A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report projects average "real world" CO2 emissions dropping to 391 grams per mile in 2011 and mileage creeping up to 22.8 miles per gallon for new cars. That compares with 394 grams per mile and 22.6 mpg for 2010.
Definitely baby steps. But change, as Sam Cooke sang so sweetly, is gonna come.
Wheels start turning
Too much is going on geopolitically, environmentally and technologically to ignore. Electric vehicles are no longer just a subject of a whodunit film. Models with various ranges and engine configurations are available for even middle-income buyers. And an alternative fuel -- natural gas -- may even cut into the diesel market, providing a viable option for long-haul truckers and a segment of the American population willing to search out fueling stations.
"We are making significant strides toward saving families money at the pump, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up the air we breathe,” says Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s unfortunately named Office of Air and Radiation, in a statement accompanying the study: "Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2011."
And it's all coming from the private sector, in some cases with a little federal help.
Chevy and Chrysler plan new natural-gas trucks, joining Honda's Civic as the only production passenger vehicles that use the fuel exclusively. Odyne Systems LLC, which has been working with the U.S. Department of Energy, is developing sophisticated plug-in hybrid systems for medium and heavy duty trucks. And CleanFUEL USA and Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. have unveiled a propane option for the medium-duty commercial truck market.
It's as if the debate about climate change doesn't exist. The question is more of opportunity. Fuel costs raise the ire of Joe Consumer. Give him an alternative (or a beer) and he calms down. A six-pack costs about the same as a gallon of gas, depending on your taste in beer.
Look to the actuaries
California has asked about 300 insurance companies, representing a majority of the industry, for an assessment of how they account for climate change in risk management analysis. The response should be telling. This is no political debate, just a straight-up assessment from actuaries in the trenches.
How much money do they believe climate change will cost? Mark Hertsgaard of Yale Environment 360 says "the insurance initiative is but the latest example of California’s far-reaching policies to confront climate change." His report says the exercise likely will cause the insurance industry to do things differently.
Kind of a wake-up call.
Journalist Richard Schiffman in Huffington Post quotes Marsh & McLennan, one of the world's largest insurance brokers, calling climate change "one of the most significant emerging risks facing the world today." Schiffman says insurance giant AIG even established an Office of Environment and Climate Change to review and assess risk.
Traditional energy development
The problem has been recognized. Yet the symptoms that led us to this precipice continue. Exxon Mobil Corp. says it plans to spend about $150 billion over the next five years to find more oil and natural gas, and Associated Press reporter Chris Kahn quotes Exxon Chief Executive Rex Tillerson saying: "Unprecedented levels of investment are needed to meet the scale of the energy challenge."
Certainly, energy is important. But how it's developed, what is extracted and how nations choose to deal with fossil fuels are likely to become increasingly contentious.
Frank Stewart, a board member of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, says in a Huffington Post piece that state regulation plays an integral role in the new rush for underground resources. He says New York has spent about three years studying its natural gas development, addressing issues that that created controversy in places like Pennsylvania, where fracturing as a form of natural gas extraction drew serious criticism.
Stewart says New York's plan "includes a raft of new requirements for natural gas operators, from drinking water protection measures to disclosure of additives used in the hydraulic fracturing process." He says development of what the U.S. Energy Information Agency lists as a 100-year supply of natural gas is too important not to get it right.
For gas to sell as a successful alternative -- or as T. Boone Pickens calls it, "a bridge fuel" -- it must be safe.
Gas up 600,000 jobs
President Barack Obama has called for safe development of the nation's natural gas reserves. In his Blueprint for America -- issued about the time of the 2012 State of the Union -- he says shale gas development, according to independent estimates, will support more than 600,000 jobs.
Obama, speaking before United Parcel Service workers in Nevada, called the United States the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. He said tapping the nations reserves could "power our cars and our homes and our factories in a cleaner and cheaper way," writes Christi Parsons of the Los Angeles Times.
Obama's goals include proposing new incentives for medium- and heavy-duty trucks that run on natural gas or other alternative fuels. He's also engaged the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, known simply as ARPA-E, to work with the country’s "brightest scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to find ways to harness our abundant supplies of domestic natural gas to lessen our dependence of foreign oil for vehicles."
Innovate an old fuel source
Quite a bit is riding on the ability of American entrepreneurs to come up with solutions. And at least at the moment, encouragement is preferred by government over heavy-handed regulation. It's up to consumers to buy into the change.
Certainly natural gas will start looking good when truckers see it as a viable alternative. It costs about half as much as diesel.
At the Green Truck Summit in Indianapolis where Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave the keynote address, trends, efficiencies and alternative technologies received red-carpet treatment. CleanFUEL USA, a supplier of propane autogas delivery and engine systems, used the event as an opportunity to unveil its new liquid propane-injected engine technology developed with Frieghtliner. And some of the top experts in the country headed up a seminar about the future and potential of so-called gaseous fuels in the trucking industry.
