22 Aug 2013

Why Pushing Alternate Fuels Makes for Bad Public Policy

Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has backed programs to develop alternative transportation fuels. But there are better ways to foster energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions than using subsidies and mandates to promote politically favored fuels.
By john decicco

For nearly four decades, every American president has promoted alternative fuel vehicles as a way to secure the country’s energy independence. Ronald Reagan backed the 1988 Alternative Motor Fuels Act, which championed development of non-petroleum fuels. George H.W. Bush helped shape the 1992 Energy Policy Act, whose goal was to displace 30 percent of U.S. transportation oil use by 2010. Bill Clinton ramped up those initiatives, launching the Clean Cities program to promote alternative fuels. George W. Bush gave particular support to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and worked with Congress to create the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates a large increase in biofuel use that has now reached 16 billion gallons a year, mainly ethanol.

And President Obama — under the misguided presumption that alternative fuels emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline, and goaded by green groups and alternative fuel business interests — has been a staunch proponent of alternative fuels and electric vehicles (EVs). The president's first-term economic stimulus allocated an additional $300 million for alternative fuel vehicle deployment. His administration has enthusiastically promoted EVs, pledging to put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Obama’s new climate plan, unveiled in June, calls for ongoing efforts to deploy biofuels, EVs, and hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Despite this bipartisan support stretching back almost 40 years, the fact is that using government mandates and subsidies to promote politically favored fuels du jour is a waste of taxpayers’ money. It's also a diversion
There is no environmentally persuasive reason to rush alternative fuel vehicles onto the road.
from what really needs to be done to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Examining alternative fuels as they are produced today, as opposed to how some people wish they'll be produced in a hoped-for renewable energy future, reveals no environmentally persuasive reason to rush alternative fuel vehicles onto the road.

To be sure, fundamental science and engineering research are important for creating new options for the future, and so a well-hedged set of alternative fuel vehicle options has a place in the federal research and development portfolio. But as for going beyond laboratory research and development, a rigorous analysis shows that subsidizing deployment of alternative fuels and vehicles — totaling billions of dollars over the last 40 years — is a misplaced priority. The Renewable Fuel Standard, the $7,500 tax credit for electric cars, the alternative fuel promotions of the Clean Cities program — these and decades of other programs go well beyond research and development by trying to push alternative fuels and vehicles into the marketplace.

Instead, in order to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, action is needed on three fronts: continuing to raise fuel efficiency standards, pursuing policies to reduce driving, and, most importantly, controlling carbon upstream in the energy and resource systems that supply the fuels used downstream in our everyday lives.

George Bush hydrogen fuel
Alex Wong/Getty Images
President George W. Bush toured the first hydrogen fueling station in the U.S. in 2005.
In the case of electric vehicles, an upstream focus means cutting CO2 emissions from power plants, as Obama has proposed in his new climate plan. Without low-carbon power generation, EVs will have little lasting value. Similarly, for biofuels such as ethanol, any potential climate benefit is entirely upstream on land where feedstocks are grown. Biofuels have no benefit downstream, where used as motor fuels, because their tailpipe CO2 emissions differ only trivially from those of gasoline.

Given how difficult the climate policy debate has been, it's crucial to prioritize where our money, time, and attention are focused. Even if certain alternative fuel vehicle technologies (say EVs) may play an important role in the decades ahead, these technologies are unlikely to take the form being prematurely subsidized today. What’s at issue is not just the waste of tax dollars, but the squandering of public goodwill due to the hyping of alternatives.

Whether what propels a car is electricity, liquid fuels, natural gas, or hydrogen, the critical impacts all occur far from the car itself at locations where fuels originate and natural resources are exploited. Today, none of the relevant sectors — electric power generation, oil and gas supply, agriculture and land — are close to having their carbon impacts adequately
Accelerating power sector cleanup is far more important than plugging in the car fleet.

