Breaking the monopoly of oil in transportation
Abstract: How a flex-fuel mandate in a single US state could change the world.
Note: I wrote this as an Op-Ed for the local newspaper, but it was not used. I think it may be of interest to the PP community.
How Californians Can Save the World
Why are we still using petroleum? The simplest answer is that most of our transportation infrastructure depends on it. Almost all of our cars, boats, planes, trains, and trucks use either diesel or gasoline. Effectively, petroleum has a total monopoly in the transportation market. Whether you're worried about climate change, or tired of endless military expenses to protect the Strait of Hormuz, you have ample reason to find this situation frustrating.
But this monopoly has an important vulnerability.
There are already millions of cars on the road that can run just fine on pure ethanol or methanol or gasoline, or any mixture thereof. Many of these would require upgraded gaskets and seals, but for the most part, any vehicle marketed as "E-85" can probably run on almost any mixture of alcohol and/or gasoline, needing only a software patch to its fuel-injector control chip. But even people who own these cars are often unaware of these capabilities, because the car companies don't enable them by default, and don't advertise them.
Methanol currently sells for US$1.05/gal, and has 80% the energy density of gasoline, so again: Why are we still using petroleum? The answer is simple: We haven't yet voiced a clear demand for something different.
The Open Fuel Standard Act has been languishing in Congress for half a decade. It would simply phase in a requirement that all new cars sold in America must be fully flex-fuel capable. Although an after-market conversion to flex-fuel can be done, it is very labor intensive, and can cost hundreds of dollars. But building a car that way in the first place, at the factory, only adds a few dozen dollars to the sticker price. And that simple requirement would spur a massive shift in the market.
If you're a gas station owner, and you know that there are millions of cars that can run on pure methanol, you might try selling it on one of your pumps. And if customers are given a choice between buying their fuel from a Saudi Prince at $1.89/gal or an Iowa farmer at $1.19/gal, they might just choose that latter option. But with no explicit flex-fuel requirement in law, there's no guarantee the gas station owner will have any customers for that 100% methanol pump.
That legal requirement is the hump we have to get over. And this is where Californians can come to our rescue.
This legislation has been stuck in Congress for years, for the obvious reason: Money. There are a lot of big corporations that make a tidy profit from this monopoly, and they have a lot of lobbyists and think tanks and other “charitable” organizations ready to “advise and educate” politicians. The chances of Congress ever breaking the monopoly of petroleum are approximately zero.
But Californians have the double-threat of direct democracy, in the form of their referendum power, and the economic clout of the thirteenth-largest economy in the world. If California goes fully flex-fuel, the entire United States car market will flip over to flex-fuel as well. And if the US goes flex, the rest of the world will too. And with that, the century-long monopoly of petroleum over transportation will be ended.
Breaking that monopoly is not just good for the environment, it would also be a tremendous boon to the economy. For the last decade, America has been spending roughly $400 billion per year to import oil from other countries, mostly from the Gulf region. Just keeping that money at home would be a bigger boost to the economy than any “stimulus package” any politician could ever dream up.
Keeping that money at home would spur investment in alternative fuels such as ethanol and methanol. But unlike ethanol, methanol can be made from any form of biomass, including grass clippings. Imagine a world where you could sell your grass clippings.
And then there's the national security angle. We have seen that some small amount of that oil money ends up in the hands of Wahhabist groups, including ISIL, Al Qaeda, and Al Nusra. What could possibly be more stupid than sending another dime in that direction?
Please save us, Californians! Our federal legislature has failed us; it is bought and paid for by the special interests. But you have the referendum, and the economic power behind it. You have the ability to make this happen.
There is much more to say about this topic than can fit into a standard 750-word Op-Ed piece. Rather than write more here, I'll include some links for further study.
This is not a new idea. Flex-fuel technology dates back to the 80's. Dr. Robert Zubrin wrote about the flex-fuel mandate in his 2007 book, "Energy Victory."
Or, if you prefer a more audio-visual approach to learning, here is an @Google Talk where Dr. Zubrin presents the case in some detail (2008).
To save you some googling, here are some links on the OFSA:
Obviously, my purpose in writing this piece was political, but in this community it has a practical facet as well. To anyone who is (or will soon be) in the market for a new car, it would probably be worth your time to educate yourself on this topic.
Taiwanjohn: I disagree on a host of fronts.. Why are we still using petroleum? Because it is an efficient, cheap (now) form of energy. Did you know that it takes petroleum to make ethanol? Also when ethanol was booming corn was selling for $5/bushel, having adverse effects on beef, pork and poultry prices for every American, not just the ones that drive E85 vehicles. Ethanol is a farm subsidy in my opinion, pushed for by big Ag. Shoot, ethanol is about 45-50% of the demand for corn and 20 years ago it wasn’t much of a thought! Using sugar cane is a much more efficient way of producing ethanol unfortunately we don’t grow much of that here. I would argue breaking the monopoly would not be good for the environment either, if your hope and reason for doing so is to use more ethanol.. I am much more interested is what is coming out of Tesla, battery operated means of transportation opposed to fuels at all (renewable or otherwise). Think of all the jobs that would be created building the infrastructure! I do agree that the Federal Legislature has failed but I would dig a little deeper into the ethanol debate before you call for an all-out ban of fossil fuels.
