The lack of alternative energy sources to fuel our vehicles and replace expensive oil, jeopardizes U.S. national security, forces Americans to pay more at the pump, and greatly represses our ability to reduce pollution and address climate change concerns. In my state of California, 74% of all emissions – including CO2, toxic pollutants, ozone forming emissions and more – come from petroleum. Oil accounts for 65% of California’s GHG emissions, compared to 33% from natural gas, and less than 2% from coal. Meanwhile, each year, the U.S. spends more than $600 billion to buy oil and oil products, which is six times more than we spend on any other energy source.
Increased fuel efficiency, which under the new CAFE standard will roll into the market over the next 3 decades, is a great start in reducing total oil consumption. However, the question is, can we do more? And, how can we speed up the transition away from oil? Popular ideas are not effective solutions to our oil addiction on the short term. Here they are, and let me explain why:
- Public transportation – America’s urban sprawl and massive expanse of open land between the coasts means public transportation will only be a partial solution in large metropolitan areas.
- Taxation – Trying to motivate people away from oil through price structures hasn’t worked. Despite a 400% increase in the price of oil since 1997, oil consumption has gone up more than 20%. Furthermore, taxing oil is an incredibly regressive measure, which increases poverty.
- Electrification – Electric cars are a great new innovation. However, mass adoption is decades away. If we grow the number of electric cars by 33% every year (an optimistic assumption), in a decade, no more than 4-5% of the total fleet will be electric.
The last alternative to our oil addiction is switching to alcohol fuels. They can work with existing cars on the road today and offer tremendous environmental benefits:
- Dissolve in water, biodegradable
- Smaller molecules, reduce smog
- Replace toluene, an aromatic neurotoxin that makes up 25-35% of the content of gasoline
- High octane means even higher efficiency engines
- Fewer greenhouse gas emissions
- Can be made from a multitude of renewables sources
The two biggest objections to alcohol fuels is the food vs fuel debate, and, to the extent alcohol fuels will be made from natural gas, the issue becomes the environmental impact of fracking.
In my TEDx talk, I demonstrated that both corn prices and food prices are indexed to the price of oil. When oil price rises, the price of all energy byproducts rise including ethanol, corn and food. Competition with alcohol fuel at the pump can lower the price of oil, and with it lower the price of ethanol, corn and food.
When it comes to fracking, 90% of all new oil wells in the US are drilled for fracking. This means that fracking is no longer a natural gas only phenomenon. If we decide to do nothing, we are sticking with oil (even in high efficiency cars). And if we stick only with oil we are in fact supporting fracking.
So what are we waiting for?
Q: Are alcohol fuels a viable transportation fuel and the best way to address U.S. dependence on oil? What are the challenges to opening up the transportation fuel market?