TCS Daily

Fuming About Gas

By Brock Yates - April 9, 2002 12:00 AM

While the CAFE issue has been put to sleep by the Senate, the hysteria to reduce the use of much-hated gasoline in the equally-reviled private automobile has hardly subsided among the Greens and their media toadies. The rumble on the West Bank has them fretting that OPEC will once again shut off the spigots in a fit of pique. Back to 1973 and endless gas lines and economic chaos. So the yelping increases to cut the petroleum umbilical for the sake of an alternative energy source -- any energy source so long as it doesn't issue from a gas pump.

But what to do? What are the alternatives? What power source awaits us to save from the mullahs?

The government has caved into the Great Prairie pols and the farm lobby's deep pockets to increase subsides on converting corn to ethanol. This is a scam of the worst kind. Keep in mind that 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol is roughly equivalent, energy-wise, to only one billion gallons of gasoline. That is, by the way, one percent of the nation's annual gas consumption. Experts say we could double the ethanol output over 10 years, but further increases would disrupt the overall feed and fuel markets. Genetically altered corn might increase production, but the environmental lobby is generally opposed to such fiddling.

Worse yet, ethanol fuel ends up using about the same amount of petroleum per BTU as gasoline. Why? Because large quantities of diesel fuel are consumed during farming and in transporting the biomass to processing plants, where even more energy is burned up. This is the wasted energy that ethanol advocates don't bother talking about.

In theory, the best alternative vehicle power source is the fuel cell, but massive development hurdles lie ahead in terms of cost, weight and size. It's a lovely idea: Brew up a little oxygen and hydrogen and zap! Out comes electricity and a little water vapor. Studies indicate that the perfect engine, in terms of greenhouse gases and fuel economy, would be a hybrid powered by hydrogen produced by an on-board "processor" fed with ethanol. Such a device would emit about 35 grams per mile of greenhouse gases (CO2, etc) as compared to 380 grams for a conventional diesel and 540 grams for a contemporary gasoline engine.

This looks great on paper, but even its most ardent supporters admit that miraculous technological breakthroughs would be necessary to make it a reality. There is a mad thrash within the automobile industry to design and build such hybrid engines, but progress is bog slow despite the cheery talk.

The electric car is a dead end, based on weight, the knotty problem of a quickly re-chargeable battery and the reality that our power grid will not accommodate large fleets of EV's (electric vehicles) sucking up additional kilowatts.

Here is the harsh, immutable reality blurring the fantasy of alternative fuels: Every other power source; hydrogen natural gas, ethanol biofuels of any kind, etc. consume more energy per BTU than petroleum-based fuels. We are talking "well to wheel" here; i.e. the entire energy producing package, not the simple propulsion of the vehicle.

But what about natural gas? We see various bus fleets and taxi operators bragging it up that they have cut their gas habit and are operating on propane. Nice idea, but like most other efforts this is pure show biz. The supply of natural gas in North America is too limited to serve any significant numbers of motor vehicles. Want more? Call Russia or our buddies in Iran. They've got plenty.

Oh yes, you have to liquefy natural gas for transit, which consumes gobs of energy. And did anyone bother to tell you that natural gas (methane CH4) has a global warming effect 21 times greater than the carbon dioxide (CO2)?

Probably the best alternative to conventional gas engines is a diesel/electric hybrid much like the gas/electric hybrids now being offered by Honda and Toyota and soon to be joined by other makes. But our archaic EPA and California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations are so anti-diesel that such engines are essentially impossible to market in the United States. Yet in Germany, where the Green movement started, over half the motor vehicles on the road are powered by clean-burning diesels. Go figure.

Such diesel-electric hybrids would slash a quick 20% to 30% from our daily motor vehicle fuel consumption and can be built with current technology. But why bother, when we can carp and posture in Washington about the greed of the oil moguls and the sloth of the car manufacturers? That's what makes headlines.

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