Growing Our Own Fuel

In his State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush identified a wide variety of hybrid and alternate-fuel technologies for development in the nation's effort to free itself from the vagaries of relying on foreign sources of fuel. But a former Executive Director of the Maryland Public Service Commission suggests the solution could and should be far simpler. Ken Hurwitz, who is now a partner at Haynes and Boone, LLP, a law firm with an influential energy-related practice, says President Bush's "continued rhetoric" on research and development as to alternative energy sources is doing little to help wean the country from foreign sources of oil.

According to Hurwitz, "The marketplace will drive the development of new sources of energy in the future, but alternative fuels such as ethanol are available today and can be readily exploited with some minor improvements in the distribution infrastructure and, of course, some vision on the part of the domestic automobile industry."

To Hurwitz waiting to develop infant alternative-fuel technologies will simply waste precious time. 

"We know how to make ethanol from corn already," he said. "Let's focus on diversifying energy supply now by putting ethanol into our gas tanks."
 
What will it take to lessen our energy dependency? Hurwitz says we need to ensure that we have facilities with the capacity to produce a commercially viable supply of ethanol to supplement our current gasoline supply. Unlike other technologies, ethanol produced by corn is already a proven commercial technology and can be placed into the channels of commerce now. Hurwitz also makes a distinction between the processes that derive ethanol from corn and those that seek to derive ethanol from other sources.

"The capacity to manufacture ethanol from switchgrass, wood chips and other agricultural waste could be years away," he said. "We need to energize the movement away from over-dependency on foreign oil by encouraging further use of proven, market-ready approaches like producing ethanol from corn."

Equally important are creating a strong distribution chain for ethanol and the availability of vehicles that can use ethanol as fuel. Right now the latter seems to be outpacing the former. General Motors and Ford Motor Company made strong stands in favor of ethanol at the recent Chicago Auto Show, noting that they offer a wide variety of so-called Flex-Fuel vehicles that can run on gasoline and various gasoline-ethanol mixes, including E85, which is 85% ethanol. Between them GM and Ford say they will build 650,000 Flex-Fuel vehicles this year. But having all these vehicles on the road won't do much good is they are fueled with gasoline instead of E85, and right now E85 is hard to come by.

Estimates indicate that there are just 600 E85 fuel stations in the United States, and some regions (the Northeast, for instance) and states (Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, among them) have no E85 stations at all. This, of course, runs counter to any hope that ethanol will be a solution to our oil dependency.

"Completing the final distribution leg must make access to ethanol as simple as making an alternate selection at your local gas pump," Hurwitz said.

That scenario is possible -- and to many it is a more appealing solution than gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, which are much more expensive to develop and build than Flex-Fuel vehicles. But currently ethanol has its drawbacks as well, the most obvious being price. Right now E85 is more expensive than gasoline, and vehicles using it require more fuel to go the same distance as a gasoline-powered car, adding to the overall cost. Persuading the average American to pay more for a vehicle that will, in turn, require she or he to pay more at the pump will require quite a marketing campaign.

Cleveland-based Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on alternative-fuel technologies.

Can a State Control its Fuel Destiny?

With a population and economy as big and vibrant as many countries, the state of California often has displayed a tendency to go its own way. This expresses itself in politics, in fashion and, for decades, in the way the state has dealt with the auto industry. For decades California has been on the leading edge of the anti-smog and higher-fuel economy regulations. Its legislature has enacted statewide requirements for automobiles that have often been more stringent than federal standards, and now several states essentially follow California's lead in this area. As we speak, some vehicles that may be legally sold in most of the U.S. are not legal for sale in California, a situation that drives vehicle manufacturers and consumers alike to distraction.

Now an unofficial but highly influential California-based organization called CalSTEP (California Secure Transportation Energy Partnership) has outlined an agenda that it says will help the state to take immediate steps that will cut its dependence on imported oil while growing jobs and businesses. According to the organization, "The steps tap technologies and solutions available today, including deploying more efficient vehicles, promoting alternative and renewable fuels, and encouraging more energy-efficient planning and development."

