Thursday, February 22, 2007

Alternative energy for transportation

What about transportation alternatives, including hybrids and ethanol, versus small, fuel efficient cars? Congratulations, Nicole, on the purchase of a small, light, fuel efficient, 4 cylinder car! From what I know, this is the most economically viable way to reduce our transportation related demand for energy.

Let me explain that when I talk about economically viable alternatives I’m excluding tax credits and other government incentives. Don’t get me wrong, I think that government incentives have their place, encouraging development of alternatives that may eventually be viable, but incentives do not really reduce the cost of alternatives. They just mean someone else is paying the cost, i.e., you and I as taxpayers. At the same time, incentives are widely variable from time to time and place to place, and are generally based on politics rather economics. The incentives may improve the viability for you individually, but for a general comparison of alternatives it makes sense to me to exclude incentives from the equation.

With that out of the way, I want to repeat that the most viable alternative for decreasing our use of energy for transportation is the small, light, fuel efficient car. Few things amuse me more than an individual driving a 5000 lb vehicle with 300 hp to the office, alone, while complaining about the cost of fuel and the conspiracy to increase the cost of gasoline. I have no problem with anyone driving these vehicles, and indeed they have their place and it is an individual decision, but the individual should recognize their responsibility for their decisions and their effect on the supply/demand curve driving fuel costs. Happily, there is a lot of room for reduction in this area, because viable alternatives for the near future are pretty sparse.

Electric hybrids, and more recently, plug-in hybrids, are the popular alternatives, driven by government incentives. Unfortunately, these vehicles are marginally viable with the incentives and are far from viable on a total cost basis. The problem for these vehicles lies in the state of battery technology today. The energy density in terms of both energy storage/pound and energy storage/dollar is simply too low. The substantial weight of batteries is a barrier to high efficiency and the cost is a barrier to economic viability. A relatively short life contributes to the cost problem. Perhaps economy of scale or new technology will eventually change this relationship, but the fact today is that hybrids are uneconomic barring dramatically higher fuel costs.

I believe that other types of hybrids, though rarely heard about today, may have more potential than electric hybrids. Alternative energy storage methods such as hydraulic or kinetic (flywheel) have the advantage of quick absorption and release of energy, which could mean reduced weight required for high energy outputs and the ability to more effectively capture braking energy. At the same time, I believe these mechanical type storage devices could mean a longer useful life and lower cost.

Likewise, ethanol is a popular topic today. And a small percentage of ethanol added to gasoline is viable, since it increases the octane rating of the gasoline and thereby makes the most of the energy in gasoline. Unfortunately, as a wholesale substitute for gasoline the economics are not there. As with hybrids, incentives make ethanol marginally economic, but on a total cost basis it is far from economic. The sad fact is that the current corn-based ethanol economy uses almost as much fossil fuel to create as it delivers. I say this, despite the fact that I own land used for growing corn, meaning I would be a substantial beneficiary of increased use of corn. Again, a change to use of switchgrass or sugar cane could change the equation, but it won’t happen any time soon. Sugar cane, in particular, is uneconomic in this country because it is labor intensive. This is borne out by the fact that corn sugar is the cheapest, most used sweetener in the United States. And, while using more of the plant than just the grain seems attractive, returning the plant to the soil is a big factor in maintaining healthy soils.

As for hydrogen, my thoughts have been expressed in a previous post.

It could be argued that public transportation or more carpooling could be viable alternatives, but the convenience factor means that for most, only a substantial increase in fuel cost would justify the inconvenience.

As I said, the list of alternatives is not very attractive in the current environment. About the best we can hope for is some technological development that is as yet beyond the horizon. Meanwhile, lighter, more fuel efficient versions of our present vehicles will be our best alternative if fuel costs become burdensome.