both are available now, without pie-in-the-sky technological advances. Neither poses the national security problems of petroleum. And when environmental effects are counted, both cost less. The trick is to identify the transportation niche that each can fill and then gradually begin displacing gasoline-powered vehicles. The ideal initial target group for converting to natural gas, for instance, is fleet vehicles-which consume 20 percent of our road transportation energy. That's about as much oil as we import from the Persian Gulf.

It was a bit of a letdown when I finally got to drive an automobile powered by natural gas. Out on the open road, I flipped a switch on the dash to go from gasoline to compressed natural gas (CNG) and ... nothing happened. An instant's hesitation, and then the Chrysler drove as it had before. Or so it seemed. In fact, from the planet's perspective, the situation had changed radically. After all, the smog-producing components of my exhaust had suddenly dropped 80 percent.

Natural gas vehicles (NGVS) not only contribute a lot less to local smog than do gasoline or diesel vehicles, they also emit 25 percent less carbon dioxide, which means less risk of global warming. Because the fuel is so much cleaner than gasoline, vehicles running on it require less maintenance and fewer oil changes.

And this is no fantasy fuel; some 750,000 NGVs are already on the road, and doing quite nicely. Unfortunately, only 30,000 of them are in the U.S.-about one car in 6,000. Canada, with one-tenth of our population, has an NGV fleet two-thirds as large. Australia and Italy have 50 times as many NGVs per capita; New Zealand's proportion is 320 times as high as the U.S.'s. Those countries haven't wrecked their economies or deprived their citizens of the inalienable right to the thrill of the open road. With the help of NGVs, cleaning up the air and protecting the beaches, reducing the risk of global warming and keeping troops out of the Middle East can be achieved without drastically changing your life.

The fuel itself is 30 to 50 percent cheaper than gasoline, and likely to stay that way for at least a few more automobile lifetimes. Like the Chrysler I drove, nearly all NGVs now on the road have modified ("dual-fuel") gasoline engines. Adding compressed natural gas capability runs about $2,000, in part because it is done on a small custom scale. (The NGV I drove is owned by Washington Gas, which had to send the car to West Virginia for conversion.) In a typical family car, money saved on fuel could take eight years to pay for the retrofit. This isn't likely to be a big hit with the average consumer, although reduced maintenance costs would sweeten the deal. But several technologies now in development will improve the picture for NGVs. A "dedicated CNG engine" will get higher efficiency and performance by taking advantage of the 135 octane rating of natural gas. This higher efficiency will help close the gap in driving range between NGVs and conventional cars-CNG currently requires four times the fuel-storage volume as gasoline. Better fuel tanks should reduce weight and increase range.

You may agree that the warm feeling of doing a little extra for national security and the environment would more than balance any small differences in cost and convenience. But before you rush into anything, let me warn you of a little problem you'll run into 100-odd miles down the road. Have you ever seen a CNG filling station?

I have personally visited one-third of all the supposedly public CNG pumps in America: at the Amoco station at 9th and Pennsylvania in Southeast D.C. (the other two are in Colorado). The pump is a simple white box sporting Amoco's green-leaf CNG logo and two thin hoses. Because of an archaic utility regulation prohibiting resale, this D.C. outlet, which isn't yet operational, won't even be able to sell natural gas to the public. But surely the scarcity problem is fixable. When personal computers came out, there weren't too many stores where you could buy floppy disks, either. That didn't mean we should have given up on PCs.

The ABCs of NGVs

Converting to natural gas vehicles poses a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Detroit would be willing to optimize an NGV if there were a solid market for it, and mass production would eliminate the high cost of retrofits. Buyers would be attracted to its low operating costs-if they could readily refuel it. And gas station owners would install CNG compressors if there were enough demand to make that investment profitable. But no one will make the first move.

The key to breaking this gridlock is to begin with cars that travel local routes and can be centrally fueled. "Fleet vehicle," the catch-all category, includes buses, delivery vans, garbage trucks, taxicabs, even rental cars-in all, about 10 percent of American vehicles. These vehicles consume some 20 percent of road transportation energy, because they log double the annual mileage of the average family car (which means that retrofits will pay off twice as quickly). The conversion sequence could work like this:

1) Start with government-owned or -operated cars, buses, and trucks that run on regular schedules. Put inexpensive overnight-fill compressors at their central parking lots. (Off-hours fueling makes better use of gas pipelines, too, by leveling out demand.) In Texas, one-third of new transit and private fleet purchases in metropolitan areas must be alternative fuel vehicles by 1994; that number will go up to 50 percent in 1996, and 90 percent by 1998. The more cities that follow Texas's model, the cheaper conversion will be for all.

2) Convert private fleets of company cars, delivery vans, and taxis. (Imagine what this could do for New York City's air quality.)

3) Switch longer-range government vehicles to natural gas.

4) Convert most rental cars to natural gas. Customers who rent for local use could get discounts for renting NGVS. After all, the majority of clients at National, Hertz, and Avis are businessmen who tend to use their cars only to get around town (a National employee in D.C. estimated that the average businessman puts only 20 miles on the odometer). And because 85 percent of all rentals are dropped off where they were picked up, many rental sites could be easily converted to centralized compressed gas fueling.

By step four, there'd be enough demand to support some private filling stations in big cities, and auto-makers would be producing engines to take advantage of CNG's greater efficiency. The cost advantages of NGVs would then become compelling to commuters, especially if air regulations cracked down on traditional fuels at the same time. Once this snowball effect gets big enough, perhaps Americans will be able to drive coast-to-coast in natural gas vehicles ... which means we'd finally catch up to the Canadians, who already can.

