Alternative Fuels: Separating Myth from Reality

 

We’ve all heard the warnings about alternative fuels, but what’s the real story?

In the last decade, heavy truck emissions have been reduced some 95% – specifically diesel particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. As a reference point, it takes approximately 60 heavy duty vehicles today to produce the emission levels of one unit built on the late 80’s. Rarely do we see a truck engine smoking today. At the Green Fleet Conference, which took place in Schaumburg, IL at the end of October, a panel of experts talked about the misconceptions that are often floated regarding alternative fuels. Although the panel took the format of a humorous late-night talk show, the topics discussed were serious. So we thought we’d look at debunking five biggest myths regarding alternative fuels according to Edmunds.

Myth #1 – Hydrogen is highly explosive, and much more dangerous than gasoline. Although hydrogen is flammable, gasoline is more likely to cause a fire…or an explosion, especially when confined in tight spaces. Hydrogen is a lighter-than-air gas which allows it to vent quickly, unlike gasoline. This myth stemmed from the infamous Hindenburg disaster, the lighter-than-air hydrogen dirigible. The reality is the hydrogen burned away in less than a minute; the real damage from the fire came from burning diesel fuel and the canvas covering.

Myth #2 – Electric vehicles are actually dirtier than gasoline vehicles. That is completely untrue and based on a false premise. The reality is that fully electric vehicles emit zero tailpipe emissions and are much more energy efficient than gasoline-fueled vehicles (85-90% vs. 20-30%). So where did this myth start? That was based on the fact that a large portion of the electricity grid in the U.S. is generated in coal-fired plants, and coal is dirty, but where the electricity that you use to charge your car comes from is not a fair way of looking at the matter.

Myth #3 – Natural gas is the answer to all of our fuel problems since there’s so much of it in the U.S. Well, it would certainly resolve our dependence on foreign oil; however, it still emits considerable emissions so the environment would still be negatively impacted. Although some are concerned about fracking, reputable energy companies are working to reduce the impact of drilling. And in the short term, even if every car were changed from gasoline or diesel power to natural gas, the fact is there is currently a woefully inadequate infrastructure for fueling vehicles.

Myth #4 – Diesel fuel is more expensive and smells a lot worse than gasoline…and its emissions are dirtier. This might have been true in the past…and that’s where this misconception stems from, but by 2010, all diesel for highway use had to be refined to ultra-low sulfur standards. That got rid of the foul smell and newer exhaust treatment systems eliminated most of the dirtier emissions. Diesel may be more expensive but it’s also more efficient, returning 30-35% better efficiency than gasoline.

Myth #5 – Ethanol is cheaper than gasoline. If you’re comparing the cost of a gallon of gas to a gallon of ethanol, that would be true and the statement would still be wrong. That’s because ethanol is fully one-third less energy dense than gasoline so you wouldn’t get as far on a gallon of ethanol. Edmunds relates that it conducted a road test comparing an 85% ethanol/15% gasoline fuel that was 10% cheaper per gallon than a 10% ethanol/90% gasoline fuel. By the end of the road test, the higher ethanol- based fuel was much less efficient getting only 13.5 mpg vs. 18.3 mpg for the lower ethanol content.

Myths don’t grow out of thin air; they have some basis in fact, even though the facts change the actual story. The important thing to remember is that there is not one solution to the best fuel type. Each fleet is faced with a myriad of considerations such as: vehicle acquisition price, resale value, fuel availability, fueling time, available service network, technician training, shop retrofits, tooling, uptime, various fuel type prices, and the potential of various fuel efficiencies vs. work performed – both now and in the near future. You need to look at all the information and then make your informed conclusions.

To learn more about these and other alternative fuel myths, read the full article here.

Joe Puff

About Joe Puff

Joe Puff is the Vice President of Truck Technology and Maintenance for NationaLease. He has more than 35 years of experience in complex sales and fleet operations, including extensive experience in commercial vehicle maintenance. Joe is responsible for advising NationaLease members and the National Account team of new truck technology, industry trends, and maintenance best practices.

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