Getting Beyond Fossil Fuels
By Chris Ellis
The PowerBeam Company is developing technology to improve the performance of hybrid electric vehicles. Among the key features of the PowerBeam energy store are much better fuel economy than battery-based hybrids, higher power and life-of-the-vehicle durability.
For planning purposes we have developed a 'central scenario', incorporating our best estimates of how road vehicle technology will develop over the next forty years, in response to changes in fuel supply, taxation and regulation. We have also prepared a sanitized version, suitable for publication, which concentrates on North America because, although there is a single, global, market for automotive technology, there are essentially two different vehicle markets, and this is likely to continue through most of the period.
One market is North America and the Middle East, in which diesel and gasoline carry little or no tax; it comprises roughly a quarter (and falling) of the total global market. The 'Rest of the World' (i.e. most of the world) is characterized by fuel prices typically three times those in North America.
The first prediction is that we are not going to suffer from long-term shortages of fossil-based liquid fuels until well beyond 2045.
This is based on the second prediction that the price of oil will more than double by 2020 in real terms, and that when it has become clear (around 2010?) that oil production has already peaked, oil prices will be forecast to double again by 2035. These oil price predictions will cause a substantial rise in investment in gas-to-liquid techniques, given the growing expectation that peak production of natural gas may come at least twenty years later than oil, and the fact that the world is less dependent on the Middle East for the supply of natural gas.
The average life of a North American light truck or passenger car exceeds 15 years. This means that the mix of fuels being consumed by the vehicle fleet lags well behind the mix of new vehicles being sold.
This has the effect of putting any vehicle with a novel form of fuel at a disadvantage, as Europeans found with diesel, with a line of diesel vehicles waiting for a single diesel pump, while queuing theory helped the gasoline vehicles gain rapid access to the other five pumps. Oil companies are going to be understandably cautious before committing to major investments in novel fuels in many thousands of filling stations until they are sure "this is the one!" A few experimental pumps to gain experience and PR coverage is one thing; full commitment to a particular 'future fuel' is quite another.
Emissions in Perspective
Both Ford and Toyota have begun delivering conventional gasoline-fueled vehicles which meet the California Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) requirements. With their ability to clean the air on most days in most cities, given the usual local concentration of emissions coming from the other vehicles sharing the same street, it can be argued that PZEVs are even more beneficial locally than Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs), Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) or Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCVs), at least until a whole generation of ordinary vehicles has passed away. As a consequence, minimizing local emissions is no longer a significant factor in justifying alternative fuels or novel engines. It is now essentially a matter of minimizing running costs, with some consideration of the level of 'global warming' gases released.
It is already evident that the US Establishment is shifting its aim, with its new interest in emissions from off-road vehicles. A look at an authoritative forecast is illuminating. According to California's South Coast Air Quality Management District, by 2010, NOx emission shares will be:
- Light duty cars and trucks 16%
- Medium and heavy duty vehicles 38%
- Other sources* 46%
Note that, by 2010, the percentage of PZEVs, ZEVs, FCVs, etc, in the vehicle fleet will still be too low to have made a real impact on NOx levels. Consequently, the light duty vehicle contribution could have fallen to less than 10% by 2020, when PZEVs in particular should form a significant share of the fleet. We can anticipate that US regulators will soon turn their attention to reducing the consumption of imported fuel, moving on from their previous position of accepting some increase in fuel consumption in pursuit of low emission levels.
The current North American fuel tax regime has the merit of accurately reflecting real costs, as opposed to Europe which has so distorted the tax balance between petrol and diesel that it is now faced with a shortage of diesel refinery capacity and a surplus of petrol. Consequently we may soon see the US importing significant quantities of gasoline from Europe, which will support the prediction that there will be no gasoline shortages in the medium term, just price rises.
However, the fact that Europeans suffer fuel prices typically three or four times higher than those in the States makes it relative child's play to justify almost any plausible technology in Europe, diesel in cars being a case in point. In the air, fuel weight is even more important than on the ground, and range is critical also. Then how is it that even diesel's principal advocates, the French and the Germans, have failed to make diesel work commercially in general aviation, despite trying for at least 70 years?
The latest gasoline technology, including direct injection and stratified charge, has narrowed the fuel consumption gap between diesel and gasoline to the point where there will be no significant incentive for Americans to accept the deficiencies of diesel until oil prices at least double. So ordinary diesel for cars and light trucks is going to be effectively irrelevant in North America for at least 20 years, and probably for ever.
The most cost-effective solution for North America in the short to medium term is a combination of PZEV gasoline engines and low-capacity, high-power surge power units. 'Plug-in' hybrids, with some 30 miles of grid energy may make immediate economic sense in countries like France and the UK, but very few Americans will pay the extra two or three thousand dollars retail for a battery that has to compete with gasoline costing only some 3 cents per mile in a hybrid delivering 50 mpg at $1.40 per gallon.
