Needed: Retrofit Revolution
By Edwin Black
Now that the $787 billion stimulus package has become law, a key emphasis is “green jobs” and energy rescue. But the single most important program in becoming energy independent and regaining financial health is never mentioned in the massive Congressional text.
Without that program, it will take one to two painful decades to kick our national addiction to oil. Without that program, our vulnerability to an oil interruption due to a petropolitical or terrorist blockage of the Strait of Hormuz continues as a clear and present danger. Without that program, America’s economic house of cards will continue to weaken as we continue to send approximately a $1 trillion overseas, primarily to OPEC suppliers. Without that program, hundreds of thousands of auto industry workers have no real chance of rapidly returning to secure work. That undiscovered program is vehicle “retrofitting” to create a Retrofitting Revolution. [Watch former Intel head, Andy Grove's presentation at the 2008 Plug-in Conference on this topic.]
Retrofitting, referred to by many as upfitting, means converting existing petroleum burning cars and trucks to vehicles that operate on something else such as electric, compressed natural gas (CNG), propane, hydrogen, second-generation biofuels, non-agrifuel ethanol, such as that derived from sugar cane, and other forms of alt fuel and alt propulsion.
The numbers are numbing. Currently, some 250 million gas-consuming cars and trucks ply America’s roads, with more than a million being added monthly. By 2015, experts expect more than 300 million gas guzzlers in America. Obama’s original campaign pledge to place 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015 is meaningless rhetoric. By 2015, one million plug-in hybrids, electric, compressed natural gas or any other alt propulsion vehicles will hardly be noticed. They will represent a mere drop in the oil barrel.
True, at first glance, some of the green aspects of the stimulus package offer eye appeal. Certainly, the legislation provides $30 billion for a smart power grid, advanced battery technology and related energy efficiency measures. Add to this, $20 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency to be doled out over a decade, plus $6.3 billion for energy efficiency in federally assisted low-income housing, and $5 billion to weatherize more than 1 million homes owned by middle-class families.
But no mention is made of retrofitting cars and trucks immediately. Immediately means next week. Currently, 98 percent of all transportation is fueled by oil. That is a mandate imposed by OPEC and Detroit, a mandate that can only be broken by national will and the money to support it.
To retrofit, Obama will have to suspend misguided and obstructive EPA guidelines that currently prohibit converting gasoline cars to abundant, cheaper compressed natural gas or other fuels. Punitive EPA testing procedures of at least $50,000 per engine type has ensured there is virtually no retrofitting industry now functioning in America. That industry will need to be invented. An entire army of unemployed autoworkers and cash-starved fleet managers stand ready to participate. But this potential remains unstimulated by the legislation.
Indeed, there are 28,000 public and private fleets, including about a quarter million postal vehicles and about 100,000 trucks at UPS alone. The nation’s taxi fleet is 100,000 strong with a 100 percent turnover every three years. By immediately requiring fleet purchases to be alt fuel and alt propulsion, the manufacturers will have a mad scramble to fill orders. The Postal Service could do this with a pen stroke. Here again, this potential remains unstimulated by recent legislation.
Requiring all new vehicles to become multifuel vehicles would spur the Retrofit Revolution. Pending bipartisan legislation for an Open Fuel Standard already requires half of all cars to be multifuel by 2012. That is too distant a goal. It can be done right now for $100-$200 per vehicle if Detroit will do so instead of pleading the case for bankruptcy. This mandate to retrofit would extend to hundreds of thousands of unsold vehicles now parked for lack of buyers. An economic sector of green jobs could be born overnight. Yet this potential remains unstimulated by this stimulus oriented legislation.
Open Fuel along with the Obama administration’s retrofitting efforts can immediately spur alternative fuel production. There is no magic bullet in alt fuel. A fuel democracy should reign. This democracy could include second-generation biofuels, such as those produced by algae, pond scum and other forms of life. It could also include an array of alcohol fuels, the technologies of which have been long ago proven but lack the dollars to drive them toward mass production. Methanol, used everywhere in China, could be introduced into America within weeks; companies are lined up to make it happen. Sugarcane ethanol from Brazil and the Caribbean is waiting to flow into America’s East Coast if only the punitive Iowa Corn-sponsored 54-cent tax levy will be lifted. Ammonia and propane advocates are ready to deploy their fuel especially for off-road vehicles and heavy trucks through the Midwest.
Compressed natural gas (CNG) and hydrogen are waiting to sweep into America’s garages. Neither CNG nor hydrogen needs a neighborhood gas station infrastructure. Auto makers who say that are continuing to mislead. Home or office refueling devices, such as those now under the control of Honda and largely kept off the market despite surging demand, convert ordinary household oven gas to fuel. Even T. Boone Pickens was unable to purchase the technology to bring these simple home and office refueling devices into common use. Honda would not release the financial information needed to complete the $17 million sale. Legislation could easily free up this technology. TARP took that approach to toxic assets. But the refueling technology Honda is keeping off the market is not toxic; it is terrific.
CNG and hydrogen possibilities dazzle the mind. GM’s hydrogen fuel cell Equinox uses simple electrolyzed water to create the hydrogen gas that powers the car. The Hydrogen Equinox, which has no engine or motor, drives like any other car. So does Honda’s exquisite Hydrogen Clarity and Civic GX CNG car. There is no bar to mass producing these cars now in America. There are 8 million CNG cars in the world manufactured overseas by the major carmakers. They can make them in America as well.
In fact, Iran is currently converting its national fleet from gasoline to compressed natural gas at the rate of 20 percent per year to counteract tightening sanctions. Its same-day, government-subsidized $50-per vehicle conversion campaign will soon make Iran gasoline-free. American can do this.
Electric cars—first produced in 1835--are hardly new technology. Manufacturers from GM to Nissan are all rushing to once again produce them en masse, starting within the coming year or two, once a steady supply of batteries can be assured. The jeep was made as an urgent war machine to effect the invasion at Normandy. The first 75 jeeps were produced in just 75 days and hundreds of thousands thereafter. America can do this.
If America did launch the Retrofitting Revolution, it would spur an economic renaissance that would not only help recover American domestic woes, but create an exportable industry that could help move the world off of oil while keeping American dollars in America. Hence, the payout would include a massive peace dividend that can only be achieved when oil is subtracted from the world equation.
Edwin Black is the New York Times best selling investigative author of IBM and the Holocaust, Internal Combustion and his just released book, The Plan: How to Save America When the Oil Stops—or the Day Before (Dialog Press). He can be reached at www.edwinblack.com.
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