Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Some rare good environmental news came out of the Bush administration on Wednesday. Well, "good" is probably an overstatement. But with Bush, it's all relative. The Department of Transportation announced new CAFE standards that require light trucks to meet a minimum of 24 miles per gallon and, for the first time, regulate the fuel efficiency of large SUVs like the Hummer. Of course, these aren't huge changes, but I'm personally shocked this administration is addressing CAFE standards at all.

Now, contrast this with the situation in Brazil. CBS News has an interesting story about the fact that the Brazilians are about to complete their transition from gasoline as an auto fuel to sugarcane ethanol. I'm not talking here about a pilot project, or ethanol becoming the dominant fuel. By the end of 2006, Brazil should be an all-ethanol nation. Mind you, this has been a long time in coming. Brazil ramped up publicly-funded studies of sugarcane ethanol in reaction to the oil crises of the 1970s. But they also started putting their academic work into practice, by requiring gas stations to also offer ethanol and requiring refiners to mix ethanol into gasoline. This in turn led to innovations like so-called flex vehicles, which run on either a gasoline/ethanol mix or pure ethanol, that are enabling the complete shift to ethanol that Brazil's undergoing today.

Unfortunately, the best the United States can seem to do is trim around the edges of our fossil fuel problem, raising CAFE standards to levels that easily could have been met decades ago. And of course, at the core of the problem here is politicians cowering before oil companies and auto manufacturers who liked the inefficient status quo. But it's not as if Brazil didn't have to deal with industrial opposition themselves. "Basically, the people who produce oil," one Brazilian official explains, "they don't like us ... because we are getting their markets. It's very simple."

If the United States is going to continue to subsidize corn ethanol for agribusiness, and if auto companies are going to engage in greenwash marketing about ethanol, why not use the power of government to actually make ethanol more widely available? Corn ethanol may not be as cost-effective as sugarcane ethanol, but what about biodiesel? More obviously, why not mandate a certain percentage of a manufacturer's fleet to use hybrid gas/electric technology? There are a number of options that are better than the current course. The point here is that there is an incredible lack of leadership in Republican-run America on energy policy and as a result, we're falling behind nations like Brazil. It's pathetic.

Tags: Energy, Environment, Money, sustainability, transportation (all tags)

Comments

18 Comments

Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

It would be less than wise to invest in any form of bio-energy. Sugar cane, corn, it doesn't matter. Biologically derived ethanol will never pan out as a sustainable source of fuel. Because -- to grow anything, say corn, requires huge amounts of fresh water. We will drain our aquifers at about the same time we deplete the world's petroleum. And, plants also need huge quantities of fertilizer, which requires energy to produce.

At the moment, I am favoring wind-derived energy. I know, storing it is a problem. But solutions are emerging. It is not currently practical to utilize hydrogen, mainly because it is virtually impossible to store and contain. Hydrogen atoms are so tiny that they simply leak right through iron containers. And when hydrogen gets into the air, it manifests a far more potent greenhouse effect than, for example, carbon dioxide does.

But methane is containable. And nanotechnology, of all things, may make it possible to contain hydrogen efficiently in nanotubes.

IMPORTANT! Instead of crushing used automotive alternators when recycling cars, we need to be "harvesting" those alternators, since they can be utilized in small wind-power generators. But try telling that to Exxon Mobil Corporation!

by blues 2006-03-30 01:11AM | 0 recs
Oil and Smoke

First, I love the term "Greenwash" because it so accurately describes what car and oil companies are doing with their advertising today.

My other thought is how similar various forms of addiction can be.  To me - and you, and many, many others - we can't move on from oil fast enough.  We see the future ahead, but our boots are stuck in the mud and the road ahead is painfully slow.  To others, though, it's barely on their radar.  Buying an SUV is their right and their privilege, and their personal comfort is more important than any environmental or safety concerns there may be in owning such a enormous car.

It reminds me of smoking.  We all know how dangerous smoking is, not to mention how much smoking affects non-smokers lives in ways such as second-hand smoke and rising health costs.  Yet, people in large numbers smoke and are happy to do it.   The government may do some things to help curb smoking, but at the end of the day they still get into bed with tobacco.  Any change that is made isn't made to kill tobacco, or even move towards killing tobacco, but to hurt it in such a way as to ensure it will heal and move on.