Take electricity, for example. In the United States, most of it still comes from fossil fuels — 37 percent coal and 30 percent natural gas, as of last year. Recent shifts to natural gas have had only a modest effect; CO2 from electricity generation is declining, but slowly, at a projected rate of less than one percent per year. But thanks to stronger fuel economy standards pushed by the Obama administration, the CO2 emissions rate of U.S. automobiles is on track to decline by 2.1 percent a year, more than double the rate of reduction in the power sector.

Given the gains in gasoline vehicle efficiency, the climate benefits of electric vehicles will shrink unless more is done to reduce emissions when generating electricity. Because power plants are retired much more slowly than cars are scrapped, government spending to rush EVs onto the road and underwrite their infrastructure is not money well spent. By the time the power sector is clean enough and battery costs fall enough for EVs to cut carbon at a significant scale, self-driving cars and wireless charging will probably render today's electric vehicle technologies obsolete. Accelerating power sector cleanup is far more important than plugging in the car fleet.

As for ethanol and other biofuels, a National Academy of Sciences report concluded that their climate benefits are highly uncertain. The study found that the Renewable Fuel Standard — now at 16 billion gallons and climbing — may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all once global impacts are counted. A pioneer in fuel cycle studies — Mark A. Delucchi of the University of California, Davis, Institute for Transportation Studies — now questions the accuracy of any of the greenhouse gas analyses used to promote biofuels.

In fact, biofuels have no climate benefit on the road, which is where they are burned. If there is a benefit, it happens on land and occurs only if harvesting biofuel feedstocks causes a net additional removal of carbon dioxide from the air. Take corn, which is the main feedstock for making ethanol. Growing the corn that becomes ethanol absorbs no more carbon from the air than the corn that goes into cattle feed or corn flakes. Burning the ethanol releases essentially the same amount of CO2 as burning gasoline. No less CO2 went into the air from the tailpipe; no more CO2 was removed from the air at the cornfield. So where's the climate benefit?

Until that question can be carefully answered for fuel produced on a large, commercial scale — as opposed to limited and costly experimental methods — it is not possible to scientifically determine the extent to which biofuels actually benefit the climate. The implication? We need to ensure that biomass feedstocks really do absorb more CO2 than whatever else might be growing on the land. For now, it makes more sense to soak up CO2 through
Climate policy should not be saddled with the legacy of disco-era, `anything but oil’ energy policy.
reforestation and redouble efforts to protect forests rather than producing biofuels, which puts carbon-rich natural lands at risk.

As for hydrogen fuel cell cars, the benefits depend on low greenhouse gas hydrogen production. Today, hydrogen is produced from natural gas or during petroleum refining, and commercially available hydrogen involves about 35 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than gasoline. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are more efficient than today's gasoline cars, but their ultimate value depends on extensive changes upstream in the industrial sectors where hydrogen is generated.

Similarly, the climate benefits of natural gas vehicles depend on the control of upstream emissions, particularly methane. Because natural gas combustion emits only 22 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline per unit of energy, and any methane leaks undermine that modest benefit, the climate benefits of natural gas vehicles are marginal at best.

Whatever fuel is considered, the real need is to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that now remain largely uncontrolled in the sectors from which fuels are sourced. This conclusion is based on a detailed analysis that works forward from present realities rather than backward from one imaginary future or another. Although one or more alternative fuels might have a role to play someday, which alternatives will be needed, and when, cannot be determined on the basis of current data. It's also quite possible that none will be relevant in the forms that alternative fuel vehicles are being promoted today. Moreover, given the poor track record of alternative fuels to date, there's no need to saddle climate policy with this legacy of disco-era, “anything but oil” energy policy.


John M. DeCicco holds a joint appointment as research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute and professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He was senior fellow for automotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund from 2001 to 2009 and transportation director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy from 1990 to 2000. The author of three books, he pioneered U.S. green car ratings as the author of ACEEE's Green Book and, most recently,

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With regards to the statements: "Burning the ethanol [produced from corn] releases essentially the same amount of CO2 as burning gasoline. No less CO2 went into the air from the tailpipe no more CO2 was removed from the air at the cornfield. So where's the climate benefit?"

