Power Plays

The following is an excerpt from a new book by Robert Rapier entitled Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil. Reprinted with permission.

It wasn't as if there have never been economic alternatives to oil. Compressed natural gas and methanol, for instance, have both been cheaper than oil on an energy equivalent basis for many years...

The problem lies in the fact that consumers don't have the option of filling up with methanol, ethanol, or any of the other contenders to replace gasoline...because the transportation infrastructure is incompatible and, more importantly, the cars on the roads are not designed to handle these fuels.

Thus, my third proposal calls for support of the Open Fuel Standard that would require that a growing percentage of vehicles sold in the U.S. must be capable of running on fuels other than gasoline. I am not usually a big fan of mandates, because of the potential for unintended consequences, but in this case the additional cost to produce a vehicle that is flex-fuel capable is reported to be between $100 and $200. This would therefore only add 0.5% to the cost of the average new car.

The availability of more flex-fuel vehicles would remove one of the major obstacles for new fuels attempting to break into the transportation fuel market. Currently, there is no demand for methanol or mixed alcohols as transportation fuel primarily because the vehicles on the roads are not entirely compatible. If more vehicles were capable of operating on a wide variety of fuels with little added production cost, the market for domestically produced fuels would grow.

Anne Korin and Gal Luft, in their excellent book Turning Oil Into Salt: Energy Independence Through Fuel Choice, compare the situation today with oil to the situation with salt hundreds of years ago. Salt held a monopoly on food preservation, and was thus an important strategic commodity. Countries with salt mines derived wealth from their salt exports, and sometimes wars were fought over access to salt. But eventually salt evolved from a strategic commodity into simply a commodity, because refrigeration broke salt's monopoly on food preservation. That is the goal of the Open Fuel Standard: to break oil's monopoly on the transportation system and convert it from its present status as a strategic commodity into simply a commodity.

Robert Rapier is the Chief Technology Officer for Merica International, a renewable energy company, which is involved in a wide variety of projects, with a core focus on the localized use of biomass to energy for the benefit of local populations. Rapier's whole career has been devoted to energy issues. He's worked on cellulosic ethanol, butanol production, oil refining, natural gas production, and gas-to-liquids. And he is the author of Power Plays.

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