Land of Millikin Honey

Mike Millikin of Green Car Congress.

In your opinion, what’s the most promising path for future cars? Fuel cells? Biodiesel? Electric? What’s the most important thing the average person can do to reduce the impact of their motoring?    — Matt Weiser, Sacramento, Calif.

Short- to medium-term: Plug-in hybrids with a downsized diesel or alternative/biofuels fuel-combustion engine component.

Long-term: Hybrid with fuel cell (but something may come along that completely throws that into the dustbin).

Drive less. Take more than one person in the car when you can. Drive well (no speeding, no racing from stoplight to stoplight; don’t leave your car idling; keep the car maintained and functioning to its best potential). If you happen to have a diesel, use biodiesel.

Do you see a role for car sharing (members pay for cars parked in their neighborhood by the hour, gas and insurance included) in future green-car efforts? If so, what’s the appropriate role for government to take?    — Dave Brook, Portland, Ore.

Absolutely! It’s a great idea, and appears to be (ahem) “gaining traction.” Ideally, government should be very supportive, as proliferating car-sharing programs could help with congestion in urban areas. I’d like to see car sharing as an integrated component to a regional public-transit strategy. Moving even further along the support axis, governments could use car sharing as a means to help develop the market for hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles. That’s not so far-fetched — Austin, Texas, is taking an active role in promoting plug-in hybrids. (The city also owns the electric utility.) But, at a minimum, governments should encourage private organizations to form car-sharing services and work with them to facilitate access (parking, etc.).

Within the next 18 months I want to buy a hybrid van or other mom mobile. Do you have any recommendations? If I wait, what is on the horizon?     — Aimee McCullough, Kailua, Hawaii

Eighteen months gives you a pretty good window. Right now, you could choose from a Toyota Highlander, a Lexus Rx400h, or a Ford Escape (all hybrid SUVs). Upcoming are a number of other SUVs. Likely first hybrid minivan would be the Toyota Sienna (perhaps 2007) or the Honda Odyssey. (Although Chrysler might surprise us.)

How would you approach the concept of sustainable mobility with regards to the issue of suburban sprawl and the terrible reliance a majority of commuters have on automobiles?     — Michelle Mohney, Flossmoor, Ill.

I think that the seeds of the solution are in the rising cost of fuel — just as the seeds of sprawl were in the relatively low cost of fuel.

In the short term, and in a regional urban context, the situation can be addressed through increasing the options for regional public transportation (such as bus rapid transit) and increasing incentives for carpooling, ride sharing, and so on. We can fund a more rapid transition to low-emission, hybrid, and alternative-fuel bus fleets. Car-sharing services may well prove to be an important companion to a regional public-transit push (i.e., once you get into the transit hub in your destination, how do you move around?).

A steady and ongoing rise in the price of fuel is going to start to put pressure on businesses to figure out how to manage their costs — and retain their employees. Employers can play important roles in mitigating the effect of our sprawl/commuting society by providing shuttle services between facilities, or even commuting options. (Google, for example, runs a biodiesel shuttle between its main office in Mountain View and San Francisco. The company calculates that, based on reducing employees’ driving back and forth in cars, it is saving some 2,325 gallons of gas per week.)

Medium- to longer-term options would include putting in more rail service. Opponents of rail may snipe that it is cheaper to buy every commuter his or her own SUV than to fund rail development — that argument leaves out the cost of highway maintenance, rising costs of fuel, environmental impact, and so on.

Policy-makers can accelerate efforts through a variety of means: congestion tax, carbon tax applied to fuels, etc.

Ultimately, though, for any of this to work, the bulk of us have to want it to work. We already went through version one of oil crunch a few decades back, and had we maintained a path of efficiency and conservation, we’d be in a different situation right now.