For the record, I am NOT a proponent of ethanol (at least not as it currently exists). The whole point of this initiative is to shift the market toward METHANOL, which is not dependent on subsidies. As noted in the article, methanol can be made from any source of biomass, from grass clippings to sawdust. (It can also be made from methane, which is commonly 'flared' as a useless byproduct from oil wells.)
I was born and raised in Iowa, but I think the ethanol subsidy is stupid. That has NOTHING to do with the Open Fuel Standard Act.
I'm sorry I couldn't make that point clearer in the article, but as noted, it was written for a standard 750-word newspaper format. That's why I added the supporting links for further information.
Europe has had a slightly different approach to Etanol than US, and started this alternative fuel a bit earlier.I live in Sweden, probably the country that made the most effort to introduce Etanol as a fuel alternative.
First there was a push to get car manufacturers to make flex fuel cars, then there was a mandate from the state that (almost) any pump owner had to supply one alternative fuel of their choice.
The only reasonably priced alternative for pump owners was to provide E-85.
This was also combined with a tax incentive for flex fuel cars that was company registered. This applies to about 2/3 of all new cars in Sweden.
At first it worked decently and we started to gain a critical mass for flex fuel cars.
Then politicians removed the tax incentive for flex fuel cars, made unclear rules for the long term and some car brands had problems with fuel injectors when using E-85 fuel and car owners had to take the punch from that.
This in combination with lower oil-price (that cuts the cost of regular gas) has cut the new sold flex-fuel cars to almost zero.
I have been driving a flex fuel car since 2009 and about 80% of the fuel has been ethanol (E-85).
Today (with ridiculously low oil prices) it costs 30% more to run on E-85 than on regular gas despite a lot higher taxes on the regular gas.
During the winter the pumps change to E-75 (fuel is still branded as E-85) to be able to cope with winter temperatures. This allows cars to start down to around -20C (-4F). Many flex-fuel owners still change to regular gas during the coldest part of winter. Both to make sure your car starts and for comfort reasons.
As E-85 has about 30% less energy per volume you have to fuel up your car 30% more often, but it also generates a lot less heat in the engine. In the winter that means it takes considerably longer before you get decent temperature inside the car when running on E-85.
The main boom in ethanol in Europe is actually not the E-85, but the E-5 and E-10.
The E-5 and E-10 is regular gas that is mixed with 5 (or 10) percent ethanol. All regular gas in almost all of Europe has been E-5 for a few years. Several countries are moving over to E-10.
That means all normal cars actually use a bit of ethanol, and that part of ethanol usage far exceeds the ethanol usage in E-85.
I should also mention that we never used corn to produce ethanol as that is a stupid idea. Almost all of it comes from sugar canes produced mostly in Brazil.
It is quite a few practical differences to move to methanol. There are some decently large projects around that. Current fleet of flex fuel cars are not ready to run on methanol.
Especially interesting is the fuel-cells that go from methanol to electricity. If it does work out well we could get hybrid cars without a combustion engine. Main problem to solve is the life spann of the fuel cell.
Exactly what does Dr. Robert Zubrin have to do with anything other than raise an alarm about the current state of the energy situation of this world. Somebody willing to beat his gums on the subject of colonizing Mars, should get his head out of the troposphere and start breathing something with a bit more oxygen in it. If we are, truly serious about climate change and the use of Flex-85 or any other ethanol/methanol based fuels, we had better start re-configuring our energy expectations to something obtainable for most Californians or others living below the 45 th parallel. Given that the vast majority of trips in a car are on the order of 10 miles, other modes should be considered rather than trying to retrofit an obsolete concept, i.e. four wheeled, tanks. My suggestion:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPrZYGvdSfk
I have an EV, so I do not have this concern about gasoline vs diesel vs methanol. Get out of the fuel trap entirely.
[quote=Mike Dill]I have an EV, so I do not have this concern about gasoline vs diesel vs methanol.[/quote]I hope you're on hydro, wind, or solar power.
Because otherwise, you just have a combustion engine with an extremely long tailpipe!
Don't get me wrong — I like EVs, but only where they can be clean-powered, which isn't more than 1/3rd of all electricity in the US.
Rosch Innovations Kinetic Power Plant provides reliable base load power 24/365 while consuming do fossil fuel. A Rosch partner, Gaia, sells home size (5KW to 15KW) units, while Rosch sells 200+KW units.
This is probably why Germany canceled its trillion dollar wind project.
ElaisaKasan, have you seen any proof at all that it works?
With "works" I mean that it produces more energy than you put in.
So far I haven't seen a shread of proof that they have something that works.
No single stage that looks like a new invention to me.
No large scale customer presented.
No really credible scientist backing their product.
It sure smells like snake-oil to me.
I'm with Silvervarg on this one.