Hybrids and biofuels would be a good fit for Minnesota
by David Morris
Originally published in Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 18, 2005
In the aftermath of Katrina’s fury, and the passage of a remarkably weak and largely irrelevant federal energy bill, Americans have learned two important lessons. We need desperately and rapidly to eliminate our dependence on imported oil. And in that effort, the federal government will, at best, be a follower, not a leader.
Given these truths, what can be done? First, focus state and local efforts on the ground transportation sector, for that is where some 55 percent of our petroleum is consumed. Second, build a strategy on existing technologies that can be rapidly deployed and achieve a significant reduction in oil consumption in the short term.
The building block for a petroleum-free America is the hybrid electric vehicle. Introduced only four years ago in the United States, hybrids have become our fastest-selling vehicles. The waiting list for a Toyota Prius now extends six months. All car companies have introduced or announced the introduction of hybrid models.
The hybrid creates the technological foundation for a transportation system powered either by motors or engines — that is, by electricity or by liquid (or gaseous) fuels.
The drawback of current hybrid models is that they do not travel very far, if at all, solely on electricity. Hybrids save energy by not having to run the engine when idling and not having to use the engine to propel the car from a full stop, the most wasteful (and polluting) part of driving. Honda hybrids are designed so that the engine runs all the time the car is moving. Toyota’s hybrids allow for electric-only driving, but only for a very short distance before the engine kicks in.
Hybrid batteries are charged only with electricity generated by the engine (or via a regenerative braking system). What is needed is to make the hybrid car an electric vehicle with a battery backup. Achieving this means expanding the battery capacity and allowing the vehicle to recharge its batteries from any electrical outlet.
Plug-in hybrids with an electric-only range of 50 miles before recharging would enable electricity to become the nation’s primary transportation energy source. That should delight both consumers and urban residents. In Minnesota, driving on electricity costs the equivalent of about 25 cents per gallon. Electric vehicles are quiet. While traveling on electricity, nothing comes out of their tailpipes.
No new power plants will be needed to supply these vehicles. Many of Minnesota’s power plants run at low capacity during off-peak hours. Customers who charge their batteries during these hours (e.g. at night) could pay lower prices and even improve the overall efficiency of the power plants, since they operate more efficiently when run at full capacity.
All-electric vehicles still have performance shortcomings. Which is where the hybrid’s backup engine comes in.
The engine should be capable of running on biofuels or petroleum in any proportion. The nation already boasts some 4 million flexible fueled vehicles (FFVs), several hundred thousand of them in Minnesota. The cost to the automaker of allowing an engine to run on any proportion of gasoline or biofuels is very low, about $140 per vehicle.
FFVs are only useful, of course, if pumps at gas stations contain high proportions of biofuels. Minnesota leads the nation, with almost 200 gas stations boasting at least one pump that offers 85 percent ethanol blends. Electric delivery systems, of course, already exist. Outlets can be found virtually everywhere.
On average, a flexible-fueled, plug-in hybrid vehicle would travel about 70 percent on electricity and about 30 percent on biofuels. Urban drivers could conceivably drive solely on electricity while rural residents might use biofuels to meet 75 percent of their driving needs.
The dramatic reduction in the need for engine fuel makes it possible for biofuels to become a genuine substitute for petroleum, rather than, as now, simply an additive to diesel or gasoline.
We don’t have sufficient land area as a nation to grow enough biofuels to displace 100 percent of our current transportation fuels. But we do have enough to displace 100 percent of our petroleum transportation fuels when electricity satisfies 70 percent of our driving needs.
A dual-powered transportation system should be very attractive to states like Minnesota. On the engine side, Minnesota could easily produce sufficient biofuels to displace every last drop of petroleum. On the electricity side, Minnesota is rich in renewable energy sources like wind and sunlight. Their drawback is that they only generate electricity intermittently. But this electricity could be stored in the larger battery packs of plug-in hybrids.
On the engine side, we can envision Minnesota farmers owning the biorefineries that process Minnesota crops like soybeans, corn, switch grass, alfalfa and agricultural residues into fuel for Minnesota drivers. On the motor side we can envision a dramatic decentralization of our electricity system. On-site and local wind turbines could feed batteries to power the local transportation system. And the vehicular “power plants” could be integrated into future electricity network planning, minimizing the need for high-voltage transmission lines and remote centralized power plants.
As the saying goes, we could do good and, in the process, do very well indeed.
It would be lovely if the federal government would embrace this strategy, but much can be accomplished at the state and even the local level. A lot is already happening. Minnesota governments, businesses and households should seize this historical moment to build a secure, sustainable, petroleum-free future.
David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org).