How can we bring class issues into the discussion about greener transportation means? For example, I live in upstate New York, and I drive a 12-year-old Subaru primarily because I cannot afford a newer automobile. Winters here are essentially six months long, which rules out bicycles much of the year. Besides, there is no such thing as bike lanes on most of the county or state roads around here, and there is no public transportation to speak of. So how do those of us who think and dream green manage to do right in such a set of circumstances? — Name not provided

Sled dogs? Just kidding.

You raise a very important issue, and not just from a class perspective. The U.S. fleet has 237 million vehicles. Of those, 136 million are passenger cars with a median age (half above, half below) of 8.6 years (Bureau of Transportation Statistics). What to do with all those legacy cars?

Vehicle maintenance and driver behavior play very important roles in maximizing fuel efficiency and minimizing emissions in older cars. Keep the tires at the right pressure, keep the filters clean, the engine tuned, and so on. Basic stuff.

In terms of driving, you can make a big difference by not speeding. Studies have estimated that on the highway, some 50 percent of the energy required to keep rolling is aimed at overcoming aerodynamic drag. As speed increases, the aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance increase. Cut the speed, conserve fuel. A rule of thumb says that an increase in passenger car speed from 65 mph to 70 mph typically results in a 10 percent decrease in fuel economy. The 10 percent decrease is not a linear relationship — there is an increasingly greater increase in fuel consumption as speed increases. The 55 mph speed limit was originally established 30 years ago in response to the set of oil crises then.

In traffic, you can cut your engine at traffic lights, or if you’re stopped for more than a few seconds. (Manual idling-stop or start-stop.) As an example, the Japanese government is taking a campaign for such manual “idling stop” from buses and taxis and other commercial vehicles to the general car-owning population in an effort to save fuel and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In tests run by the government, idling-stop reduced fuel consumption by 13.4 percent. (You’re seeing automatic stop-start systems appear in even non-hybrid new cars, but that’s not the point here.)

Why do you think it’s so hard to get people out of their cars and onto public transportation or their bikes or even just walking?    — Paul Cooley, Santa Fe, N.M.

Or even just carpooling. I think that’s a very complex question, with numerous factors entwining to create a Gordian knot of habit and preference. It’s also an aspect of the logic and tragedy of the commons.

I think part of the cause is the feeling of liberation and empowerment from being able to go where you want to, when you want to, with a minimum of physical effort, a maximum of comfort, and little immediate visible downside. Ask most pre-driving teenagers — they’ll tell you.

Nor is it a phenomenon just associated with the U.S., although we’re the extreme example of it, again for a variety of reasons. There have been a number of good studies done (notably Andreas Schafer at MIT) on the direct correlation between economic development and vehicle-miles traveled. (One of the reasons that the rapid development of the Asian economies will have such an impact on global oil consumption.)

Some of the increase is due to the increased transit of goods, but the increasing ability of a population to purchase and to drive personal vehicles plays a major role.

To counter the individual impulse, I think you need a combination of education and incentive/disincentive (stick your hand in the flame, it burns; drive a big gas guzzler, pay a lot of extra money). The incentive/disincentive can be altruistic (I want to improve, not befoul my world) or pragmatic (I can’t afford to drive this beast). Grist readers, I assume, fall along the altruistic axis. (Although there is a solid pragmatic argument to make for altruism.)

Government comes into play for both incentives (tax breaks, investments in new technologies) and disincentives (carbon tax, fuel tax, etc.). But the market ultimately will have its say. Production of finite fossil resources will peak, and energy and fuel prices will rise.

With changing underlying conditions, we’ll have a change in behavior. One of the big questions, though, is whether the change will be managed well, or catastrophic. I certainly hope for the former. I’ll even take something sloppier than “well-managed,” just as long as we make the change before it is made for us.

Someone recently suggested to me that oil companies will respond to any decrease in oil usage (via improved efficiencies) by raising prices to ultimately ensure they maintain the same profit margins. I figure that’s a good thing as they would eventually price themselves out of the market. What do you think?    — John Annecone, San Jose, Calif.