The climate benefit lies in the fact that the aforementioned system is essentially carbon neutral and is inherently sustainable, whereas burning fossil fuels results in an increase of carbon in the biosphere.

One could, of course, argue that indirect land use change effects override the advantages of using biofuels, although our ability to accurately assess such iLUC effects is limited. See Mathews and Tan ( for a rather brutal takedown of the methods Searchinger employed ( when estimating such effects.

As to the notion that biofuels only offer a climate benefit if they result in a net additional removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, one must again note that we don't have the ability to accurately model business as usual and counter-factual (increased bioenergy demand) scenarios decades into the future ( Thus, determining whether biofuels affect land-based carbon stocks is not possible at this time.

The whole notion of carbon additionality can perhaps best be described as being merely clever. Yes, the net removal of additional carbon by biofuels is obviously the optimal scenario. However, our limited modeling abilities prevent us from identifying optimal scenarios. That is, at any point in time, there is, from a greenhouse gas emissions point of view, an optimal mix of products generated by the agricultural and forestry sectors. If we could identify this optimal mix and, at the same time, ensure that the optimal mix was not external to markets (that is, ensure that landowners receive financial compensation for producing the optimal mix of products), then we would have the mental comfort of knowing that we are doing our best to mitigate climate change.

Thus, Searchinger's notion of additional carbon essentially takes the perverse view that if biofuels aren't generating an optimal solution (which we can't identify/internalize to markets anyway) then we should adopt the least optimal solution by continue to burn fossil fuels.

Rather than debating philosophic notions such as additional carbon, society would be better served if we focused on sustainability. The flow of products (including biofuels) from a sustainably managed forest falls into this category. It may never be optimal, but it is sustainable, whereas burning fossil fuels is neither optimal nor sustainable.

Let's face it, as a society we rarely, if ever, make optimal choices. Insisting that biofuels, alone among all products, should have to meet academicians' notions of optimality in order for their use can be sanctioned is only leading us down a path of continued fossil fuel use.

Posted by Scott Lloyd on 22 Aug 2013

The good Professor is almost certainly right about biofuels. However, I think he is underestimating the speed of change in the electricity generating fleet in areas that have been very coal dependent in the past and the impact of renewables like wind and solar on the electric mix. The places where EVs are more climate friendly than even highly efficient gas cars will grow fairly quickly.

I think we need to distinguish between policies that I agree are deeply flawed like the RFS and more targeted efforts like the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard and parallel efforts to create similar Clean Fuel Standards as well as local and state efforts to foster EV and highly efficient gas car usage. Professor DeCicco is right to condemn the first set of policies but I fear that the second set of policies will get swept out in the same wave.

Posted by Seth Kaplan on 22 Aug 2013

This is a very poorly written piece, with little data or quantitative reasoning in support of the author's opinions. Electric vehicles are at least four times more energy efficient than the most fuel efficient conventional gas engine automobiles. If the long term objective is low to no carbon emission transportation, it will be impossible without EVs and a number of other new technologies. Increasing fuel efficiency standards is a short term strategy with inevitable limits.

Posted by Rishi Das on 22 Aug 2013

I disagree with John DeCicco on ethanol. Lets just focus on one point -- octane. John should know that probably the "critical" aspect of achieving proposed fuel efficiency standards is the advancement in of turbo boost engines (smaller, lighter, powerful) requiring high octane as in ethanol. John should also remember the health/environmental problems with past octane additives -- first lead and then MTBE (cancer) that ethanol has addressed. John also knows fully that the use of corn as ethanol feedstock is capped under the RFS (which we've almost hit) and the future of ethanol (to fuel high performance engines) is non-corn feedstocks, utilizing marginal lands.