Prognosis? It's excellent.
Building better trucks
And Obama, speaking at a Daimler truck plant in Mount Holly, N.C. where natural gas vehicles are built, lauded workers for their contributions to clean energy. "You're building better trucks," he said. "These trucks can save $15,000 a year."
Obama also said the United States must pursue a diversified approach to energy, explaining that a country that has 2 percent of the world's oil reserves but uses 20 percent of its supply must use less to lessen its dependence on foreign sources. He also announced an “all of the above” approach to assist adoption of alternative fuel technologies, reports Jeff Cobb of hybridcars.com.
The all-of-the-above proposal would commit $3.7 billion to clean energy tax credits another billion to a National Community Deployment Challenge effort "to spur deployment of clean, advanced vehicles in communities around the country, and an 'EV Everywhere' plan," Cobb says.
Propane and propane accessories
Propane will be another clean fuel to watch. Credit must be given to Hank Hill for his participation in its media exposure. The cartoon character from "King of the Hill" always mentions his job in "propane and propane accessories."
According to globalenergyworld.com, propane is the third most widely used transportation fuel behind gasoline and diesel, and there are more than 52,000 autogas refueling stations and 17 million propane-powered vehicles worldwide.
Christopher Demorro of gas2.org shed some light on the move by U.S. auto manufacturers to diversify into gaseous fuels. In a piece about GM and Chrysler's latest forays, he writes that Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks will come with Vortec V8 "that will switch between gasoline and CNG seamlessly."
Demorro says the trucks come with a 17-gallon carbon fiber-wrapped CNG tank that, with the standard gas tank, offers more than 650 miles of range. "Horsepower and towing capacity is not reduced in any way," he says. Chrysler's Ram pickup has similar statistics but shorter range.
VW invests big in green
Meanwhile, Greenbiz.com reports that Volkswagen plans to invest $52 billion in "fundamental ecological restructuring." The goal, the automaker claims, is to drop average CO2 emissions from its new vehicles to 192 grams per mile. Existing is 216.8 grams CO2/mile. That's far better than the U.S. national average but quite a hurdle for a company targeted by Greenpeace over its alleged lobbying against deeper cuts to European Union emissions targets, Greenbiz.com says.
Obama's measures also include assisting development of an automobile battery that costs half as much as current automotive batteries and enables cars to have a 300-mile range. He also is promoting a measure to build electricity fueling stations to support electric cars and alternative-fueled trucks.
Positive news keeps coming on the electrical car front, despite Chevy's recent move to temporarily halt assembly of its Volt because of flagging demand.
Beast in the East
While this vehicle may never see our shores, Tata Motors' tiny Megapixel may have influence well beyond its home in India. Mike Hanlon of gizmag.com says the car "uses four in-wheel 10 kilowatt motors and a 325 cubic centimeter single-cylinder petrol range-extending engine that generates 22 kW while charging the lithium ion phosphate battery." Range is 559 miles overall and 54 miles electric-only.
Definitely interesting. Hanlon writes, "As a global car concept, this is both the company's evolving idea of the ideal city car for global urban environments."
And India, which has a billion people and growing economy, will be a driver of innovation likely encouraging more of it on this side of the global pond.
Overall, sustainability is gaining favor, especially in the corporate world. When cost-savings are at stake, surprisingly quick decisions can be made.
Expect more natural gas and propane refueling stations along with electric car fast-charge docks at businesses around the country and maybe even some off national highways.
Sustainia: a great place
Even former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has resurfaced, this time heading up the Sustania initiative, which essentially is a vision of what a sustainable world would look like and be like to live in. The group supporting the concept includes Microsoft, General Electric, Ikea, Cisco and other corporate heavyweights.
A directive from the group that caught my eye was to "sell dreams, not nightmares." In other words, focus on the positive, don't over sell and practice what you preach. It's not the end of the world. Yet.
Lots of people have taken the hybrid plunge, purchasing a Prius, Ford Escape or a number of other models that couple battery power with a small gas engine to maximize gas mileage. And electric cars have captured the imagination of a nation interested in cleaner air despite the fact that their permanence in the consumer pantheon remains to be seen.
But what's the potential of a natural gas-powered car? America would seem to answer with a collective yawn.
There is an alternative
Does it matter that this country likely has enough natural gas to fill every single commuter's tank for decades? It should. The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists some 35.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Alaska's North Slope. And analysts at the Potential Gas Committee say that when they combine their findings with that of the EIA, they believe U.S. natural gas reserves to be a future supply of 2,174 trillion cubic feet.
That's an estimated 100-year supply.