Which brings me to my last thought.  Our government is addicted to big business.  Oil, Tobacco, etc., etc.  We're (the "we" in the case being the government, which in effect and by extension is all of us) addicted and dependent on big business so much that any change that is made is small as to not upset those who give us our fix.

Where is our moonshot?  Where is our greenshot?  It's a sad state when our government can't think boldly because we're too dependent on the power and money of big business.

by dumbledore 2006-03-30 05:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

windpower won't fuel automobiles.  It isn't either or. Those technologies will become more efficient as time passes.  Also, many people are looking in to algae as a source for biodeisel rather than food crops.  

by Dameocrat 2006-03-30 06:31AM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Windpower will probably be mostly converted to electrical power, although direct mechanical-to- chemical energy conversion is conceivable. Electrical power can certainly be converted to chemical energy. That chemical energy might possibly include methane, nanotube bound hydrogen, etc. This chemical energy could be applied to functions such as transportation.

Solar electric technology is also undergoing a revolution.

But I warn everyone: Do not fail to conserve those used automotive alternators.

There are actually mountains of frozen methane hydride in the deep seas -- but we will soon learn to be extremely cautious about what we do in the oceans. Polar ice caps are melting, the edible fish are decimated, and there could be enough carbon dioxide and methane bottled up in the deep oceans to reconfigure the atmosphere in rather drastic ways. Let me assure you we would not enjoy that.

The use of energy derived from algae seems possible, but my intuition is that such a (partial) solution is quite a long shot.

In the end, we will find it better to virtually stop using aircraft. And new solutions will be needed for over-land transportation. I would suggest small autos that are designed to make long trips on railroad car carriers.

These kinds of innovation will provide vast opportunities for fascists who would love to exploit it to produce a crypto-dictatorship. We will have to overcome our ridding addiction. We will need new guaranteed freedoms to keep these new technologies from turning our planet into a vast prison.

by blues 2006-03-30 01:21PM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Biofuels are a political winner and an energy loser.  They may have some limited use in the future for farm vehicles, but they can't answer our needs for liquid fuel.  Right now all we are doing is subsidizing Archer Daniel Midlands and giving a small subsidy to farmers.  

We need to get serious about cutting CO2 emissions and developing energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions.  

by judy from nj 2006-03-30 02:05AM | 0 recs
Bush supports sugrcane ethanol 100%!

Because it would be a good excuse to invade Cuba.

by jcjcjc 2006-03-30 02:12AM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Can't wait to see the first electric-powered commercial airplane/jet. I'm not holding my breath.

When we bought our Prius, I'd have bought a flex-fuel or all/mostly electric family car if it existed. Gasoline is on the way out and the sooner people deal with it, the better.

by KB 2006-03-30 03:05AM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

There is some question as to whether making ethanol fuel from crops is really energy efficient. There is a large amount of fuel used in distilling the ethanol from the plant material. It is not clear what this energy source is.

In the US the fuel is usually natural gas (although  a recently built factory is using coal(!). So far, ethanol is not cost effective in the US, and only exists because of government subsidies to companies like ADM.

So, like Hydrogen, ethanol needs closer study to see if it is really a "good thing".

by rdf 2006-03-30 04:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Those technologies will become more efficient if they are more invested in.

by Dameocrat 2006-03-30 06:29AM | 0 recs
Don't knock it

Don't knock the small raise in CAFE standards for light trucks....it's far more than Clinton/Gore ever did....

by brooklyngreenie 2006-03-30 05:38AM | 0 recs
Re: Don't knock it

On this topic, I don't care about any partisan comparisons. Clinton didn't do enough, and now Bush is not doing enough. This change to the CAFE standards isn't as significant as it ought to be, no matter who's running the government.

by Scott Shields 2006-03-30 07:28AM | 0 recs
Re: Don't knock it

Amen...but it's a shock that Bush is doing SOMETHING...not often that we're pleasantly suprised by Bush

by brooklyngreenie 2006-03-30 01:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

The efficiency of ethanol production depends on the crop.  Sugarcane is the most highly efficient ethanol-producing crop... that is, it yields the most useable energy relative to the energy that is requited to produce it (plant, feed, harvest, process).  This is why Brazil has been able to meet the goal of energy independence... lots of sugarcane.