Your question seems to presume the existence of a surplus, albeit one created by a decrease in use, rather than an increase in supply. History doesn’t support the pricing scenario you mention as a likely option. For most of the last 25 years, the price of a barrel floated between $15 and $20, even dropping below $10 in December 1998. That was mostly during a time when most observers thought we were to be perpetually awash in oil. Had the companies the ability to maintain high prices at a time of supply surplus, they would have done so then.

But now, we’re talking about plateauing and then decreasing supply — first of conventional oil — at a time when we are still increasing, not decreasing, our use. Even with the projected increases in fleet fuel efficiency we could reasonably expect over the next 10 years (absent some major crisis), global demand on the whole will continue to rise. There’s only one price direction in that scenario: straight up. No hanky-panky needed.

There is a great deal of discussion now about unconventional sources of oil, since the easy stuff is dwindling. (Oil shale, sands, deepwater.) Leaving the environmental costs of those entirely aside for the moment, all those sources share a common attribute — a much higher basic cost of production. Even assuming that the supply of unconventional will offset the depletion of conventional oil — and no study I have seen suggests that it will — you’re looking at a much higher basic cost on the barrel of oil. Again, prices moving in one direction: straight up.

Rising prices will slow increases in demand somewhat, but we’re still not ending up in the scenario of a surplus of oil priced high to maintain profit margins. Market demand for declining supply will do that all on its own.

But, all that said, we’re still going to end up at the end result you mention: oil will eventually get priced out, forcing the transition to another energy source. Let’s just hope we have one (or more) ready in time.

I bought a new Prius in November, and lots of people are interested in the 47 miles to the gallon I get. How long do you think it will take till the average miles per gallon is 47, across the entire fleet in the U.S.?    — Jane Perkins, Washington, D.C.

Across the entire fleet? Decades. There are 136 million passenger cars in the U.S. fleet. The current annual sales rate for new cars is around 17 million vehicles per year. Even assuming every car sold had the fuel efficiency of a Prius, you’re looking at close to 10 years — but Prius sales still are only a very small percentage of total U.S. sales.

The Oak Ridge National Lab last year did some work forecasting possible hybrid share of the vehicle market in the U.S. They calculated that diesels and hybrids together could capture 40 percent or more of the light-duty vehicle market by 2012 — with a net improvement on fleet average fuel economy of only approximately 4 percent. That assumed that full hybrids such as the Prius would represent approximately half of the hybrid mix. Even the most wildly optimistic projections for hydrogen vehicles have a very small penetration in terms of the total fleet in 20 years.

The only way to hit that 47 mpg figure for the entire fleet faster than, say, mid-century would be to aggressively roll out and support the purchase of plug-in (or gas-optional) hybrids that could deliver 100+ mpg levels of efficiency.

How many U.S. markets currently offer biodiesel in any significant quantity? All domestic production, or imported? In what time period do you think that most major U.S. markets will have biodiesel availability?    — Kendall Christiansen, New York, N.Y.

Depends on what you mean by significant and availability.

You can find biodiesel distributors serving just about every state now, but most heavily on the two coasts and in the Midwest. If you’re a business or a city, state, or federal organization that buys its own fuel, in other words, it’s available. If you are a retail buyer, however, you face a relative lack of retail stations that offer biodiesel — there are only some 200 nationwide.

The National Biodiesel Board estimates that U.S. producers have a combined current capacity of 150 million gallons per year, although in 2004, they produced only 30 million gallons. As far as I know, the biodiesel we use in the U.S. is primarily domestic.

So the potential to meet demand is there. The question is when demand will meet the current (and planned) potential. And on that, I think you’ll see a major increase in the next five years — accelerating after 2007 when a crop of new diesels will hit the market.

Common sense tells us that the hydrogen-fuel economy is many years away at best. However, there are plenty of opportunities for commercial fleets to convert to hydrogen produced on site with renewable technologies (wind, solar, biomass). Do you see hydrogen as a thing of the future, or the present?    — Alexander Pugh, Santa Monica, Calif.