CalSTEP's 15-year, still-developing action plan is designed to increase the state's transportation energy efficiency and fuel diversity and cut dependence on what it calls "unstable imported oil." It has developed a short list of near-term actions that can be taken in 2006 to secure the state's transportation energy future. Among them, in the words of CalSTEP, are:

Increase the blending of renewable fuels
California can achieve a near-term and meaningful displacement of fossil fuels with biofuels, such as biodiesel, ethanol, and biomethane. They can be produced in California and used in both low- and high-percentages for on-road transportation purposes, while supporting air quality, health, and economic welfare.

Invest in transportation energy security
The state must increase investment in measures that improve the state's transportation energy efficiency and diversify its fuel supply. Examples include: vehicle incentives; alternative fuel production; research, development, and demonstration; consumer awareness; mass transit and smart growth planning. The state should build on existing precedents that provide funding to improve air quality and generate funds to support renewable electricity generation and efficiency.

Spur state, local, and private fleets
California must lead by example and direct and fund state fleets to purchase and use significantly more efficient vehicles and alternative-fuel vehicles. It can set an example and use the state's economic power to help expand the market for advanced technology alternate-fuel and high-efficiency vehicles.

Use state transportation infrastructure investment to reduce oil consumption
The state is considering a massive new investment of $110 billion to improve roads, infrastructure, and goods movement. Those funds should be used to reward smart growth policies that provide more livable communities and promote transit. The state needs more energy-efficient community design. The state should find ways to ensure that increased goods movement does not increase air pollution or dependence on foreign oil.

Some of the CalSTEP agenda is clear-cut -- for instance, encouraging the purchase of high-fuel-economy vehicles by governmental units. Other aspects are nebulous at best, like investing in energy security. Further, at the core of the issue is how effective one state, even a state as large as California, can be in setting an energy agenda in a nation of 50 states. For instance, unless substantial financial incentives or onerous regulations are put in place to increase the blending of renewable fuels for California, it is doubtful that refiners, distributors, retailers or even the public at large will push for the change, which could prove costly to all parties. And one has to ask the question, as a matter of public policy, do consumers and government desire California fuels, Nevada fuels, Colorado fuels, etc.? Does it make economic sense to have different fuel-specs for individual states when this can present huge hurdles and potential disruptions and shortages in what is a largely national or, at the very least, widely regional market?

On this the jury is still out. But, no matter how laudable the overall goals and how widely based the organization that is putting out the agenda, many believe that the potential Balkanization of U.S. energy policy is a bad thing.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has reported on the auto industry for more than 25 years.

Wilder? Milder? Where Are Hybrids Going?

General Motors and the other U.S. auto manufacturers have taken some pretty hard knocks from the general and business press for being slow to jump on the hybrid bandwagon, but now a report from Tokyo indicates that Toyota Motor Corporation, one of the key proponents of gasoline-electric hybrid power, might be seriously rethinking its strategy.

Toyota's hybrid-only Prius model has become the poster child for hybrids in the United States, but after launching the Prius to building acclaim, Toyota has hedged its bets by launching a hybrid version of existing models like the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 400h.  Honda is following a similar strategy with its Civic and Accord hybrids in addition to its hybrid-only Insight, a two-seater that is largely a footnote in the industry these days.  Meanwhile, Ford is the only domestic maker to put a so-called "full" hybrid into the U.S. market, and its Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner twins use a large number of Toyota patents. 

But while the shift from dedicated hybrids to hybrid versions of existing vehicles is a gentle course correction, the news coming out of Japan marks a serious change in Toota's strategy.  The report in the Asahi newspaper, still unconfirmed by Toyota, says that the automaker will shift from its current hybrid technology to a less expensive technology as early as 2008.  Toyota has previously announced plans to sell one million hybrid vehicles by 2020. 

