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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hummer

It's a great image, isn't it? The hulk of a man, the Terminator, the world's most macho actor, driving the world's most macho vehicle. But the Governor of California, the state with by far the most stringent environmental regulations? Hardly!

But it's OK. His Hummer is a special version. It burns hydrogen, not gasoline, so it doesn't pollute.

Hydrogen cars and other "alternative vehicles" concern us today. While a mere fraction of cars on the road, they mark huge steps toward easing energy and environmental strains; some of these developments are really fascinating and exciting.

In the United States in early 2006 there were 200.7 million licensed drivers. At the end of 2005 there were 231.9 million passenger cars and light trucks. Indeed, more vehicles than drivers. We've already explained that these vehicles (plus about 9 million "heavy" trucks and buses) burn up 11% of the world's petroleum and put a consequential volume of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Ordinary internal combustion engines and the way they power ordinary American vehicles is "embarrassingly inefficient", according to Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, authors of Natural Capitalism (Little Brown & Company, 1999), from which we quoted at length last time. In Peter Tertzakian's book, A Thousand Barrels a Second, he lays this out neatly (page 113):

  • Start with the total chemical energy in a barrel of oil: 100%
  • The refining process loses 17%, leaving 83%.
  • The working of the car engine converts the chemical energy into mechanical power. This uses another 54%, leaving just 29%. We've consumed 71% and we haven't moved the car yet.
  • Getting power TO the wheels uses another 10%, leaving 19% of the original amount.
  • Finally, overcoming the friction as the rubber meets the road uses 2% more, leaving only 17% of the original energy that actually moves the car.

The arithmetic gets worse. Suppose the car weighs just over 3,000 pounds and you weigh 160 pounds. Of a combined total 3,200 pounds for car and driver, you constitute 5%. So moving YOU uses 5% of the 17% moving energy, or a tiny 0.85% of the original energy in a barrel of oil.

Approaching the questions of energy use and environmental impact from a structural viewpoint makes us look at potential improvements in a different way. If we see how the energy gets lost, we can correct that. Yes, alternative fuels are important, but there is more to the story. We can get much farther.

Suppose the car is standing still. As we drive, its power is wasted three ways. First, when we drive off, the resistance of the tire and the roadway generates heat. "Burning rubber" is more than just a phrase. And "road rage" drivers would generate a lot of heat. So manufacturers are already making narrower tires and wheels with spokes to lessen the resistance; those fancy wheels on many of today's cars are there for more than just their good looks! Think of a bicycle: when we are just learning to ride and stability is key, we use one with big fat balloon tires. But as we progress and we want more speed and maneuverability, we reduce the resistance by getting a model with thin racing tires.

Secondly, as the car moves along, it pushes air out of the way, a lot of air: some 6-7 tons every mile. So we use a streamline design to overcome aerodynamic drag, just like an airplane. We might also make the car out of a lighter-weight material, maybe high impact plastic, similar to Kevlar. Hawken, Lovins and Lovins describe that with such materials, the vehicle can have the strength of 3,000 pounds of steel in just 1,500 pounds of carbon fiber. The material from which the car is molded, not welded together, makes the manufacturing process and maintenance more efficient as well by drastically cutting the number of parts; painting becomes easier and much less polluting because pigments are embedded right in the carbon fibers instead of being sprayed on a steel body. Formula One racecars are already made this way as are some new "concept cars" used for demonstrations. These vehicles are safer in accidents and far easier to repair after one.

Finally, when we slow down, applying the brakes generates heat. Today's hybrid cars already work with this heat in a process called "regenerative braking". The heat of the brakes is captured and made into electricity, which is stored. It is then available to augment the car's power at points of peak demand. So the engine doesn't need such great capacity for ordinary driving, since it has a built-in auxiliary power source. The hybrid's generator is also recharged as the gasoline engine runs, obviating the need to plug a battery into an external power source.

These technologies are all available now and as we've noted, some are in commercial use. They reduce fuel needs, whatever the fuel being used. The burdensome gasoline prices of 2005 and 2006 accelerated development of these systems, as has public recognition by government officials that the environmental impact is significant.

Fill 'er Up – Right in Your Own Garage
Further innovations can help spread use of non-polluting fuels: on the Honda company website,, the environmental section describes two new appliances to facilitate use of natural gas and hydrogen. These are "home filling stations". One of the arguments against the early use of these fuels has been the lack of facilities for convenient refueling. However, Honda – which we use as an example, not necessarily an endorsement – has partnered with Toronto-based FuelMaker Corporation to sell or lease FuelMaker's "Phill" with the new Civic GX natural gas-powered cars. Phill is installed in the owner's garage and plugs into a standard residential gas line, the same one you use for cooking or in your furnace. According to Honda, the natural gas Civic releases 11% less greenhouse gas (GHG) than the regular Civic.

The company is also working with Plug Power Corporation of Latham, New York, to provide a similar device for the upcoming 2008 production model of its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. At first, the hydrogen will also come from natural gas, which will be processed by the Plug Power device to separate out the hydrogen. It will be stored in a tank in the back of the car, a position similar to today's gas tanks, and converted to electricity in the car's fuel cell to run an electric motor, a much simpler machine than a gasoline engine. Is the tank of hydrogen too dangerous? Hawken, Lovins and Lovins reassure us that it is no more dangerous than a tank of gasoline and any fire from it is less likely to cause burns than a gasoline blaze.* The hydrogen vehicle chops GHG emissions by 37% from a regular Civic. The next step will be sourcing the hydrogen from solar power, which would have virtually no greenhouse gas emissions.

Aren't these vehicles hugely expensive? Well, yes. Hybrids have cost more and surely hydrogen vehicles will too. Buyers are helping pay the development cost of the new technologies. But as with other "new things", these prices will come down. Compare computers and HDTV monitors: as they became more accepted and production runs became longer, their prices fell. In fact, among the new cars, Toyota just offered the first financing incentives on its popular Prius hybrid in January.

More than Ethanol
Last week's U.S.News and World Report bemoaned the fact that policymakers seem to be banking too much on ethanol as the answer to the problems of GHG and energy independence from foreign oil. We'd argue instead that ethanol is a transitional solution. The fact that we can write 1,200 words here on this topic before we even mention ethanol indicates that there is lots more going on. Surely we as drivers will be making changes in our vehicle fueling routines, but look how nearly all of us have learned to pump our own gasoline since the first fuel crisis in the 1970s. We can learn too to plug a natural gas hose into the car when we get home at night or to maintain our solar batteries. We won't have to stop driving, and we'll be driving healthier vehicles, hopefully in a safer way.

Oh, yes, and Mr. Schwarzenegger's Hummer? We see that in addition to refitting it with a hydrogen fuel-source motor, he should also pull off its tank-like square steel body and replace it with a sleek carbon fiber canopy!

*We were fascinated to read in Natural Capitalism that in fact in the Hindenburg disaster in the late 1930s, the people who rode all the way to the ground in the gondola below the burning hydrogen balloon actually walked away unharmed. There were 62 of them.


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