Future. Important to research and to develop in the present, but not to be relied upon as a short- or medium-term solution to our environmental or energy woes. I have to say that the more I learn about it, the further I push it into the future. That’s not to discount the great technical work that is being done by scientists and engineers on this problem. But it’s a tough and complex problem to solve environmentally and cost-effectively, not to mention the larger issues of infrastructure and support. We need time to do it right — time we can get by relying on other technologies (plug-in hybrids, electrics) to reduce our fuel consumption.

There are a number of issues, as you touch on it, attendant to hydrogen in terms of production, storage, and usage that I think we will eventually solve in an economic and environmentally friendly manner. The vision of hydrogen generated from renewable energy or bio-sources is a compelling one. The vision of hydrogen reformed from natural gas, as 95 percent of U.S. production is currently, is not — either environmentally (the process is a large consumer of energy and major producer of carbon dioxide) or financially. Even though steam methane reforming is currently the low-cost option, some thoughtful projections into the future reverse that. As the price of natural gas rises (which it is), and as natural gas peaks and declines (which it will — it too is a finite resource), the projected cost of hydrogen soars.

That said, and to your point, there are some really good examples of fleet exploration of hydrogen. SunLine Transit in Palm Springs (Coachella Valley) for example. I think those efforts should be warmly encouraged, as the more knowledge and experience we get, the better off we’ll be in having a shot at making this a reality in the market.

But to use a coming hydrogen economy as an excuse to not take immediate action now to increase fuel efficiency and decrease emissions is a dead-end strategy. Literally.

In general, Americans are not involved in the two biggest global issues — global warming and global oil depletion. How can apathy be turned into activism?    — Julian Powers, Spokane, Wash.

I think it’s primarily a matter of lack of education, exacerbated by several factors. First, both issues are less than immediate for the majority. People tend to generalize based on immediate experience. Doesn’t seem hotter, so how can the world be warming? Second, they read or hear contradictory reports, and shrug and figure it’s all bunk. On any given day recently, I can point to headlines that say (a) the price of oil is going up, (b) the price of oil is going down, (c) OPEC is maxed out, (d) OPEC has plenty of capacity, and so on. Most people don’t have the time to sit down and actually sort through everything. So there’s a media coverage issue in that.

In other words, there’s no foundation for agreement (or belief) for most people. Without strongly held convictions, you don’t have activism.

Most dramatic change occurs when the objective conditions become so intolerable they force activity on a sufficient number of people to make the change. That hasn’t happened yet with global warming or with oil depletion … although I think people are, um, warming up to the notion of the second.

But when faced with hard evidence or an impact that affects us directly, we can change course rapidly in this country. It happened after the first oil crises. It happened in California after the major blackout — voluntary measures cut electricity consumption to the point where we didn’t have a repeat. It’s starting to happen with auto purchases (sales of full-size SUVs dropping).

One of the tricks in building awareness and active responses to global warming and depletion is to make it more immediate. One way it becomes more immediate for people is for them to understand what others are doing and why.

Has any life-cycle analysis been done on the environmental impact of a hybrid vehicle (with batteries and stuff) vs. a conventional vehicle with reasonable mileage?    — Pablo Paster, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Many. Academics live on that. Here’s a quick snapshot from one done in 2003 by the MIT Energy Lab, with the results projected out to 2020. Using a current gasoline vehicle as the baseline of 100, an advanced-gasoline internal-combustion engine was rated at 89 for relative life-cycle energy consumption, 88 for relative operational energy consumption, 89 for relative life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG), and 88 for relative operational greenhouse gas emissions. A gasoline hybrid, by contrast, ranked 65 on life-cycle energy, 61 on operational energy, 63 on life-cycle GHG, and 61 on operational GHG.