The move, if true, marks a major shift in Toyota's approach to hybrids after spending millions of development dollars on its current full-hybrid system, which makes extensive use of computers to control a complex set of engine controls and electric motors.  The results of this complexity are vehicles that achieve eye-popping EPA fuel economy numbers and can operate in some low-speed conditions under electric power alone.  But the current system is exceedingly expensive, meaning that current hybrid buyers are paying a significant premium versus the price of conventionally powered vehicles.

A number of competing manufacturers, among them General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, have advocated the use of what are termed in the industry as "milder" hybrids.  These systems are far less complex to develop, engineer and manufacture, and, while they don't offer the fuel savings promised by the full hybrids, they can be much more palatably priced.

The Asahi report indicates that Toyota's thinking is now headed in that direction after a period in which the company has considered touting the fuel economy and performance advantages of hybrid-powered vehicles.  While most Americans picture gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains as fuel-saving technology, the drive systems in the Highlander, RX 400h and even the Honda Accord Hybrid actually offer acceleration advantages versus the conventionally powered vehicles.  And Toyota has already announced that it will make that case even more clearly with its upcoming hybrid version of its Lexus GS luxury-sports sedan.

The move to milder hybrids can be viewed as either a retreat from or a supplement to economy-and-performance-oriented full hybrids.  It also indicates that General Motors might not have been so far off track when it decided to pass on full hybrids in the first place.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley frequently writes about automotive technology and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France

Be Smart on Gas Savings

With fuel prices continuing to rise at an uncomfortable level, many people are looking for ways to save.  And the general media is pouring gasoline on the flames with its on-going coverage of the fuel price issue.  But, as a rational consumer, there is a question you should ask yourself -- do you want to save fuel or do you want to save money? And while, at first blush, they might seem like the same thing, they can actually be very different.  The good news is there are simple, cost-effective things you can do to save both fuel and money.  The bad news is they are not the most obvious steps people are taking today.

First, let's examine the biggest step you can take to save fuel -- replacing your current vehicle with a new, high-gas-mileage car.  That might seem an obvious step, but even if you go from a notorious gas guzzler to a super-mileage champ like a Toyota or Honda hybrid, you will certainly save gas, but you are very unlikely to save money.  Why?  Because you are almost always better off financially keeping your current vehicle than buying a new vehicle.  The reason can be summed up in a word: depreciation. Very likely your current ride has already taken a huge value hit in depreciation but, at the same time, it likely has a great deal of useful life left in it.  To this, when you factor in the losses in passenger- and cargo-carrying abilities that you are likely to suffer and the premium prices hybrids are commanding in today's marketplace versus conventional vehicles, what seems like an obvious money-saver, becomes a pretty serious money-loser.

From a strictly dollars-and-cents point of view you are far better off to look to keeping your current vehicle and optimizing its fuel economy with low-cost maintenance items.  For example, experts at NAPA Auto Parts recommend that consumers strategically invest in short-term maintenance tactics to achieve long-term savings from improved engine efficiency and fuel mileage.  Specifically, replacing air filters, fuel filters, oxygen sensors and spark plugs will help boost fuel mileage. And usually this efficiency increase will be more than enough to offset their modest costs.

Properly cleaning, maintaining and replacing air filters when necessary will ensure better air flow through the entire engine system. Since an engine is essentially an air pump, this simple step to help it "breathe better" will improve engine efficiency and will result in more power and better fuel mileage.

"According to a recent EPA study, air filters can increase fuel mileage by as much as 10 percent," said Michael Lavoie, the 2006 NAPA Technician of the Year and owner of Lavoie's NAPA AutoCare Center in Haverhill, New Hampshire. "The EPA estimates the payback for replacing a clogged air filter may amount to more than 22 cents per gallon based on current fuel prices."

