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Calstart Report – A Sustainable Transport Interpretation


Energy demand is increasing rapidly on global basis.

Oil production has increased twenty percent over last twenty years and demand is projected to increase fifty percent over the next twenty. Add the possibility of peak oil production occurring some time in that picture and we have a really big problem.

Burning fuel that increases CO2 is clearly and scientifically directly tied to climate change problems. Increasing the rate of production based on the increased fuel demand will accelerate that change. The science is very strong on this one no matter who is in denial.

One of the key speakers was former CIA Director James Woolsey. It is interesting to ask why a former CIA director would be concerned about energy. After all his work has been to do with national security and global relations. Is this an indication that energy is important to our national security and global peace?


The best solutions are to reduce our use of energy by driving less. This means mass transit and smart growth strategies. The applicable smart growth strategies are those that give people the ability to live, work, shop and play in their own communities using minimal transportation (sometime referred to as re-localization)

Increasing the efficiency of the existing engines can get us 15-20 percent improvement while making gas vehicle more expensive and more complex.

Diesel engines are already 20 to 30 percent more efficient and more durable. They need to be cleaned up and the technology is available.

Fuel efficient and clean burning diesel cars from Europe are definitely on their way. VW has a field rep here working with the bio diesel people. The Vice president of Volvo North America says they are ready to bring the cars. BMW also had a rep at the Calstart conference last week.

These clean vehicles need the ultra low sulfur diesel or bio diesel to work correctly. The Western States Petroleum Assoc. people say they are on track to deliver the ultra low sulfur fuel next year to the entire country.

Electric vehicles are working but full speed cars have been pulled from the market and from development. The argument is that the batteries are not ready to do the job. That is an issue of range on the vehicle and of recharge rate. People who are using the electric vehicles on a daily basis know that this does not make sense. The RAV4 EV has a range of just over a hundred miles and works for the vast majority of driving needs. There is a car from China with a range of 200 miles and Electric motor scooters and neighborhood EV’s are moving into the 30 mile range area and beyond. Each of these can serve part of our needs with potentially renewable energy.

The GEM neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) is a good local solution and is available from your local Chrysler dealer. We have people who use these on a regular basis if you want more first hand information.

The automakers have an attitude that says the new technology has to be able to match the abilities of the old technologies. Innovators know they can move forward with the new as long as it gets the job on hand done. How many miles do you drive in a typical day?

The automakers are moving on the Hybrid technologies, as we all know. This is a step in the right direction. Another step will be the diesel Hybrid, which will get even more out of the fuel. The next step is to turn those into PLUG-IN hybrids when they are being used for lots of short (less than forty miles a day) commuting.

This is a good example of taking the steps toward the completely sustainable solution. A completely sustainable solution is an electric car that is charged by solar or wind generated power. The hybrid vehicles followed by the plug-in hybrid will lead us back to the full electric vehicles as the battery performance is rewarded in the market place and the volume of production brings down the prices.

These steps will also be supported by the demand for be NEV’s and electric motor scooters and motorcycles.

The other sustainable options revolve around fuel from plants. This includes

1. Growing crops and algae to produce oil for bio diesel,

2. Growing Crops for ethanol fuel

3. Converting green waste biomass into methane

4. Converting green waste biomass into alcohol fuels

The bio diesel work is well developed with soy grown for feed providing quality oil for fuel in this country and with rapeseed being produced in other countries. There is an analysis that says this can be done on a large enough scale to satisfy our need for imported fuel. This would convert marginal land into fuel producing areas.

There are soil degradation and related environmental problems tied to plowing up land to grow crops just for energy. There are also issues related to specific crops as to whether they produce a net gain in energy. It is a seriously complicated thing to figure out how to go about resolving these concerns.

Professor David Pimentel has findings about getting ethanol from corn the way we grow corn in the Midwest. His study indicates that process is not energy efficient. That is probably true and it starts and stops with the Midwest corn specifications. It would be nice to accept the findings as applying to all bio bass conversions but they do not. James Woolsey specifically indicated that there are problems with his findings.

An analysis, similar to the one by Pimentel, shows that bio diesel from soy oil may not fuel-efficient. The problem with that model is that it is ignoring the larger picture of that situation. The soybeans are being produced for the protein and carbohydrates that are used as cattle feed. The oil is then a bye product that can be used to recoup the energy used in producing the feed. If the energy cost of producing the crop is expensed to the production of the feed then the bio diesel is produced at zero energy cost!

