FUELS AND HYBRIDS AGAIN

Rolf Lockwood

April 23, 2008 Vol. 4, No. 9
There’s no crashing new technology issue to discuss this time out, but fuel issues continue to dominate everywhere I turn. I’m bothered on behalf of one subscriber – and more silent ones, I suspect – who wrote me a week or so ago. He specs and maintains the trucks and trailers of a sizeable carrier in the Toronto area and he’s worried. It seems a major customer has demanded, in the name of ‘going green’ in a very public way, that he fuel his trucks with a B5 blend of biodiesel.

My reader has, of course, followed the explosion of words and claims and general hubbub about biofuels, but he was a long way from being ready to commit to using them. He just didn’t know enough, for one thing, to be confident about making this leap. What about cold starts? What about seals? What about a bunch of things?

And for that matter, where the heck can I get the stuff? That’s not no-brainer territory in Canada, as we have yet to develop a biodiesel infrastructure. Are we slow or sensible here?

In some parts of the world, the supply question is easy to answer. Every time I check my e-mail I read news about some company or other building new biofuel plants, and a couple of days back there was the news that an outfit in Delaware called Alternative Fuel Distributors plans to build 1000 ‘Go Green Station’ convenience stores over the next three years to will sell E-85 ethanol and biodiesel along the east coast of the U.S. It aims to be big, also supplying biodiesel to fleet operators, school districts, municipalities, and home heating companies.

Such news just doesn’t stop. Everywhere you look globally, as I’ve written more than once in this space, politicians are rushing headlong into a love affair with the easy fix of turning former food crops into those that can help offset our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign sources. Or in many cases, especially in Brazil, they’re creating farmland where primal forest once existed. Just in the last half of 2007, more than 741,000 acres of rain forest were decimated in the name of fuel, that huge tract of land turned over to the production of soybean and sugar crops which could then be turned into ethanol for the most part.

That’s a travesty, plain and simple, even if the country is 45% self-sufficient in transport fuel.

This isn’t about clean energy, and it’s not really about energy security either except at the political level. This is about money. Really big money. And it gets uglier every minute as more carbon-storing forests are cut down, more farmland switched from food to fuel crops, and more naive consumers and vacuous politicians leap onto this bandwagon. Mostly in the name of profit, not the environment.

I feel vindicated in writing this sort of opinion, by the way, after having seen the April 7th edition of Time magazine’s Canadian edition land in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. The cover story had this bold title: “The Clean Energy Scam”, with a deck that read, “Hyped as an eco-friendly fuel, ethanol increases global warming, destroys forests, and inflates food prices. So why are we subsidizing it?” The story was about biofuels in general, not just ethanol. Among the many points made in this piece, writer Michael Grunwald noted that even if 100% of U.S. corn and soybean crops were devoted to fuel production, it would only offset 20% of the country’s on-road fuel consumption.

All of that said, there is indeed a longer-term future in biodiesel or synthetic diesel or a fuel called dimethylether made from biomass, even from algae. As Volvo Group CEO Leif Johansson has said more than once in the last few months, there are many good options, if only there were international consensus and truly international standards. And of course investment.

We don’t have to cut down forests nor watch the price of food rise if, for once, we look beyond the quick buck and the quick fix. But this is the stuff of human foibles, and I’m not holding my breath.

A FAR BETTER SHORT-TERM OPTION for my money is the hybrid powertrain, which offers serious fuel savings and other benefits. Electric vehicles too. Neither one, at least not presently, is a technology suited to every trucking need, but the list is expanding.

Volvo, for instance, has just put two hybrid refuse trucks on the road in Sweden. It’s the first step in the commercialization process, and the company says it will start producing hybrid trucks routinely in 2009.

Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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