U.S. can't afford to ignore alternative fuels

April 30, 2006|By LARRY WILLIAMS | LARRY WILLIAMS,IDEAS EDITOR

Consider the good news about $3-, $4- or $5-a-gallon gasoline.

Running out of cheap gas is inevitable and can set the stage for a transition to greatly increased use of forms of energy other than oil to fuel our cars and trucks, heat our houses and generate our electricity.

The sooner we start that transition, many energy experts agree, the less painful it will be.

The world now uses more than 26 billion barrels of oil a year, but new discoveries of oil in recent years have been averaging less than 7 billion barrels yearly. The peak of world oil discoveries was in the mid-1960s. Inevitably, the time of the peak of world oil production must follow, with most current estimates ranging around 2020. Significantly, all estimates of production peak dates are within the lifetimes of most people living today.

Until recently, oil has been cheap, and easy to transport and refine into a wide array of fuels and industrial feedstocks. And, despite tightening supplies, oil could get very cheap again. Within six months of the height of the oil-supply crisis of the 1970s, the cost of a barrel of oil plummeted.

But it would be smarter to develop and use alternatives in an increasingly unstable world, even if it means taxing oil products to finance a transition to alternative fuels. Thankfully, there are good alternatives.

First, we are likely to make much more use of ethanol, an alcohol-based fuel easily produced from corn or sugarcane. American farmers do a fabulous job producing far more corn that we can eat, and agricultural experts envision a time when most cars and trucks in this country might run on ethanol.

The great thing about ethanol is that it is a renewable resource. We can just keep growing our fuel.

Brazil got excited about using its vast tracts of land suitable for growing sugarcane to produce ethanol at the time of the Middle East oil embargo of the late 1970s.

Now, virtually all Brazilian cars are equipped to burn ethanol, and that country expects to be energy-independent by the end of this year.

The ethanol business is already booming here, thanks to a kick-start from federal energy legislation approved last year requiring that an increasing amount of ethanol be mixed with gasoline sold in this country.

The Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry trade group, estimates that there are more than 30 ethanol plants under construction in this country.

They estimate that several of the 95 existing ethanol plants are expanding and that 150 more new plants or expansions are in the planning stages.

The industry's activity is concentrated in the Midwest, where much of the nation's corn is produced. The United States last year consumed an estimated 4 billion gallons of ethanol, compared with 140 billion gallons of gasoline, so we have a long way to go.

But the auto industry is already getting on board, agreeing to produce growing numbers of cars capable of using E85 - a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have 4.5 million vehicles on the road capable of burning E85, unleaded gasoline or other blends of fuels.

The new fuel is corrosive, so the vehicle fuel systems need to be built out of stronger materials to handle it.

Ford is expected this year to build 250,000 vehicles capable of operating on E85, and GM is to turn out 400,000 E85 vehicles in 2006 and 500,000 next year. DaimlerChrysler hopes to build 500,000, about a quarter of its U.S. production.

Beyond the vehicles, a growing national network of E85 fuel stations will need to be developed. Of the nearly 200,000 gas stations in America, only about 600 sell E85, with most of them in the Midwest.

There are a number of significant technical challenges to be met as ethanol use is expanded. The fuel produces less carbon monoxide than gasoline, but it produces just as much nitrous oxide as gasoline, and current methods of corn production consume significant amounts of energy because agricultural fertilizers are produced from natural gas.

The automakers hope to work with the White House and members of Congress to develop an ambitious ethanol strategy for the future. Those talks could lead to significant government tax breaks or subsidies to encourage use of the fuel. The current federal ethanol subsidy is estimated at about $3 billion a year.

Beyond ethanol, there are a number of other potential energy sources - some with more promise than others.

Coal: The United States has plentiful reserves of coal that can be burned in generating stations to produce electricity and clean hydrogen fuel for cars and trucks. Hydrogen fuel cells are already being developed for cars, trucks and buses.

But coal is difficult to extract and expensive to transport, and its consumption can pollute the atmosphere.

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