However, European, Japanese and, eventually, Chinese volumes will drive down battery costs and US gasoline prices will gradually rise towards European levels, so 'plug-ins' will eventually make economic sense in the US as well.
Consider now the real competition that the first commercially viable fuel cell passenger cars are likely to face in 2013, an optimistically early date according to some observers. It will not be a large V-8 SUV guzzling gasoline in the city at 15 mpg or less, the example usually quoted by fuel cell advocates.
Instead, it will be a large PZEV SUV sipping gasoline at some 50 mpg, in or out of the city. Let's assume gasoline is priced around $2.50 in 2013. Despite the higher price of gasoline, the hybrid SUV will cost less to run than its conventional ancestor, and will produce near zero emissions and less CO2 than all but the smallest of today's conventional sedans. Fuel costs will be roughly five cents a mile on gasoline, and only three or four cents on overnight electricity.
According to the California Air Resources Board, 'full hybrid' passenger cars with only 30 miles of 'electric-only' range would typically cover some 68% of ALL miles traveled on electric power alone. In most countries, over 90% of all car trips are less than 30 miles. With overnight charging, several days may go by before the engine needs to be started, even with only 30 miles of battery range.
Clearly, many Europeans will want their hybrids to be 'plug-in' from day one at today’s European fuel prices, provided the battery isn't too expensive. It's only a matter of rising gasoline prices and falling battery prices before many Americans will also tick the 'plug-in' option.
This point is vital; a 'plug-in' hybrid has all the environmental advantages of a battery-only vehicle for most of the time, with the security and range of gasoline power when necessary. A 'plug-in' hybrid may have its engine running for less than 35% of all miles traveled, and consume less than 70 gallons in 10,000 miles. That's a visit to the gas station every two months or so! Of course, the car must be plugged in most nights for this to work properly, but there are technical solutions to take care of this if regulators put the appropriate incentives in place, such as reduced congestion charges if the vehicle continues to operate engine-off, with confirmation by radio.
It is also worth appreciating that a 'plug-in' hybrid with only 30 miles of battery-only range will typically cover more miles electrically than the more expensive combination of a battery-only vehicle with a range of 70 miles and a conventional vehicle for the longer trips. This is because the 'plug-in' hybrid will start every trip on electricity, and because the hybrid will use the full 30 miles of battery capacity whenever possible, while the battery-only driver will usually avoid going more than, say, 60 miles if possible. In contrast, the driver of the hybrid will potentially have a 300 mile reserve, the gasoline tank.
The US electricity generation mix will move with increasing speed away from its dependence on fossil fuels and fission towards renewables and fusion. Until abundant fusion power makes overnight electricity almost free, electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen when four kilowatt hours are needed to generate each kilowatt hour in the vehicle makes little sense.
If overnight electricity is costing 5 cents a kilowatt hour at a wind turbine, should it go into a '30 mile battery' which can return at least 80% of the energy to the hybrid's electric motors or should it go into a fuel cell system which can return only 25%?
On the other hand, if natural gas is the source of the hydrogen, then it's much more efficient to deliver the natural gas into the 'plug-in' hybrid and burn it in the PZEV engine when the vehicle has run out of electric-only range. Alternatively, the natural gas could be reformed into a liquid fuel and stored more conventionally on the vehicle.
In terms of the scenario, the only sensible conclusion is that fuel cells in cars will not succeed commercially in Europe, Japan, or the United States until gasoline costs more than double. Governments will be unable to tax vehicle re-charging in the same way that they tax petrol, diesel and, potentially, methanol and hydrogen, and European electorates simply won't believe any government's claim that methanol and hydrogen taxes will never be imposed.
When European buyers, particularly fleet operators, work out the economics of 'plug-in' hybrids, there will be a rush to hybrids that will make the swing to diesels look positively languid.
In the near term, US buyers will be able to cherry pick from European and Japanese offerings the vehicles that suit their special preferences, in terms of environmental friendliness, performance and novelty. Fuel cell engines will miss the rush to hybrids, and then find it difficult to climb aboard until gasoline and its liquid substitutes are very expensive indeed.
And the Winner Is...
Gasoline will continue to be the dominant fuel at US gas stations until at least 2040, although consumption will fall gradually from 2010 to only one third of today's level by 2030. The twin enablers will be advanced hybrids enhanced by low-cost, limited range batteries. The fundamental driver will be the rising global cost of gasoline.
