Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Renewable fuels: Harper goes on the (ethanol) wagon

Congratulations to the Prime Minister for taking a step to get ethanol into every gas tank in Canada. He’s addressing the right sector—transportation, which accounts for a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gases (GHGs). Car and trucks are also the main man-made source of smog and other air pollution, so he’s on the right track there too.

(Don’t listen to groups like the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, who exaggerate the role of coal-fired power generation. Motor vehicles are a much bigger problem. See Environment Canada’s pollution emission summaries.)

Of course, Harper is stretching a bit when he touts ethanol’s GHG-reducing benefits. Ethanol won’t really make much of a dent in transportation-related GHGs, at least not a quantifiable dent. Comparing ethanol’s “well-to-wheel” emissions balance with gasoline’s is nearly impossible—each ethanol manufacturing plant is a unique nexus of feedstock and process, so you can’t generalize. What you can say is that exhaust emissions are cleaner from vehicles burning ethanol-blended fuel than from those burning straight gasoline or diesel.

Clean fuels like ethanol are one of the four pillars of the strategy for making cleaner cars.

The second pillar is next-generation catalytic converters that can catalyze harmful pollutants at low temperatures, something the current platinum-based ones can’t do. Also, engine heat causes platinum particles to accumulate unevenly, which reduces their catalytic effectiveness.

The third pillar is increased efficiency in current internal-combustion engine technology. Electronic controls that shut down some cylinders while the vehicle is at a cruising speed—already available in certain Chrysler and Chevrolet models—are one example.

The fourth pillar is the most important: using electricity to power cars. Manufacturers like Toyota, Ford, and Honda, to name a few, are already rolling hybrid-electric vehicles off assembly lines. This is a huge step in the right direction. But current hybrid technology has its limitations. It barely maintains the charge in a small battery, which means electric power doesn’t push current hybrid vehicles very far.

How to extend the electric car’s range? Enter the “plug-in hybrid.” Forward-thinking advocates like Andy Frank and Felix Kramer are urging automakers to build hybrids with bigger batteries that owners can recharge by plugging them into ordinary electric sockets, just like a block heater. Bigger batteries could move vehicles over 10 kilometers—a typical city trip—on pure electric power. (For more information on hybrid cars, see Bradley Berman’s newsletter.)

A plug-in hybrid vehicle burning ethanol blend, and equipped with an advanced catalytic converter, will be an environment-friendly vehicle. Experts predict there will be fifty vehicle nameplates with hybrid-electric powertrains by 2010. If Harper’s ethanol binge actually bears fruit, we’ll be two-thirds of the way to clean cars within five years.

And if the grid electricity that recharges the cars’ batteries is itself generated from low carbon sources—like water, wind, or nuclear—then emissions will drop even further. Stay tuned.

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