Alternative fuels are here to stay. Government policy and social pressure for improved fuel economy have pretty much determined that we need to reduce our use of oil for personal transportation fuels. And global demand, along with political unrest in key oil-producing regions, maintains upward pressure on petroleum prices to further underscore the need for reasonable alternatives.
But the advance of these "new" or alternative fuels in the U.S. market is sometimes hampered by myths that have grown up around them.
Some of these alternative-fuel myths are rooted in misinformation campaigns fostered by opponents (and sometimes by proponents) of a new fuel. Some are rooted in misunderstandings and others by the inability of new information to erase old images.
For example: When Southern California insurance agent Timothy Bush recently took possession of the keys to the first hydrogen-powered Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell SUV offered for lease in the U.S, one of the first questions he was asked was whether he feared being blown up. That was an uninformed cable news reporter's attempt to link today's hydrogen fuel to the hydrogen gas that played such a prominent role in the 1937 Hindenburg dirigible disaster.
To set the record straight, here's a collection of some of the most prevalent myths and misinformation about alternative fuels, including hydrogen, electricity, diesel and compressed natural gas.
The Hydrogen Myth
Hydrogen is highly explosive, and much more dangerous than gasoline.
It's true that hydrogen is highly flammable. But gasoline, with its heavier-than-air vapors, is more likely to cause a fire, or an explosion when confined in a tight space.
That's because hydrogen is a gas that's 14 times lighter than air. When it's burning, it tends to vent straight up, like the flame from a butane lighter. Burning gasoline, on the other hand, is heavier than air, remains liquid and will spread over various surfaces, leading to widespread fire damage. A researcher in Florida proved this a few years ago with a hydrogen safety test that involved torching a hydrogen fuel leak and then a gasoline leak in the same car. The burning hydrogen, which vented up and away, didn't damage the vehicle. But the gasoline fire destroyed the car.
And unlike lighter-than-air hydrogen, gasoline won't vent quickly from an enclosed fuel tank, so the pressure build-up from the expanding heated fumes can more easily cause an explosion.
The Hindenburg, the enduring source of hydrogen's bad reputation, didn't explode. Its millions of cubic feet of hydrogen burned away in less than 60 seconds. Most of the smoke and flame recorded by newsreel cameras as the giant lighter-than-air ship landed came from burning diesel fuel and the dirigible's painted canvas "gas bag" covering.
The truth is that both gasoline and hydrogen can be dangerous if they're not properly handled. But as a transportation fuel, hydrogen probably is a bit less dangerous than gasoline.
The Dirty Electricity Myth
Because so much of the nation's electricity is generated in coal-fired plants, running a plug-in electric vehicle in the U.S. is no cleaner and can even be dirtier than running a gasoline vehicle.
If you measure only the pollutants generated by coal-fired plants at the plant site, this is probably true. But emissions are spread over several processes during the life of a motor vehicle. It is no more valid to look just at the coal-fired generating plant part of the cycle than it is to look only at the tailpipe emissions — which are zero in a battery-electric vehicle.
Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory have developed a "well-to-wheels" emissions-measuring program, called the GREET system. It is widely used by researchers in industry, government and academia to determine emissions levels for various engine and fuel combinations. It covers everything from mining or drilling for the fuel to producing it, transporting and delivering it and finally consuming it in the vehicle.
One of the things electric cars have going for them is that electric motors are significantly more efficient than gasoline engines at delivering the power contained in their fuel to the wheels that move the car. So even if there are more emissions released from generating the electricity they use, the overall emissions are less. That's because it takes far less electricity than gasoline or diesel to move a car a specific distance. Modern gasoline engines are anywhere from 20-30 percent efficient in using the energy in their fuel, while electric motors are about 85-90 percent efficient.
The upshot of hundreds and hundreds of scenarios run on GREET is that overall, electric power for cars is cleaner than petroleum-based gasoline or diesel power.
More evidence can be found in a pair of online emissions calculators from the federal Energy Department. They show the mix of generating sources used for electricity in your ZIP code and then apply that mix to compute the well-to-wheel CO2 emissions of a plug-in hybrid or battery-electric vehicle. The emissions chart also compares each specific vehicle's CO2 emissions to the national average for all vehicles.
We ran several vehicles through the calculators and found that even in Denver, where coal-fired generation accounts for 73 percent of the electricity, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles are cleaner than petroleum-powered vehicles.
In one scenario, the well-to-wheels emissions for an all-electric Nissan Leaf that uses power from the Denver-area grid was "dirtier" than the average of all Leafs in the country. But it still was 39.6 percent cleaner than the national average for all vehicles. A Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid's emissions were 33 percent cleaner.