Posted by Stephen Segrest on 22 Aug 2013

So everything California Air Resources Board and US Environmental Protection Agency have done on lifecycle analysis of biofuels is wrong? Interesting to note that virtually every study done since Searchinger brought up indirect land use has reduced the ILUC impact he calculated. Also should be noted that the corn ethanol part of the RFS is nearly filled. It is the lower carbon second generation fuels that would lose a major driver if RFS was repealed.

Key point missing from this article is the increasing carbon intensity of fuels, with unconventionals such as tar sands coming on. They can be around 20\% more carbon intensive than standard petroleum. So even an ethanol that may not be much better than gasoline from conventional oil is substantially better than tar sands.

John is right that a cleaner grid is key to unlocking EV carbon reductions. We're already there in part of the us. "In 11 states (Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Idaho,Vermont, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, South Carolina, California, and South Dakota), the best electrics are better for the climate than any gasoline car even when manufacturing is included."

The either-or of this article is not helpful. We need a both-and strategy, and allocation of resources equal to the scale of the problem. It's not efficiency or clean fuels - it's both.
Posted by Patrick Mazza on 22 Aug 2013

There is a big difference between publishing a piece like this in the popular press- where sources and logic matter less than aesthetics- and here. The good professor may be able to suggest to newspaper readers that there is no accepted life cycle analysis methodology and that fuel efficiency is unrelated to octane enhancement, but thankfully that isn't flying here.

Thanks to other readers who note that this guy has failed on technical literacy. I'd just also note that he never even began to support his own arguments. He suggests that policy was expensive and wasteful and then fails ever to examine any costs or benefits.

How did Yale end up running something so ridiculous?

Posted by Eric Sievers on 23 Aug 2013

If this piece had been written 5 years ago, perhaps someone looking at the state of EV development might have believed it. But today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that EV and battery technology is good enough to succeed in the marketplace. No technology advances without growing a market, so the suggestion made in this article that we should wait until the technology is better to introduce EVs is a curious understanding of reality.

If one wanted to eliminate market-bending subsidies, I suggest you look a little further than the relatively small alt-fuels programs and set your sights on the multitude of tax exemptions, subsidies and military support given to protect the petroleum industry. On a more level playing field, interest in an electrified transportation system would grow substantially.

Posted by Bruce Tucker on 23 Aug 2013

Excellent article. There are two ways to popularise the renewables. One mass production and subsequent reduction by way of subsidies and increased efficiency.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 23 Aug 2013

Since making my first comment I have tracked down a free summary of the National Academies of Science study to which DeCicco refers - Not having $68 to pay for the book. The entire case for the uncertain carbon benefits of biofuels is based on land-use change. The summary asserts 30-60 million more acres of crop land will be needed to meet the standard.

But any number of options exist to minimize or eliminate land use changes. In the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest project, which I served as lead researcher-writer, we identified four such options in the Northwest states. Logging slash piles, which are otherwise burned or decompose; the organic portion of municipal solid waste; algae grown on non-food lands; oilseeds grown in rotation with dryland wheat on lands currently fallowed.

Sustainable intensification of crop-growing on existing lands is also an option.

A more sophisticated analysis than I saw in the NAS summary appeared in Science in 2009. "Beneficial biofuels—the food, energy, and environment trilemma." Signed by a range of biofuel proponents and critics (including Searchinger), it lays out a paradigm for making fuels with limited land use change - A public access version is here -

Posted by Patrick Mazza on 23 Aug 2013

'By the time the power sector is clean enough and battery costs fall enough for EVs to cut carbon at a significant scale, self-driving cars and wireless charging will probably render today's electric vehicle technologies obsolete.'

This is a non-sequitur. An electric car charged wirelessly uses all the same bits that present BEVs do, but with a smaller battery. So the production of electric cars now is reducing the costs of the components needed for wirelessly charged cars by moving them to mass production.