Silent running

While we're waiting for these natural gas filling stations to sprout up, we can begin switching to electric vehicles (EVs). EVs are quiet, rechargeable virtually anywhere, and clean. Even when you take into account the emissions caused by making the electricity they use, EVs contribute less to local smog than gasoline-powered cars. Using coal-fired power, they produce slightly more carbon dioxide, but 90 percent less when they use nuclear, and 100 percent less with renewable energy. Think about it: streets full of softly humming vehicles, not a tailpipe in sight.

An EV drives pretty much like any other car, except that the brakes feel odd. That's because when you step on the brake pedal, the motor becomes a generator, pumping energy back into the batteries instead of dumping it overboard as waste heat. When the motor is not needed to push the car (at a stoplight, for instance), it simply shuts off like a light. For environmental reasons, this feature makes EVs more attractive in traffic-congested areas. They'd be a godsend in Southern California, where some 20 percent of gasoline is burned in cars stuck in traffic, getting zero miles per gallon.

By plugging an on-board charger into a socket at home, you could juice up your EV overnight for about half the cost of the gasoline it would take to drive as far. But although EVs have been around for a century, they are still rare creatures, numbering less than 10,000 worldwide. Why? Probably because their range stinks: I recently drove an electric G-Van" owned by Southern California Edison-a smooth and quiet ride, but the van could go only 60 miles before it needed to recharge for several hours.

But if you apply a little common sense and consider the statistics, this problem starts to shrink. We all know two-car families-in fact, there are about 40 million U.S. households, and more every year, with two or more cars. Clearly, in many of these households-more common sense-the family tends to rely on one car for trips around town, another for trips on the open road. Now consider this fact: The average commute to work by car-round-trip-is only 10 miles. And it takes place at an average speed of 31 mph. For that trip, you don't exactly need the Batmobile.

EVs can also be used commercially. Although the G-Van is simply a low-tech variant of a vehicle built to run on oil-the gasoline engine, transmission, exhaust system, and radiator have been stripped out and replaced with one ton of batteries and an electric motor-it is ideal for predictable, short-haul urban driving. The electric van would cost about five percent less to own and operate than a gasoline-powered one. That's why the British have used electric delivery vans for years, and why electric trucks are hauling trash in, of all places, Saudi Arabia.

Put one EV in each multi-car family, throw in all those short-range fleet cars and vans, and you're talking about a hefty slice of the market. In fact, General Motors is aiming to have a marketable EV on the road by mid-decade. With the help of Paul MacCready, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' "Engineer of the Century," GM has already built a prototype high-performance electric sportscar, regrettably called "Impact." The Impact has a top speed of I I 0 mph and a range of 120 miles. GM is currently touting Impact research in television spots. Through more aerodynamic designs, higher pressure tires, and an improved power train, MacCready thinks we can double auto energy efficiency without loss of safety or performance. Improved efficiency not only cuts oil demand directly, but it also strengthens the case for lower-density alternatives like EVs by easing the problems of energy storage and range.

Guilt- and Gulf-free

Aside from waging war in the Gulf, the Bush energy strategy should include more than just lobbying for oil pumping in environmentally sensitive areas. That sort of pumping will meet one year of national demand at best, while leaving the U.S. with less in reserve for the next crisis. If, as Bush suggested it would in his State of the Union Address, the administration focuses in the next year on the need for a credible energy policy, here are some more imaginative steps it might consider:

> Consumer Information: as in labeling, for example. If we can require labels on cigarette packs and beer bottles, we can certainly do so on automobiles. Sure, we have EPA mileage ratings, but they run 15 percent higher than reality, and they aren't much use in buying decisions. A smarter system would put a statement on each sticker such as: "This car will cost about $W per year to own and operate." To better inform more conscientious consumers, the label might add, "It will do X, Y, and Z to the environment." A lot of us would discover that driving can be much cheaper than it is now-and guilt-free at the same time.

> Get Fuel Prices Right: Until the price of each commodity reflects the side effects of its use, we won't get the full benefits of a free market. Since our troops are presumably not dying to protect OPEC's right to overcharge us for oil, let's assume that when the war ends, oil will finally trade at its market price. All energy sources should then be taxed in proportion to the costs they impose on society through pollution, resource depletion, and security risks. Estimates of these costs don't have to be perfect to be better than what we use now.

> Reward as well as Penalize Automakers: A sliding scale of tough penalties on dirty gas guzzlers balanced by rebates for the leanest and cleanest would tell Detroit and Japan what to do. We can then get them figure out how to do it.

> Support Efficiency and Renewables Research: Department of Energy efficiency programs of the early eighties are yielding thousands of dollars in direct energy savings for each research dollar spent. In the long run, putting money into efficiency R&D will do as much to protect and improve the American way of life as investing in more Patriot missiles.

"We are doing everything we can to guarantee . . . that there will be an adequate supply of hydrocarbons," declared George Bush during the early days of the Gulf crisis-in retrospect, perhaps the most chilling comment on American preparations for war. Once the dust settles in the desert, maybe Americans will realize that there are better ways to get their hydrocarbons than by fighting for them, and that there are better ways to get to work in the morning than by driving a gas guzzler. Oil may have helped make the United States great, but it's time to start letting go.
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Author:Gray, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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