Why Americans should embrace Alternative fuel vehicles?

Energy sources alternative to fossil-produced oil have been talked about for many years now. Yet no meaningful transformation to these energy sources have been practically implemented so far. Transportation industry, with its assortment of different oil-guzzling vehicles, is the chief culprit in this regard. If this trend is to continue in the future, then very shortly the phenomenon of ‘peak oil’ would be triggered and global competition of remaining oil will escalate the prices beyond affordability. Moreover, there is the persuasive argument from environment preservation angle. If current energy usage patterns continue for a few more decades then the ecosystems and environments across the world would be damaged beyond repair, putting at risk the long-term survival of our species. (Borowitz, 1999, p.255) The rest of this essay will elaborate on these points and present the reasons why Americans should embrace alternative fuel vehicles.

Beyond concerns about peak-oil and issues of sustaining conventional oil supplies, there is the danger posed by environmental pollution. While manufacturing industries play their part in polluting air, water and soil, the chief contributors are motor vehicles. For example, 90% of the carbon monoxide, 50% of the volatile organic compounds, and 40% of the ozone in metropolitan areas come from motor vehicles. (Meotti, 1995, p.27) With car ownership per-capita in America being one of the highest among advanced economies, there is a urgent need for alternative fuels. There is also the option of attempting to reduce car sales and car usage. But since this outcome is highly unlikely, finding substitute fuels for petroleum-based ones is the more plausible option going forward.

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Soybean oil is another alternative fuel that holds a lot of promise. When oil prices spiked during the first Gulf War in 1991, American farmers put to use the huge surplus of soybean oil stored in tanks across the country. They said that Soybean oil can be refined into bio-diesel, which can be used by vehicles. Already, by this time, bio-diesel was being manufactured in Europe using rapeseed oil. And by following the same procedure, Soybean oil could also be converted into bio-diesel, which would prove to be a cleaner and eco-friendly energy alternative. (Schmidt, 2007, p.87) Experts and business people have now identified bio-diesel as a key player in the alternative fuels market. It also has the advantage of being produced by both small-scale manufacturers as well as large industries. While bio-diesel cannot completely substitute for petroleum products, it has the capacity to power a wide variety of vehicles. At present 95% of passenger vehicles in America run on gasoline. Bio-diesel can significantly help reduce this percentage. (Schmidt, 2007, p.87) Promoters of bio-diesel also feel that its advantages outweigh its disadvantages. It is not only a sustainable energy option, but also an eco-friendly one. For example,

“Numerous studies show that compared to petrodiesel, B20 emits at least 10% less particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and total hydrocarbons. The relevant data are summarized in a 2006 NREL report titled Effects of Biodiesel Blends on Vehicle Emissions. Unlike fossil fuels–which contain carbon from underground sources–biodiesel contains carbon from plants that were recently alive and drawing carbon from the atmosphere. For that reason, burning it doesn’t add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than what was already there. What’s more, biodiesel contains 11% oxygen by weight, which enhances fuel combustion, and reduces the amount of carcinogenic soot that diesel engines spew into the air.” (Schmidt, 2007, p.87)

Diesel-run vehicles, on the other hand, are decisively more polluting. They release a lot of sulphur into the atmosphere, which in turn creates sulfate-based particulates, which in turn can induce acid rain. Once this happens, all life-forms on the planet will have negative health consequences. On the mild side, these health problems can relate to the respiratory system; and on the acute side, they can manifest as cancer. It is in recognition of this danger that states such as California, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, etc have prohibited the sales of diesel-run cars and other vehicles. By doing this, government authorities are encouraging Americans to embrace alternative fuel vehicles. And already there are positive signs : “Since 15 October 2006, most diesel sold in the United States is ULSD, which contains a maximum of 15 ppm sulfur, and all model year 2007 diesel vehicles for highway use must use this fuel. Biodiesel does one better, however, because it contains no sulfur.” (Schmidt, 2007, p.87)

The encouraging news for Americans is that alternative fuels can be produced domestically, reducing dependency on foreign oil. Moreover, most alternative fuels in discussions today are derived from renewable sources and they contribute much less to air pollution upon combustion. The federal government is doing the right thing by offering tax-incentives to consumers for buying alternative fuel vehicles. There are a range of prototypes of these vehicles, each using a particular fuel type. In a gist, these vehicles can use the following alternative fuels for their engines

“Ethanol is produced domestically from corn and other crops and produces less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels. Biodiesel is derived from vegetable oils and animal fats. It usually produces less air pollutants than petroleum-based diesel. Natural gas is a fossil fuel that generates less air pollutants and greenhouse gases. Propane, also called liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is a domestically abundant fossil fuel that generates less greenhouse gases. Hydrogen can be produced domestically from fossil fuels (such as coal), nuclear power or renewable resources, such as hydropower. Fuel cell vehicles powered by pure hydrogen emit no harmful air pollutants.” (Daily Herald, 2009,p.6)

The leading fuels for vehicles today are gasoline and diesel, which are both hydrocarbons. It is heartening to learn that new technologies have been invented to convert coal into liquid fuel, by combining its hydrogen and carbon content. The resulting liquid fuel would be comparable in properties to that of methane, ethane, butane and propane. Other possible hydrocarbon outcomes for coal include pentane, hexane, heptane, etc. Not all of these are suitable for internal-combustion engines as they exist today; some of them are not eco friendly as well. The costs likely to be incurred in this conversion process is also a tad high. But the biggest incentive to extracting oil from coal is to reduce dependency on crude oil sources in the Middle East, as well as switching to a more sustainable model of energy consumption. There is an economic incentive as well, as lesser demand for crude oil will bring its prices down, thereby enabling its reach to consumers from low socio-economic bracket. (Hiserodt, 2008, p.17)

The American government’s efforts to promote alternative fuels should be lauded. This is especially true with respect to ethanol consumption. Tax-incentives and other encouragements have been provided in the last few decades. For example,

“After 1978, U.S. energy policy sought to encourage ethanol production to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Federal and state incentives have been credited with increasing ethanol production from 175 million gallons in 1980 to 6.8 billion gallons in 2007. Between 1978 and 2004, the size of the exemption varied from $0.40 to $0.60 per gallon of pure ethanol. The Energy Act of 2005 restructured federal tax incentives for ethanol production to include three income tax credits and one excise tax credit. The Internal Revenue Code contains three income tax credits designed to encourage ethanol use: the alcohol mixture credit, the pure alcohol credit, and the small ethanol producer’s credit. The credits, together with other subsidies, come close to making the price of ethanol competitive with petroleum-based fuels.” (Mann & Hymel, 2008, p.45)

It is believed by experts that ethanol use has the potential to reduce foreign fossil-fuel dependency as well as helping preserve the environment. The government has prudently devised tax incentives to “encourage conservation and discourage driving may be a better way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil dependency.” (Mann & Hymel, 2008, p.45) Hence Americans should avail of tax concessions given to them and switch to alternative fuels for their vehicles. At a time when Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) are all the rage despite consuming copious quantities of gasoline per kilometer travelled, Americans would do well to support government energy policies. In this case, supporting would entail making concerted efforts to make ethanol-driven vehicles a practical reality. (Mann & Hymel, 2008, p.45)

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