What the author imagines self driving has to do with the subject at hand I can't imagine.
Posted by David Martin on 24 Aug 2013

'Today, hydrogen is produced from natural gas or during petroleum refining, and commercially available hydrogen involves about 35 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than gasoline. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are more efficient than today's gasoline cars, but their ultimate value depends on extensive changes upstream in the industrial sectors where hydrogen is generated.'

Fuel cell cars are around 3 times as efficient per unit of energy as gasoline cars, or twice as efficient or so after allowing for reforming losses.

According to California mandates, around 30 percent of hydrogen will also be generated renewably from resources such as landfill, unlike gasoline.

So there is real present benefit, and the author ignores this and counsels perfection, instead of taking a doubling in energy use efficiency with both hands.
Posted by David Martin on 24 Aug 2013

"Natural gas combustion emits only 22 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline per unit of energy."

Source, please! Refining, shipping, exploration life cycle included?
Posted by Thomas Blakeslee on 24 Aug 2013

I'm not sure that the government is committed to eliminating greenhouse gases. The US military is one of the worst abusers, and very little is happening there.

As well, there's consistent support for building more roads and more bridges — keeping the gas-burning automobile front and center for convenience and expense. Cities with less roads and more traffic jams rely more heavily on light rail, bus transportation, and other alternatives (like working from home) than cities without.

If the government were serious, they wouldn't be investing in green energy while improving traditional, carbon-burning methods.
Posted by Douglas Karr on 24 Aug 2013

The intro to this article states that the subjects will be greenhouse gases and energy independence.

His statements that the use of biofuels results in almost as much CO2 in the air is correct. But his statement that, "Today, none of the relevant sectors — electric power generation, oil and gas supply, agriculture and land — are close to having their carbon impacts adequately managed," is incorrect. There is one sector: nuclear power.

And despite the intro, he never addressed energy independence like he said he would.

The ability to pay less money to drive your car is a benefit he seems to ignore.
Posted by Robin Dickson on 25 Aug 2013

There was a similar article in IEEE Spectrum that speaks to the environmental challenges with electric cars:

Posted by John Doe on 26 Aug 2013

I would have much rather seen a piece of ALL available options/strategies to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Sadly, the author seems rather only to discuss why he thinks this or that doesn't do it. (And I agree with Scott Lloyd's position on carbon neutrality).

I would note, the author speaks only slightly to the increased CAFE standards The Obama administration put into effect and their benefit.

There are many little things that could be done, but each thing that could be done, someone may have to change something and hence have a higher cost (and lower profit, I can almost hear the moaning now).

Posted by Bill Wuepper on 28 Aug 2013

I greatly appreciate all the comments on my article. Rather than responding to each, I'll address key issues that arose, often in more than one comment. This first response addresses some general concerns to keep comments to a manageable size; I'll shortly post additional responses on two topics, biofuels and EVs, that were of particular concern in several comments.

First, for those seeking backup data, the e360 article is based on a technical paper in Energy Policy. It's hyperlinked as the "detailed analysis" in the article's last paragraph, but here's the full citation:

DeCicco, J.M. 2013. Factoring the car-climate challenge: insights and implications. Energy Policy 59: 382-92.

For those without journal access, a substantively similar working paper containing all the analysis is available for free download via SSRN:

DeCicco, J.M. 2012. Factor Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Automobiles. Working Paper. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Energy Institute, December.

These papers address many of the issues raised and document the data, analyses and references from the literature used to reach the conclusions summarized in e360 article. See the "Discussion" section of these papers, including the subsection, "Questioning the case for AFVs," for a more formal articulation of the reasoning.

A key point to clarify is that in scrutinizing mandates, subsidies and other special policy treatment for AFVs, I'm not arguing against the technologies themselves. When doing critical analysis, there's a risk of being put in the position of "If you're not for it, you're against it." My concern is with claims made to advocate for preferential policies. Thus, I'm not against alternative fuels themselves, just the special promotional treatment they get.

