What’s Become of Alternative Fuels?

Not that long ago, alternatives like biodiesel, ethanol, methanol, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and propane autogas (LPG) shared equal billing with electric and hybrid vehicles. Now these other green technologies get little media focus. What happened?

While there are many reasons why the alternative fuel vehicle field has radically changed in recent years, there’s no greater contributing factor to this tectonic shift than Tesla breaking the EV barrier with electric cars people really wanted. Now, with most other automakers going all-in with advanced electric models of their own, these other green technologies get precious little media focus.

Today it’s all about plug-in electric vehicles and hybrids. But why? Did these other alternatives fail, or were they so successful they became mainstream technologies? In short, the answer is that their technology has matured to the point where discussion of these alternative fuels simply generates little attention.

Their widespread use has also been limited by the lack of a fueling infrastructure. For the most part, electrified vehicles do a better job of meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals than alternative fuels that add CO2 to the atmosphere. Plus, the availability of affordable gasoline and diesel fuel hasn’t helped the case for these fossil fuel alternatives.

There are currently 3,561 E85 ethanol stations in the U.S. As might be expected, the majority of these stations are in Midwest corn growing states since ethanol is largely made from corn in this country. E85, also called flex-fuel, can contain 51% to 83% ethanol and the balance gasoline, depending on location. E85 can only be used in flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) that are specially designed to run on gasoline, E85, or any mixture of these two fuels in the same tank. Currently, only about two dozen FFV models are available. Over the past 30 years, automakers fitted a great many models with FFV-capable engines to earn bonus federal fuel efficiency credits at little cost. This did little to actually encourage alternative fuel use, though, since it’s estimated that less than 10 percent of the 21 million FFVs on U.S. highways actually use E85.

Most of the gasoline sold in the U.S. contains up to 10 percent ethanol (E10) to mitigate vehicle emissions, with the amount varying by region and season. All automakers approve blends up to E10 in their gasoline vehicles. As of 2011, EPA began allowing the use of E15 (10.5 to 15 percent ethanol) in model year 2001 and newer gasoline vehicles. While the amount of ethanol used per gallon of fuel is minimal, overall ethanol use is significant and growing due to the huge number of gasoline fueled vehicles on the road.

Far fewer biodiesel stations are available across the country, about 192 at last count. Biodiesel can be used in its pure form (B100) or blended with petroleum diesel fuel. Common blends include B2 (2 percent biodiesel), B5 (5 percent biodiesel), and B20 (20 percent biodiesel). Since most automakers only approve use of blends up to B5 and some up to B20 in their diesel models, and light-duty diesel vehicles are sold in small numbers in the U.S., biodiesel accounts for a small fraction of the country’s fuel use.

One of the big criticisms of biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel is that they require the same resources –water, land, and fertilizer – that are used to grow food. According to researchers at the University of Virginia, about a third of the world’s malnourished population could be fed by using resources now used for biofuel production.

That said, things could be looking up for biofuels. Today there are hundreds of research projects worldwide – and even some near-ready production facilities – aimed at capturing CO2 and converting it into conventional fuels, biofuels, and carbon-based chemicals. This would effectively release agricultural resources to produce needed food rather than fuel. Plus, whether CO2 is converted to conventional fuels or biofuels, the result is the same since this serves to decrease fossil fuel use and reduce CO2 in our atmosphere.

Compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are niche fuels used mainly by government and private fleets, many with their own fueling facilities. A limited number of new CNG and LPG light-duty vehicles are available, mostly pickups and vans. There are also companies that specialize in aftermarket conversion of light-duty models to run on CNG and LPG that are suitable for varying fleet uses, from taxis and government vehicles to service trucks and vans. Combined, there are presently some 21 CNG models and 22 LPG models from which to choose.

These fuels are popularly used in heavier vehicles like transit and school buses, trucks, and vocational vehicles. Since these alternative fuel vehicles are typically owned by fleets where operating cost is a driving force in their decision making, it’s possible we may see trending toward electric propulsion in coming years as the cost of electrification comes down and driving range increases. At present, the U.S. Alternative Fuels Data Center estimates there are 884 CNG, 62 LNG, and 2844 LPG stations available for refueling these alternative fuel vehicles.

Even amid the frenetic activity and product introductions surrounding electrified vehicles, we know this: Alternative fuels beyond electrons remain in play and will continue offsetting petroleum use in their own way. Some may be suitable for commercial applications but not personal transportation. Others may find success only in niche markets. Still others – depending on further development and commercialization – may fuel vehicles while also achieving important societal objectives like removing carbon from our atmosphere. Plus, of course, there could be new ‘green’ or designer transportation fuels that emerge in the coming years. All this means it could be a fascinating ‘alternative’ road ahead.