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Aternative Fuels: Moving Us Transport off Oil

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Aternative Fuels: Moving US Transport off Oil

David E. Lane

U85-5550 The Politics of Oil

Graduate Program in International Affairs

Washington University in St. Louis

Spring Semester 2006


A single day's news reflects the broader ramifications of U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Securitization of oil and energy supplies is a major focus of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and around the globe, but these efforts have a far greater cost than just what we see at the pump. Military operations in Iraq alone have cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars but rather than making Americans safer, the occupation has become a catalyst for anti-American sentiments in the Middle East and beyond. For reasons such as these, it would seem prudent to begin a national transition towards decreased petroleum dependence.

The military, petrochemical arena (plastics, pesticides), and the aviation industry are all sectors where petroleum needs are vital and for which no large scale viable alternative exists. Electricity generation from oil, once largely based upon petroleum, is now down to an almost negligible 2% nationwide (EIA 2004). These sectors do not comprise the largest area of demand for oil even when combined. It is personal transportation alone that accounts for over 60% of all petroleum consumed in the U.S. (Klare 2004, 193). Addressing vehicle fuel efficiency is therefore the key to making a difference. Other alternatives such as public transport, walking, and bicycling, are useful but cannot compare to the impact that vastly improved automobile efficiency would make. With nearly 200 million vehicles, the U.S. is the largest consumer of oil in the world. The size of the country with its many population centers still relatively conducive to a mix of personal automobiles and public transportation precludes the likelihood of citizens abandoning cars en masse in favor of public transport. Energy costs are increasing, but most of the country is unlikely to face the same set of constraints a citizen of Tokyo or Paris faces that make ownership of a car unappealing. Personal automobiles, with their promise of unlimited mobility seem deeply ingrained into the American psyche.

In analyzing any potential new fuel source, it is essential to know how much energy is returned on energy invested, its "EROEI". Another way of expressing this is to ask whether a given alternative energy is economical to acquire, refine, transport, store and use. This includes looking at all points in the chain, from its source (fossil fuel or plant-based) to its refinement and transportation processes. Once all these factors are considered, then based on comparative analysis, the question of whether it is viable and economical can be answered.

Natural Gas

Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG) vehicles represent a relatively mature technology. They've been used successfully for years on inner city bus lines where clean exhaust is paramount. This is a highly appropriate implementation for CNG and LNG, but there are several issues which may diminish the likelihood of natural gas gaining widespread acceptance for personal vehicles.

Public filling stations are currently few and far between; 135 in California, and 600 nationwide. Coupled with the fact that the range of natural gas cars is about 40% less than an equivalent internal combustion car, many people are reluctant to risk driving them and getting caught stranded.

Recently, natural gas home refueling units have been introduced which may broaden the market appeal of natural gas somewhat, but there are drawbacks. The home units which tap into the household gas lines are expensive ($5000) and require a full eight hours to refuel.

Perhaps most significantly though, reserves of natural gas in the U.S. are not sizable enough to contend for large scale replacement of petrol fuel. The US has just 3% of the world's known natural gas reserves (NGSA 2004). Natural gas currently plays an essential role in home use and in electric power generation. In the power source mix for California's electrical grid, natural gas accounts for 48%, so demands on this resource are already quite high (PG&E 2004). Depending on natural gas for widespread use in personal automobiles would represent a continued reliance on a finite fossil fuel largely imported from other nations. Most of the issues that plague oil dependency are replicable with natural gas.

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been catapulted onto the alternative fuel world stage with such enthusiasm that it would seem to contain more than a seed of hope to addressing our future energy needs. Running automobiles on an unlimited supply of water containing hydrogen captures imaginations. This particular alternative fuel technology, however, may be a case of what most scientists and engineers come know, that is, most any technological feet is possible, but at what cost? The more critical aspects of cost and viability in real world applications outweigh the novelty of the achievement.

Hydrogen may be used in an internal combustion engine configured to run on liquid hydrogen though most of the talk is about using hydrogen in fuel cells to generate electricity. A fuel cell is an electromechanical device which uses hydrogen combined with oxygen to produce electricity. That electricity, in turn, drives the electric motors that propel the car. Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are thus electric vehicles.

Fuel cells were a part of the Apollo Mission in 1964, employed to run the onboard electronics of the lunar module, yet in the intervening years since they have gained little ground in real world automotive applications. Honda has leased a single FCV to a carefully screened Southern California family. This is the only Honda FCV being driven by any non industry citizen in the country. They refuel at a plant nearby, one of a handful in the country. It has a range of 120 miles and costs a prohibitive $1,000,000 (Hakim 2005).

The source for hydrogen can be water, the most abundant resource in the world as advocates of this technology will point out. Hydrogen exists nowhere in a pure state, however, and must be isolated from compounds that contain a hydrogen element. This process is energy



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