The piece acknowledges that one or more of the alternatives — e.g., biofuels, EVs and hydrogen — may have beneficial roles to play. Moreover, to avoid picking new fuel winners today doesn't mean that petroleum fuels will dominate forever. Rather, it means that the evolution of the fuel mix can be left to regulated market forces, in particular, carbon-constrained energy and natural resources sectors in addition to policies already on the books such as stronger CAFE standards. That's what is meant by the need for an upstream focus, which is the necessary complement to policies that are strictly technology neutral in seeking to reduce fuel demand through vehicle higher efficiency.

For example, EVs do have much higher fuel efficiency than conventional vehicles. Figure 1 in my technical paper illustrates a factor of 3.4 efficiency gain for an EV, based on comparing the Nissan Leaf to a similarly sized conventional vehicle. Factoring that gain directly into fuel economy standards is fine policy. What my analysis says can't be justified is giving the technology extra breaks beyond its directly measurable benefit, as is now done through policies such as tax credits and the ZEV mandate. My analysis is purely agnostic and looks rigorously at what can be done now, with high confidence based on current data and knowledge, to reduce the CO2 emissions related to transportation fuel use per se, beyond the worthy efforts to improve vehicle efficiency and reduce travel demand.

Finally, although "energy independence" has been a banner under which these debates have raged and is used in the editorial caption for the piece, my analysis focuses only on the environmental goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I don't pretend to have an answer for the rhetorical goal of "energy independence," as politically resonant as that may be.

Posted by John DeCicco on 30 Aug 2013

From John DeCicco's post of 30 Aug 2013:
"For example, EVs do have much higher fuel efficiency than conventional vehicles. Figure 1 in my technical paper illustrates a factor of 3.4 efficiency gain for an EV, based on comparing the Nissan Leaf to a similarly sized conventional vehicle."

I don't believe that's true. If not, ironically, the main point of John's article, with which I heartily agree, would be more strongly supported.

Looking first at power demands, just intuitively: The Leaf is not significantly more aerodynamic than other cars of similar size, and it weighs more. On the other hand, Leaf owners are apparently more willing to put up with lower cornering and braking performance, so there is some reduction in tire rolling resistance. But better aerodynamics and lower rolling resistance are just as applicable to a conventional vehicle as to a Leaf.

In the following calculations of power demands, I'm dubious about my own calculations, but I'll toss them out for comment: The Leaf is rated at 34kwh per hundred miles. Another way to express 34kwh is 45.5 horsepower hours. If we assume highway driving at 50mph, 100 miles takes two hours. That means the Leaf is using just under 23 horsepower to average 50mph. A conventional vehicle needs about 13hp to maintain 50mph, but that's at steady speed. Are these numbers valid? I don't know, but I just can't imagine that a BEV like the Leaf uses less than a third as much energy to move itself around as a conventional vehicle.

If the amount of energy needed to move the vehicle is similar, is electric propulsion much more efficient in providing that energy? Let's look at carbon emissions:

Burning a gallon of gasoline emits 8,788g of CO2. I have not found a definitive figure for well-to-tank CO2 emissions for gasoline, but I've seen estimates that well-to-tank emissions are about 25 percent of combustion emissions. At that, a gallon of gasoline consumed in a car has a carbon footprint of 10,985g. With these assumptions, a conventional car that averages 28mpg emits 392g of CO2 per mile.

In comparison, the Leaf looks pretty good at 222g/mile, based on 34kwh per 100 miles, an estimate of US average CO2 emissions of roughly 600g/kwh, and an electrical transmission efficiency factor of 92 percent.


I contend that charging of vehicle propulsion batteries is an added load on the grid, and when we're making decisions on how hard to push for deployment of BEVs, I propose that if there's a coal plant on the grid in a given area, then the carbon calculation for a BEV should be based on the carbon footprint of electricity from coal, not the portfolio average.