Is a hybrid really an environmental option given the problems of lead-acid battery disposal?     — John Eastman, Ladner, B.C., Canada

Few production hybrids are using lead-acid batteries, even now. Prius, by far the most popular, uses a NiMh battery, for example. Energy-storage technology is a key research area, with many gains to be had from the ongoing advances in nanotechnology.

So I’d say yes for today, and certainly for the future.

While there is some progress toward greener car design, I haven’t heard much about trucks and planes. Any thoughts?    — Robert Hipkens, New York, N.Y.

In 2003, passenger cars, motorcycles, and light-duty trucks accounted for 71 percent of the total amount of fuel consumed in highway and air transportation in the U.S. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks accounted for 20 percent; commercial and general aviation for 8 percent; buses for 1 percent (Bureau of Transportation Statistics).

Trucks and air transport are an issue, but not the issue. That said, there actually is quite a bit of work being done in both those sectors to improve fuel efficiency and emissions. First, for in-city use, you’re seeing quite a bit of innovation being done with commercial vehicles and different hybrid architectures: serial hybrids, parallel hybrids, hydraulic hybrids, natural-gas vehicles (compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas). DaimlerChrysler has introduced a plug-in hybrid delivery van — the first major automaker to offer such. It’s a business issue as much as an environmental one, and I think there is real potential in the market there.

For long-haul trucks, you’re seeing a lot of attention put to improving the efficiency of the engines to meet upcoming EPA emissions regulations. The work in that area involves a number of factors, including moving to new types of more efficient combustion in the engines (Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition), looking at improved and newer ways to manage emissions and waste heat, using synthetic fuels, and the increasing replacement of mechanical engine subsystems with electrical subsystems, as well as more fuel-efficient auxiliary power units (APUs) and fuel-cell APUs to power those systems. The bulk of research being done on new combustion technology is focused on the problem of heavy-duty transportation. It’s pretty exciting, actually, although it doesn’t get much in the way of non-trade coverage.

Similarly, there is tremendous work being done on the aviation front. According to the International Air Transport Association, the average fuel efficiency of modern aircraft works out to 3.5 liters/100 kilometers/passenger, equivalent to 67.2 mpg per passenger. (Again, this is business. Excessive fuel use hurts profitability.) You can look at a plot of engine efficiencies over the past decades and see steady reductions in fuel consumption and emissions.

Both the behemoth Airbus A380 and the upcoming Boeing 787 are targeting a fuel efficiency of less than 3.0 liters/100km/passenger, equivalent to 78.4 mpg per passenger. Even if you are generous and say that a car will carry two passengers (statistically not supported), and cut the aircraft number in half (39.2 mpg), that’s still better than the majority of the passenger car fleet.

State of the current art is probably best represented by the upcoming Boeing 787, powered either by the advanced Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine or the General Electric GEnx. Boeing is targeting a 20 percent reduction in fuel consumption and emissions with the 787.

Overall, the aviation industry is striving to hit targets set by industry groups such as the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe or the Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection of the International Civil Aviation Organization. ACARE, as an example, has set a target for 2020 of a 50 percent reduction in noise; 80 percent reduction in NOx; and a 50 percent reduction in CO2 emitted per passenger/kilometer.

But, like the vehicle fleet, aviation fleets have a legacy issue — a worse one, actually, given the longevity of planes. Unlike vehicles, though, the planes can be more easily upgraded with newer, more fuel-efficient engines.

All that is not to say that everything is rosy, but the industry is trying to tackle the issues.

How quickly do people worldwide need to change their consumptive nature in order to stop the wrecking ball of unsustainability?    — Andrew Fridley, Portland, Ore.

It’s kind of like the Titanic. It takes some time to change course, and not getting a start soon enough still leaves you hitting the iceberg. From an oil depletion point of view, a useful perspective comes from the Hirsch report, prepared for the Department of Energy, on strategies for mitigating the impact of depletion:

  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid-fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid-fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid-fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

So your urgency varies with your assumption of the date of the actual onset of depletion. If we actually hit peak production within the next year or so, as many are increasingly thinking, we’re in for a rough decade at the minimum, more likely two. And that’s in the scenario of a peaceful, rational response to depletion.