In addition to a free flow of air, efficient combustion also needs a well-regulated flow of fuel and strong, consistent spark.  When fuel filters become plugged, sensors signal a car's computer to send more fuel into the engine, resulting in poor fuel economy, emission testing failure and engine system wear. Regular cleaning of fuel filters will help reduce consumption by not triggering the sensors. Spark plugs are subjected to extreme conditions in the engine's combustion chamber, which can result in the engine misfiring and fouling. Replacing spark plugs at regular intervals will help keep the engine operating at an optimum level, while improving fuel economy and reducing emissions.

Finally, properly functioning oxygen sensors, which regulate airflow into the engine, are good for the environment and can save hundreds of dollars in fuel costs over the life of the sensor. Replacement intervals for oxygen sensors are similar to those for spark plugs and range from 30,000 miles to 100,000 miles, depending upon the type of sensor.

"U.S. Department of Energy studies and others have shown that replacing worn oxygen sensors can increase fuel mileage by up to 40 percent," Lavoie said. "Almost all gasoline-powered vehicles made after 1986 will have at least one oxygen sensor, with those manufactured in 1996 or later having at least two sensors."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini admits he's a notorious cheapskate, and he's happy to share his predilection for saving money.

Introducing the Plug-In Hybrid

When the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles were first introduced to the American market, their manufacturers were quick to point out that they never had to be plugged in.  Since the plug-in General Motors EV-1 was a dismal failure in the marketplace, the fact that the Prius and Insight never had to be connected to a receptacle was seen as a major plus.  But now Valence Technology Inc., a leader in the development of large-format Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, and EnergyCS, developers of integration control systems, have just showcased a new concept "plug-in" hybrid electric vehicle.

The vehicle, which ironically is based on a 2004 Toyota Prius, was just introduced at the 21st Worldwide International Battery, Hybrid and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Symposium & Exhibition (EVS 21.) The highly modified Prius, dubbed a "plug-in hybrid electric vehicle" or PHEV is a fully functional concept car powered by the Valence U-Charge Power System.  Because the Valence battery offers much more energy than batteries traditionally used in hybrid vehicles, it allows significant amounts of zero-emission driving with the concept PHEV. This answers one of the unasked questions about current hybrids, which still use fossil fuel and still emit quantities of internal combustion engine exhaust and so-called "greenhouse gases." 

The use of the more efficient, high storage capacity battery also results in phenomenal fuel economy.  Valence claims fuel efficiency that can reach up to 180 miles per gallon for an average commute of 50-60 miles per day, about triple the claims for a conventional Prius.

Because of the fuel economy, the PHEV also offers incredible range, which means fewer trips to the gas station. Using the U-Charge (plug-in) system, the PHEV offers a zero-emission electric mode in city and suburban traffic (up to speeds of 33 mph) and an efficient gasoline engine for long, higher speed trips.

The secret of the modified Prius's success is the high-tech battery design. Valence's phosphate-based Lithium-ion batteries have substantially higher energy density than competing batteries for hybrid electric vehicles.

"Unlike other types of Lithium-ion batteries, our Saphion technology offers the longevity and safety needed for both hybrid and pure electric vehicles," said Stephan Godevais, president and CEO of Valence Technology. "The Valence-EnergyCS plug-in hybrid vehicle is a breakthrough in the industry. It allows renewable energy to displace gasoline, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, which is increasingly important given today's environment and economic concerns."

Of course, a significant percentage of electricity that could be used to re-charge the vehicle is currently being generated using fossil fuels, but some argue that it will be easier to convert generating plants to renewable fuels than the automobile fleet.
 
The U-Charge battery system used in the Valence-EnergyCS PHEV is based on Valence's Saphion technology that replaces toxic heavy metals in batteries with phosphates, creating an energy storage battery that is chemically more stable, and therefore safer, than traditional oxide-based Lithium-ion batteries. The manufacturer claims the technology's chemistry yields a battery that is not only environmentally friendly, but requires virtually no maintenance and offers long life and low total cost of ownership.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini, who is based in Cleveland, has long been a fan of alternative-fuel technology.