With that change, we have 950g/kwh for electricity from coal, which increases to 1,032g/kwh when we apply that 92 percent transmission factor. Now the Leaf is at 351g/mile.

Next comes the issue of the charge cycle efficiency of the battery:
When Car and Driver Magazine tested the Chevy Volt in EV mode, they used 13.2kwh from the plug to achieve a usable charge of 9kwh in the battery. That's a 32 percent charge cycle loss. I was stunned by that figure, and have no idea whether it was valid for the Volt, much less for the Leaf. But if that dreadful figure is correct, and if we use the carbon footprint of coal-generated electricity, the Leaf calculates out to 516g of CO2 per mile, a third more than the 28mpg conventional car.

How much energy does it take to move a BEV, compared to a conventional car?

What is the proper assignment of carbon footprint for electricity used to charge vehicle propulsion batteries?

What is the charge cycle efficiency of a vehicle propulsion battery?

If anyone has definitive answers to these questions, I'd be most interested.

Posted by Jeff Wick on 08 Sep 2013

Jeff, just a few corrections.

1) Considering most charging is done at night, you generally won't need extra capacity in a lot of places. Especially those with nuclear and hydro.

2) It takes 7.5 kwh of electricity to refine 1 gallon of gasoline. This does not include transporting the gasoline.
Posted by Weapon on 13 Sep 2013

We need to supplement oil-based fuels with cheaper, cleaner American-made fuels. This includes natural gas, methanol, ethanol and electricity. Opening up the market to competition from these fuels will bring down fuel prices. Depending on the means for which they are produced, these fuels are better for the environment.
Posted by Fuel Freedom on 19 Sep 2013

Here in Wisconsin, we have several "bureaus," for example, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which are regarded by both political parties as being impartial and technically competent. Legislators, other policy makers and the public just aren't able to judge the work, credibility and biases of experts, much less the clamor of amateurs like me. While there are people all over the federal government and other institutions working on energy issues, I don't see a focused institution that collects, processes and publishes information in a form usable by policy makers and the public.

With that, back to some amateur observations:

1. Given high initial cost and the operating constraints of BEVs, any discussion of the environmental advantages of BEVs is moot. Only with some major breakthroughs in battery cost, range and charging infrastructure would BEVs achieve 5 percent of new vehicle sales any time in the next 25 years, and then it would take more than 10 additional years before BEVs reached 5 percent of our total vehicle fleet.

2. In response to Weapon, while grid capacity would not be threatened by BEV charging because most of it could be done off-peak, there's still the key issue of carbon footprint. Coal plants don't go off-grid at night, and BEV charging is a marginal/additional load on the grid, so in those areas where coal plants are still on the grid, BEV charging would be a factor in keeping them on the grid. That's why I believe the carbon footprint calculation for BEVs should use the 950g/kwh figure for coal-generated electricity.

3. Again in response to Weapon, I've seen figures even higher than 7.5kwh of electricity to refine a gallon of gasoline, but I've been unable to find a definitive source. If that 7.5kwh/gallon figure is correct, and if the electricity is generated from coal, the carbon footprint just of that electricity would be almost 90 percent as much as the carbon footprint from combustion of a gallon of gas. (950g CO2 per kwh, divided by .92 to account for electrical transmission loss, times 7.5kwh = 7745g CO2 per gallon of gas for electricity, vs 8788g from combustion.) This is an example of where a competent, impartial bureau could fairly quickly bring greater clarity.

4. It is only very technically correct that a BEV is 3.4 times or four times more energy efficient than a gasoline-powered vehicle, and it creates a far more positive image for BEVs than is warranted. Yes, a gasoline engine only converts a small fraction of the energy potential of the gasoline into mechanical force, so it is by that measure very energy inefficient. But as John DeCicco points out, we need to look "upstream," and when we do, we see that a great deal of our electricity generation today is fueled with coal, oil or gas, with huge losses of thermal efficiency in combustion and smaller losses in transmission.