And why should we care? There are a number of reasons. President Ronald Reagan put it this way: "Energy independence is the best preparation America can make for the future."
Another is air quality.
Exhaust emissions from natural gas vehicles are cleaner than their gasoline- or diesel-burning compatriots.
Natural Gas Vehicles for America says the only production natural gas-powered passenger car, the Honda Civic CNG, produces 95 percent fewer emissions of non-methane hydrocarbons, and 75 percent less emissions of nitrogen oxides than its gasoline counterpart. The EPA rates it as the cleanest internal-combustion car on the market.
Imagine this contrast: Stand behind a city bus that blows by burning diesel. The fumes can be noxious. Natural gas buses on the other hand have none of the soot and are much less likely to cause riders to hold their breath until they turn blue.
Companies are beginning to see opportunity, especially since the EIA says natural gas, on average, costs 42 percent less than diesel fuel on an energy equivalent basis and is expected to cost 50 percent less by 2035.
EcoDual LLC has developed a duel fuel system for heavy-duty diesel trucks that allows them burn up to 80 percent natural gas.
"Because heavy trucks use so much diesel and there is such a dramatic price differential between diesel and natural gas, the systems will pay for themselves in only about 12 months of typical use," says Doug Thomson, vice president, government relations and marketing of EcoDual LLC, in an email.
Thomson says the main hurdle is that his company has to certify the emissions for each family of engines. He says the company is working its way through the process with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. He says the emissions are "definitely better with natural gas, but for now we are focused on just showing off the operating cost savings."
Range is not a problem
And for the popular misconception that compressed natural gas trucks have limited range? Thomson says with new large tanks and his company's technology, "that’s no longer a problem."
Ngvglobal.com reports that EcoDual has won authorization from the EPA to begin installing its systems on 2004 to 2009 Cummins ISX engines.
Natural gas won't end the dangerous climate warming build-up of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, but it does provide an inexpensive and cleaner alternative while innovators work the kinks out of other energy delivery systems. It's obviously not the most popular on Wall Street, but it's got a shot and should have a place in the mix.
Fleets going natural
Municipalities, small governments and public entities are certainly paying attention.
Fresno, Calif., which is my neck of the woods, is on board. The city has 66 buses that run on compressed natural gas, four trollies, nine light duty trucks, eight street sweepers and a bunch more.
City officials adopted "Operation Clean Air" in 2003 with other counties, cities, businesses and nonprofits in the region. Fresno continues to update its fleets. The initiative is committed to improving air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, which ranks near the top for worst air pollution in the United States.
Perhaps the highest profile West Coast move to clean trucking has been at the Port of Los Angeles, which estimates it has reduced emissions 80 percent compared with 2007 average air emissions data. Port officials say that as of January 2012, 100 percent of the "cargo gate moves" at port terminals are made with trucks meeting EPA clean truck standards. Many of those trucks use liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas.
Sharing the highways
Natural Gas Vehicles for America reports that there are about 112,000 natural-gas vehicles on U.S. roads and more than 13 million worldwide. However, there are only about 1,000 domestic fueling stations with about half open to the public.
About 30 different manufacturers in this country produce 100 models of light, medium and heavy-duty vehicles and engines, according to Natural Gas Vehicles. The organization says industry data shows that natural gas consumed by vehicles "nearly doubled between 2003 and 2009."
And demand is growing, especially from bus fleets, at airports and in private fleets.
The EIA shows relatively stable natural gas prices despite recent inventory draw downs that spiked prices. "Natural gas working inventories continue to set new record seasonal highs and ended January 2012 at an estimated 2.86 trillion cubic feet, about 24 percent above the same time last year," EIA analysts write.
Carving out a consumer market
Despite inroads, acceptance of the fuel by the average consumer faces an uphill battle.
For instance, Greencarreports.com offers on its home page a menu that says "car types."
The photo-heavy drop-down offers the latest news on hybrids, electrics, clean diesels and fuel cells with a more specific cluster off to the right drilling down into posts about Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, Tesla's Roadster and Toyota's Prius.
Nothing on natural gas. Of course, I'm just referring to the menu listings and not the coverage. Writer John Voelcker offers some of the best green car coverage on the web, and his piece on the Honda CNG is a great backgrounder on the only production natural gas vehicle offered in the country. The page design reflects interest.
Honda enters the fray
Yet, the Civic CNG, which just received its nationwide rollout in late 2011, may change some minds. James R. Healey of USA Today gave one a test drive and debates its the pros and cons. He says the main downside is price (at $26,925 still cheaper than a Volt, Leaf or average hybrid) and finding a fueling station.
"Heroic cuts in emissions and fuel costs, but too expensive and too many compromises for most people," Healey writes.
Maybe that will change. Gas prices are expected to climb and possibly break some records this summer.