“Rough” can get a lot worse, depending upon national response. The worst possible scenario would be a bloody series of resource wars, expending state treasure and lives in pursuit of a waning resource. (Classic Pyrrhic victory.)

So I think it’s essential that we broaden the discussion with the goal of changing personal behavior and public policy as soon as possible.

And that’s just the energy-supply side of the problem, not the climate-change side.

I have been driving a fully electric SUV for over three years and hence, have not been to the gas station once in that time. Why is present-day electric-vehicle technology (which allows me to plug into the power produced by my residential solar panels) not being talked about by mainstream media as anything but a “failed experiment”?    — Linda Nicholes, Anaheim, Calif.

Very good question. Probably because none of the automakers were able to build a viable business model around it, and the consensus seems to be that consumers didn’t want them. Hmmm. So the failure is one of business model and marketing, not technology. In that sense, yes, it failed. In the sense you mean (I have a great electric car) it did not.

The same thing (relative oddball obscurity) would have happened to hybrids, were it not for the doggedness of Honda and Toyota. A new technology needs a resolute champion. Even some of the more amazing success stories needed corporate “parents.” Think Apple and then IBM with the personal computer. No automaker took on electric vehicles in that manner, although they all mostly experimented with them. Honda and Toyota did take that role with hybrids — even though from a business case point of view, it looked like a losing strategy.

I was reading through an old DOE document the other day — a report to Congress in 1996 on advanced auto technologies, detailing all the program activities of the Big Three in hybrids (yes, back then), electric vehicles, and alternative fuels. It’s sobering reading, not for what they were doing, which was actually quite good, but for the painful gap between the objectives outlined in the document (we’d be closing in on 80 mpg with hybrids by now and have a market for electric vehicles) and the reality of what happened. (Also good to keep in mind when reading promises about the blissful future of hydrogen.)

Cheap gas and big guzzlers with high profit margins were a tonic for the industry coming out of the tough times of the early ’90s, but the weakened position relative to current and emerging conditions as a result of those business decisions will probably prove to be the long-term strategic undoing of at least one.

I’m hearing a lot about the Smart car, being imported by a small electric company out in California. Is this car worth looking at compared to the hybrids, and what about the profit problems in Europe?    — Bob Muller, San Francisco, Calif.

First, it depends on your driving needs, goals, and budget. If you need a bigger vehicle (you have kids, you have to haul stuff, etc.), then you should go for a hybrid. For its teeny size, the Smart isn’t that fuel efficient: 37 mpg, according to EPA estimates.

ZAP is selling a version of the Smart car that it imports from Europe and then modifies to meet U.S. requirements. The company just recently received its certificate from the Department of Transportation, and it’s good to go. Last I checked, they had close to $1 billion in purchase orders for the car. There’s a larger question as to the viability of the Smart car itself given DaimlerChrysler’s financial situation. The company seems committed to figuring out how to make it work, though.

I teach an environmental problem-solving course in college and one of my students asked this question. I was unable to answer, so I thought I’d ask an expert:

If we all switch to hydrogen fuel cars and the emissions are just water, what will that do to the climate within a city? Couldn’t it increase the humidity within the city if you are producing that much water vapor from vehicles?     — Natalie Waddell-Rutter, North East, Penn.

It’s a good question and one that has been considered formally, especially since water vapor is a primo greenhouse gas. Your student is right — you don’t want your solution to make the situation worse.

Before I answer, though, you need to recall that water is also a byproduct of fossil-fuel combustion and is expelled in vapor as part of the exhaust gases out the tailpipe.

The consensus is that any additional impact from hydrogen-fuel-cell-generated water vapor would be marginal at worst. It’s just not that much. Factor in displacement of the water vapor generated by fossil-fuel combustion, and it’s a very slight contribution.