5. Then there is the issue of how much of the electricity is lost in the charging cycle of the BEV's battery. I contacted one major electrical testing lab, and they said they had not tested the charging efficiency of BEV batteries. With the billions we're spending on li-ion batteries, we really need that information.

Posted by Jeff Wick on 25 Sep 2013

Hawaii is the only state in the nation that manufactures "artificial natural gas" (currently by reusing naphtha byproduct from local oil refinery, but the use of waste organic materials is being investigated), and a byproduct is hydrogen. The state-wide infrastructure (8 islands) of artificial natural gas provides a natural infrastructure for the hydrogen distribution.
Posted by KenW on 28 Oct 2013

Speaking as a farmer, I must agree that the author is right in saying that biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, are not viable CO2 pollution reduction tools.

But the real problem with biofuels is not that they are failures in terms of pollution. They are failures in terms of sustainability of the entire environment.

The biofuel road is the broad, smooth road to environmental hell unless we get off of it. Once hooked on biofuels, the public will insist on more and more, at the expense of more and more land being brought into production to supply them.

More biofuels mean less forest, fewer prairies, less wildlife habitat, more water consumed for irrigation. More biofuels mean more fertilizer use, more downstream water pollution.

The primary key to solving the transportation and pollution problem is fuel efficiency and electrified transportation.

Our economy is dependent on our millions of houses and other buildings being put to good use. We can't just walk away from the sunk cost of all this infrastructure. We won't be able to get away from the personal vehicle, except slowly and painfully as mass transit is built, and as people gradually change their lifestyles in order to drive less.

But we already have affordable battery electric cars and light trucks, and they will get cheaper fast as the battery technology improves. We can also already build affordable wind and solar power farms, and the technology to charge cars from this renewable power is strictly off the shelf.

In a country where the typical household has two or even three cars, even a present-day electric car such as a Nissan leaf is quite adequate for most daily use, and given the much increased efficiency of such a car, charging even with coal fired electricity is a bargain on the climate change front.

In a few more years, most stores and places of employment will have started installing charging stations, and the cost of small-scale solar will probably have fallen far enough that millions of people will be generating their own electricity and charging their own electric car a good portion of the time.

Let's not forget that the long-term price trend of oil and natural gas is upward, whereas the price of renewable electricity, once the wind or solar installation is in place, will remain flat for all practical purposes for many years.

Posted by Oldfarmermac on 10 Nov 2013

Jeff Wick: All PEVs EPA efficiency ratings (such as 34kWh per 100 miles) already include all charging losses (they are wall-to-wheels, equivalent to tank-to-wheels for a gasoline car).

So 34kWh is a definitive downstream rating. Versus 33.7 kWh per gallon times 100 miles/29 mpg average compact car = 116 kWh of gasoline energy to go 100 miles.

Since 34/116 = 3.4 (the factor to which an EV is more energy efficient), hopefully that clarifies the confusion and misunderstanding.
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Better Place was touted as one of the world’s most innovative electric vehicle start-ups when it launched six years ago. But after selling fewer than 750 cars in a major initiative in Israel and losing more than $500 million, the company’s experience shows that EVs are still not ready for primetime.

For Electric Car Batteries, The Race for a Rapid Charge
The amount of time it takes to recharge lithium-ion batteries has been a major impediment to consumer acceptance of electric vehicles. But a host of companies and researchers are working intensively to develop a battery that can recharge in 10 minutes and power a car for hundreds of miles.

Self-Driving Cars: Coming Soon to a Highway Near You
Vehicles that virtually drive themselves are no longer the stuff of science fiction, with Google and other companies working to develop self-driving cars. These automated vehicles not only offer improved safety and fewer traffic jams, but real environmental benefits as well.

For the Electric Car, A Slow Road to Success
The big electric car launches of 2011 failed to generate the consumer excitement that some had predicted. But as new battery technologies emerge and tougher mileage standards kick in, automakers and analysts still believe that electric vehicles have a bright future.


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