Brazil is getting almost half its fuel for transportation from sugar cane derived ethanol. That means it has to be energy efficient or they would still be using oil.

Bio diesel makes the most sense as a way to utilize waste oil resources. Any oil and fats that cannot be reused for its original purpose can be converted into fuel. - Why not do that...

Here we have our second path to sustainability. Get clean diesel engines in 2006. Use a source of bio diesel fuel in the car. Support local collection of waste oil and processing that into bio diesel.

Ethanol may not be energy efficient from corn but it is possible to make it from cellulosic sources - think green waste, both urban and agricultural. This potential is huge. The next step would be to process agricultural bye products like the rice straw that has been burnt off for so many years. Then we can go after green waste in the cities and turn grass clippings into ethanol fuel and compost - yes ethanol production should allow us to preserve a good part of the fertilizer value of bio mass that can then be used to grow more crops and renew the soil.

There is a need to develop cost effective and environmentally sound conversion processes to yield ethanol from the various sources.

Here is a third path to sustainable transportation. Get a mixed fuel vehicle that can operate on both gasoline and ethanol fuel (Designated as E85 for 85% ethanol content). There are currently 100,000 such vehicles in California, many without access to the fuel. Locate a source for the E85 fuel and start creating a demand for it. Support local programs to create ethanol from crop residues and green waste.

It is also possible to convert green waste into a source for methane gas. This is another potential fuel that can be harvested while producing organic soil supplements at the same time.

The path to a sustainable methane-using vehicle is already in progress. Liquid natural gas busses and other large vehicles are in widespread use. Honda was showing a compressed natural gas version of the civic at the event. It included a display of a home fueling station for filling your car from the domestic natural gas supply. At today’s pricing that is significantly less expensive than the gasoline option.

This is a good opportunity for alternative fuel solutions right now. Honda is in the early promotional stages with this vehicle and has incentives to get people going.

For more information

It is not clear whether green waste produced methane will be suitable as a fuel in the same way that natural gas can be used directly in a combustion engine. Another option would be to use methane through a fuel cell instead. This Honda represents a step that can support either outcome. The next vehicle Honda has ready to go in this path to sustainability uses a fuel cell.

There are several fuel cell vehicles in the road testing stages. Most of these are gear toward using hydrogen as a fuel including the Honda. Both the use of fuel cells and of hydrogen are areas of contention as good solutions for our energy future.

The fuel cell itself has questions to do with the efficiency of the cell in converting from an energy source. Honda has developed fuel cells with high efficiency when converting the fuel into multiple energy forms. This includes harvesting heat, electricity and hydrogen from a natural gas source, something that might prove viable in a situation that can use all three of these products. This might apply as home utility or in an industrial on site installation. Vehicles tend to need only one of these and bring us back to the question of efficiency.

Honda and other companies are spending a good amount on fuel cell technology so there must be something in them. It might also have to do with government support for hydrogen usage.

Both the federal government and Governor Schwarzenneger are supporting hydrogen vehicles. The Governor has his hydrogen super highway project. There is a large amount of money going into this effort.

Hydrogen has two reasonable advantages. It burns cleaner than any other gas or liquid. It can be compressed to fill tanks that get a car a two hundred mile range.

The problem is that it is not an energy source but rather a way to transport energy from other sources including electricity and fossil fuels. These other sources produce the hydrogen at a fairly low efficiency so there is a substantial energy loss. The hydrogen can then be run through a fuel cell to produce electricity to run a car – again calling into question the efficiency factors.

James Woolsey strongly stated his belief that hydrogen was not a good solution.

Hydrogen may however produce technology that can be used for related solutions. It might also fit with a home utility fuel cell system like the one that Honda is working with.

The sustainable option here is to have a local methane producing system that feeds to one of two possible transportation solutions. One would be a compressed methane fuel similar to the natural gas solution available now. The other would be a mixed yield through a fuel cell conversion yielding heat, electricity and hydrogen.

The steps toward this would start with the compressed natural gas car. It then goes to a fuel cell vehicle like the hydrogen one Honda has already engineered. This might also look like a natural gas fuel cell along the same lines. The next step would be to get the green waste methane production plants. Finally, the methane is used as the fuel source for one or the other type of vehicle – methane internal combustion or methane fuel cell.

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