The Natural Gas Myth
American is awash in natural gas. Using it instead of gasoline as a motor vehicle fuel can solve all our problems.
The U.S. does have enormous reserves of natural gas, although there is fierce debate over how environmentally safe it is to inject chemicals under high pressure deep into the earth to unlock the gas from the rock formations in which it is bound.
But even ignoring the debate over hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract natural gas, it can't solve all of the issues we face with continued use of petroleum-based fuels.
That's because while natural gas could offset or even replace gasoline in passenger vehicles, it is a carbon-based fuel. When it's burned in an engine, it emits methane, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are known to affect the climate.
The U.S. is grappling with several issues related to continued use of oil as a base for passenger vehicle fuels. Energy independence is one: Using domestically produced natural gas would relieve us of the need to purchase oil from foreign producers. But that still leaves the issue of carbon-based fuels' impact on the environment and the global climate.
The present national goal for carbon-dioxide emissions from passenger vehicles is an 80 percent reduction by 2050 from 2005 levels. Even if every vehicle on the road were using natural gas as its fuel by 2050, the net reduction in CO2 emissions would be only 50-60 percent from 2005 levels, according to a recent alternative vehicles and fuels report by the National Research Council.
The Diesel Myths
Diesel fuel is smelly, expensive and has dirtier emissions than gasoline.
Diesel certainly used to be a foul fuel, best left to long-haul trucks and farm and construction equipment. But a series of federal clean fuel rules in the late 1990s culminated in a new requirement: By 2010 all diesel for on-highway use was to be refined to ultra-low sulfur standards of 15 parts per million vs. the old standard of 500 parts per million. Since then, the general rule for diesel fuel for the U.S. passenger fleet is that it can cause no more tailpipe emissions than gasoline.
Cleaning up the sulfur content got rid of most of what used to be that characteristic diesel stink. Implementation of several types of exhaust treatment systems in diesel vehicles got rid of most of the fuel's smog-causing emissions.
On the surface, there appears to be some truth to the cost objection to diesel. In most of the U.S., diesel tends to be priced at about the same level as premium gasoline. The price goes up in the winter, when home heating demands rise. That's because diesel comes from the same part of the oil barrel as does home heating oil, so increased production of one cuts into production of the other. Additionally, European diesel demand for both fuel and heating has made it profitable for U.S. producers to ship refined diesel there. That constrains U.S. supplies, keeping prices high.
Making matters worse for passenger vehicle drivers is the fact that the federal tax on diesel is 24.4 cents per gallon, which is 32 percent steeper than the government's 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline. This is because federal fuel taxes are used for highway repair and heavy freight trucks pile on the miles and have a disproportionate impact on highways and bridges. But when Congress decided years ago to increase the tax on diesel fuel, there weren't many diesel passenger cars. The legislators ignored the fact that both heavy truck and passenger vehicles use the same fuel.
On the plus side, though, is diesel's efficiency. Diesel engines typically return 30-35 percent better fuel-efficiency than their gasoline counterparts. Diesel remains an actual bargain as long as the price is no more than 30 percent above that of gasoline.
The Ethanol Myth
Ethanol is cheaper than gasoline.
Yes, ethanol is cheaper. At least the stuff made from corn is cheaper than gasoline. But that's just the cost per gallon.
The problem with ethanol's cost at the pump is that it is 33 percent less energy-dense than gasoline, so a gallon of ethanol won't take you as far. Numerous studies have shown that it actually costs the consumer more to use a high ethanol blend than to burn "standard" gasoline, most of which already contains some ethanol.
Most gasoline sold in the U.S. today has up to 10 percent ethanol, which is used as an oxygenator and to help reduce the nation's oil consumption. If you are pumping an E10 blend, you are going to get up to 3.3 percent less fuel economy than if you were using "pure" gasoline with no ethanol.
Additionally, flex-fuel vehicles manufactured by several automakers, including Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota, can run on a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (E85).
Federal regulators recently approved an E15 (15 percent ethanol) blend for 2001 model year and newer cars and trucks, but so far there are fewer than 100 pumps in the entire country that dispense it. The fuel has many opponents because ethanol is an alcohol with characteristics that can be harmful to engines and fuel systems not designed to use it. That list includes many off-road recreational and commercial vehicles and older passenger vehicles, especially antique and "classic" cars and trucks.
Edmunds.com ran a San Diego-Las Vegas-San Diego road test of E85 versus "standard" E10 gasoline several years ago and found that a flex-fuel Chevrolet Tahoe SUV used 36.5 gallons of gasoline on the round trip. The average fuel economy was 18.3 mpg. The same truck on the same route running on E85 used 50 gallons of fuel, for fuel economy of 13.5 mpg.