By 2010 in Europe the swing to diesel will be partially reversed, aided by the rapid take-up of 'plug-in' hybrids. The typical large, new, European sedan will produce over 300 bhp, but need only a 1.8 liter petrol or diesel engine to maintain 85 mph indefinitely. The bottom will have dropped out of the 'big engine' market, even in Germany. Perhaps the most exciting vehicle will be a 45 inch high 1.4 ton four seater coupe capable of over 150 mph, yet able to deliver 80 mpg at 80 mph and 70 mpg in the city when running on gasoline. It will have a 30 mile engine-off range using 5 kWh of lithium ion batteries.
However, it will be the car's ability to accelerate from rest to 100 mph in less than 10 seconds that will have stunned other manufacturers. Power will come from a 2.0 liter engine backed by a PowerBeam of more than 300 bhp.
In the US, a large SUV might have a 2.3 liter I-4 PZEV engine mounted transversely, driving all four wheels through a twin clutch transmission (similar to VW's Direct Shift Gearbox) and a PowerBeam kinetic energy storage system.
By 2010, the cost justification for 'plug-in' will remain marginal in the US, although regulations ensure that new vehicles can be upgraded in the field, in anticipation of further major rises in gasoline prices later in the vehicle's life. The SUV will get almost 50 mpg both in the city and on the highway. A new generation of Super SUVs will have emerged, combining suspension systems which can vary the ride height by more than a foot with major reductions in aerodynamic drag.
Riding just as high as their predecessors in the city and over the rough stuff, they can lower themselves to ride like limos at 70 mph, and achieve 70 mpg in the process. Detroit's perception that the American public prefers SUVs that look like military vehicles will have proved false. In 2006 Congress will approve legislation which effectively restricts all gas guzzlers to a blanket national 55 mph, while allowing sleeker vehicles to run at higher limits, where set. The new SSUVs will comfortably qualify as sleek.
In 2006, it will finally dawn on the US administration, after continuous badgering by Blair and Chirac, that freedom from energy dependency will come from the Fusion Economy, not the Hydrogen Economy. Whether the electricity is generated from renewables or fusion, hydrogen is just one means of storing and transporting electricity, and not a very efficient one at that.
Fusion is the ultimate source of energy (basically ground based solar), and we now know how to make it work safely and economically in the middle of any city. There are no emissions of any sort to require it to be sited miles from consumers.
Forms of failure will only affect the site, and won't require the evacuation of residents on the site boundary. It would be unthinkable today to build a coal or fission power station in or close to a city.
By 2020, plans will probably be well advanced in several countries to put fusion power stations right in the middle of industrial areas. It would seem that fusion power plants are going to be at their most cost effective at 5 Gigawatts and up, but there may be compelling arguments why small towns should have their own 10 Megawatt systems.
The US reaction will be swift and bold. Any suggestion that it will take another 20 years to achieve practical fusion power will be swept aside by the people who put men on the Moon inside 10 years, and brought them safely back. If the US really wants abundant, cheap electricity, and consequently abundant, cheap hydrogen, then it could have the first plants operating commercially in less than ten years from now. But that's too optimistic.
Perhaps the most effective way of achieving the goal of fusion power is to make it a military project, with internal competition between Army, Navy and Air Force. The power requirements of some of the larger bases more than justify them having their own small fusion power plants, leave alone the value of protected, resilient power. Making it a military project would probably give it at least two years head start on any commercial project. It will prove much less expensive to develop a new, indigenous, perpetual, environmentally benign source of energy than fighting to gain and then maintain control of someone else's rapidly depleting oil fields.
Assuming the first US fusion power plants start delivering commercial power around 2020, the global energy business will be transformed, from 2015 onwards. Once the world realizes that fusion power is going to be commercially viable, say around 2013, then attitudes and expectations will change. Currently, OPEC believes it has the world by the throttle, and acts accordingly.
Once OPEC realizes that oil and gas are no longer going to be the key sources of energy, then it will be much more careful about overcharging. Once the world realizes that the Middle East will no longer be able to afford sophisticated weapons in large volume, credit for weapons purchases won't be quite so generous.
Fusion power will transform the opportunity for fuel cells, and the Hydrogen Economy in general. It will now make economic sense to electrolyze hydrogen from water at gas stations and store compressed hydrogen in passenger cars. However, abundant fusion power may allow other techniques to gain ground. For example, the US has massive (400 years plus) reserves of coal. Extracting liquid fuels from coal is a well understood process, capable of yielding gasoline, etc. With abundant fusion power, massive levels of CO2 sequestration may be possible, more than compensating for the release of CO2 from synthetic gasoline at the point of use.
I believe that, by 2045, the US will be producing more gasoline than it needs from coal, natural gas and fusion power. The US may be exporting gasoline again. The US will also be producing as much hydrogen as it needs from renewables and fusion power. The last coal fired power station will have been shut down around 2040, and the last natural gas power station will be due to shut down by 2050.
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