Monday, September 15, 2008

Ship of Fuels

Am I the only one that finds it amazing to be on the same side of the spectrum as The Economist, when it comes to climate issues?

September 6th issue, in their Technology briefing:

...carmakers that 10 months ago were lining up to lobby Congress against proposed legislation that would oblige them to achieve a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. It simply could not be done they wailed.

According to the Economist while the grumbling continues the carmakers have woken up to the fact that customers are voting with their wallets, and ditching gas guzzlers because of prices at the pump. No doubt environmental concerns are in the equation too, but its easier to be green when it saves the folding stuff too.

BMW, Daimler and VW (makers of Audi) are leading the charge along with Hyundai, Fiat and Toyota in producing lower-emissions vehicles. These low-polluting foreign cars that are also cheap to run look so good to consumers that USA manufacturers are realizing that their profits are at stake if they don't follow suit.

While the oilmen keep saying "drill, drill, drill", its the volatility of oil as much as its current high prices that has got people moving. Sure we can - maybe - get more oil; and hopefully peak oil maybe won't happen. But I don't know if I'm going to turn up at the pump next week and half my paycheck is gone on fuel, due to some crisis or other.

One interesting thing the Economist says is that the hybrid is just a bridging solution. Its a painless introduction to green, and to electric power. The new hybrids are all plug-ins, says the money magazine, and it will be an easy step for those who are used to their Prius intricacies to find that the 2009 model comes with a 3-pin accessory.

Another recent article (Fall 2008, SWE Magazine, by Charlotte Thomas) discusses the current slew of fuel replacements that tech firms, car manufacturers and universities are working on.

Here the message concurs with what I have been saying - locality is the key. No one solution multiplied wider and deeper is going to work. There are promising new ways to produce fuel-cells, and advances in cellulosic acohol. But for example corn ethanol is not going to provide a country-wide solution, because scale is a deal-breaker.

I loved this quote from MIT Professor Daniel Nocera (quoted in Thomas' article):

Three factors will force governments, industry and consumers to curtail a voracious fossil fuel habit... economics, geopolitical instability, and public awareness of the adverse affects of fuels on the environment.

Fuels are necessarily a tiny part of the end solution because of the massive cost of processing them - many of the processes use much more energy to create the fuel and distribute it than is in the fuel itself. Electricity on the other hand already has a distribution system.

So as interesting as these fuels are they are all bridging solutions too. The hybrid has allowed us to have our long range vehicle - even tho' statistically we never use it.

With alternative fuels, biodiesels and so on, we have an environmentally palatable internal combustion nicotine patch.

So the medicine to break the oil addiction is going to be a lot cheaper on the environment, but its still a stage in the evolution of transportation to a truly sustainable pattern.