Unfortunately, corn is not a good crop for large-scale ethanol production.  In fact, it is currently energy NEGATIVE I believe... it takes more energy to make a gallon of ethanol than you get out of that gallon.  It's a good idea to convert corn that would otherwise be wasted into ethanol but right now it is not a feasible large-scale solution.  

But this is the current state of things... a huge publicly-funded R&D program would definitely yield advances and could make a big difference in the 10-20 year timespan.  

BTW, I have biodiesel right now in my VW Golf TDI!

As for the comment about "needing energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions".  Biodiesel and sugarcane ethanol do not produce greenhouse gas emissions!  Every molecule of C02 that is released by combusting ethanol or biodiesel in an internal combustion engine was taken from the atmosphere by the plant when it was growing.  Biofuels are inherently carbon neutral.  They do not increase the net amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  Now, it gets sticky if you take the emissions of equipment used to make the biofuel into account... but if you have a SC ethanol farm where all the farm equipment ran on ethanol and electricity was generated by ethanol-powered generators, then it remains completely carbon-neutral.

by crafty 2006-03-30 07:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Great piece. I believe energy independence is an important issue and it is there for the Dems taking and yet we seem to be saying very little.  It is an opportunity to speak to an important issue and to show some innovation as a party.

Very sad that we have fallen Brazil in terms of energy innovation.  It shows you how addicted we are to oil.

by John Mills 2006-03-30 12:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Mr. Mills, I couldn't agree with you more.  We need to explore alternative energy sources right here in our own country to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.  Any advancements we make toward this will also increase security of American jobs, thus being a win-win situation for America.

by Joel 2006-03-30 04:38PM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

I lived in Brazil and worked for one of the major car manufacturers there. It's not like you can take the Brazilian model and simply transfer it to the rest of the world. Believe me, if this were possible Ford, GM, VW and the rest would have done so by now.

First of all, ethanol made from sugarcane does not perform well in cold weather. For Brazil this isn't a problem but anywhere north of the Tropic of Cancer (i.e. central Mexico) it is.

Second, it takes a ton of natural resources such as water and land (as brought up by others above) to make sugarcane work. And the runoff is toxic and stinks to high heaven. We don't have the climate here at home to make the stuff. And if we were to buy it from other countries the impact on the environment (considering how much of it we need) would be far worse than drilling for oil. Trust me, the impact on the land is harsh and ugly.

Third, the money needed to develop this industry would be enormous and better spent on known technologies given the downsides listed above. The footprint of drilling for oil in ANWR, given the potential payoff, would be vastly preferable to hundreds of thousands of acres planted with sugarcane.

I'd love to find a magic bullet but sugarcane isn't it. It might work for a country with half our population, twice the farmland, and ten times the water such as Brazil. But it's not our answer.

by El Grande 2006-04-03 11:29PM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

Ethanol is a specific molecule so the original source (sugarcane, corn, ethylene gas) cannot affect its performance in cold weather. The purity of the ethanol (percentage of water and other chemicals) may affect its performance. Ethanol doesn't produce much heat when it burns because it has three times the latent heat of vaporization compared to gasoline. That means it absorbs a lot of heat when it evaporates. This can prevent a car's engine from warming up properly in colder climates.

However, the source fat used to make biodiesel definitely affects its performance in cold weather because the crystallation temperature of the original (triglyceride) fat is related to the  crystallization temperature of (the alkanes in) the biodiesel. So, canola biodiesel is much more suitable for cold weather than biodiesel made from animal fat or coconut oil.

by lanshark 2007-02-15 01:10PM | 0 recs
Re: Trimming Around The Edges On Fuel Economy

I agree that we need to decrease our dependence on foreign oil. Having said that, some of the rhetoric vilifying American oil companies, when it's really our consumption to blame, seems off the mark to me...

by oldhats 2006-04-04 03:38PM | 0 recs

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