Although E85 at the time was almost 10 percent cheaper per gallon than regular gasoline, the ethanol versus gasoline comparison test found that fuel for the round trip using E85 cost 24 percent more than did the fuel for the trip on standard gasoline.
The Grid Crash Myth
Plug-in cars might be good for the environment, but if everybody has one, they'll crash the grid when they all plug in to charge at the same time.
On an around-the-clock basis, utilities in the U.S. actually can produce far more electricity than we consume. We have demand-based blackouts because peak demand during daylight hours, especially on hot days when air conditioning is in heavy use, often exceeds the capability of the grid to instantly deliver the amount of juice demanded.
But most plug-in vehicle charging takes place at night, when power use is down and there's a surplus of capacity. And even if we move toward more daytime charging (with workplace chargers, for instance) the use of smart devices that can match charging times with grid supplies is expected to mitigate the impact.
The industry-supported Electric Power Research Institute recently did a national study that found that utility companies' grid improvements are expected to more than keep up with the relatively slow pace of plug-in vehicle adoption. One hour of EV charging draws about the same power as four new plasma-screen television sets, and few people are worried that more TV purchases will crash the grid.
Separately, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory calculated in 2013 that the present-day grid's overcapacity could support 150 million electric vehicles, providing that those vehicles are properly distributed, with most located in areas with significant generating capacity.
Ed Kjaer, director of transportation electrification for the Southern California Edison Co., says that the utility has no issue with the demands of plug-in vehicle charging. SCE would know: It's no stranger to excessive daytime demand.
There already are almost 30,000 plug-in vehicle owners in SCE's service area, Kjaer says, "and the load is not presenting undue challenges.... We see negligible impact." The utility invests $4 billion a year in grid modernization, and the growth of plug-in vehicles so far is slower than the pace of grid improvement, he says.
The Toxic Batteries Myth
A crisis will develop when all those hybrid and electric vehicle batteries wear out and get dumped, with all their toxic chemicals, into the world's trash heaps.
The batteries used in conventional hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles are considered nontoxic and safe for landfill disposal, unlike the lead-acid batteries that are used in tens of millions of conventional cars and trucks.
Even so, almost all of the material in advanced-vehicle batteries can be recycled. They are too valuable to merely toss into the dump. In fact, most automakers offer a bounty to car owners to encourage them to turn in depleted hybrid and EV batteries so they can be recycled.
Right now, the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the first conventional hybrids are just now starting to wear out, and a recycling industry has sprung up to take care of them. These batteries are considered "zero landfill" batteries because whatever can't be recycled is consumed in the recycling process, leaving no waste for disposal.
The lithium-ion batteries used in newer hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles haven't been in service long enough to begin wearing out. The automotive, power and battery industries are examining both recycling and reuse of depleted electric vehicle batteries as ways to store renewable power from wind, solar and hydroelectric generation.
A few pilot recycling plants for lithium-ion batteries do exist and they have found that the batteries are anywhere from 70 percent to 100 percent recyclable, depending on their exact chemical composition. As with nickel-metal hydride batteries, whatever parts of lithium-ion batteries can't be recycled are typically consumed as fuel in the furnaces used to melt them down to extract their components.
The EVs and Cancer Myth
Electric cars and hybrids produce electromagnetic fields that can give you cancer.
Things that run on or generate electricity produce electric and magnetic fields (EMFs). They are a form of radiation that, in excessive doses, can cause various health problems including, in some cases, cancers.
However, it takes a lot of EMF radiation over a fairly long period and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection has established safe dosage levels for the various EMF frequencies.
So far, no study has found any link between illnesses and EMF radiation from motor vehicles. A recent study by a group of scientists from seven countries, funded by the European Union, measured electromagnetic fields from standard gasoline and diesel cars, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. All were found to fall far below the EMF danger thresholds.
"There is absolutely no cause for concern," says Kari Schjolberg-Henriksen, a physicist at Norwegian research organization SINTEF, which led the EM Safety project research program.
Conversely, both gasoline and diesel fuel have components that are known carcinogens.
Woes Are Enough Without Misinformation
So that's that. Alternative fuels face numerous real stumbling blocks to widespread acceptance.
Most are more expensive than the petroleum fuels they would replace. Most lack a useful, widespread retail distribution system: Certainly nothing matching the gasoline retail structure exists for any other fuel, although diesel comes close. Some alternative fuels can take us only a little way along the path to independence from fossil fuels. Others rely on so-far underdeveloped energy resources, such as solar, wind and hydropower in order to offer the reductions in greenhouse gases that would make them better choices than petroleum.
With all those strikes, they don't need a lot of misinformation to further cloud their futures.
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