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'Addiction to oil' cure has a long way to go
Sacramento Bee


February 15, 2006

For a century, most American car owners have known but one energy drink, one source for their daily drive: oil refined into gas.

Now, it's time to move on.

That was the message delivered two weeks ago by President Bush, a former oil executive, with his instantly famous assertion: "America is addicted to oil."

In his State of the Union speech, Bush said the country must create affordable new energy to make the nation less dependent on foreign oil.




Those comments have heightened the relevance of an industry that long has viewed itself as laboring in the shadows, underfunded and underappreciated.

"A statement like that coming from him opens eyes across the board," said editor Ron Cogan of Green Car Journal, a California-based magazine. "This is a milestone."

It creates intriguing questions for motorists in a gas-guzzling society. If the petroleum era is coming to a close, which fuels are contenders for the crown? Will we be pumping something new into our tanks five or 10 years from now? Will our next car even have a gas tank?

The short-term answer is old hat. Most people will be pumping gas "for a long time to come," at least a decade, said Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California-Davis.

The real driver of change is cost, said California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Alan Lloyd. The price of oil on the international market is way up and out of U.S. control.

But the costs of alternative fuels are generally high, and will need to come down before they supplant gas.

There are a number of alternative technologies in limited use that could find their way into mass use alongside gas.

Already, trendy hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, have hit the road. Hybrids use gasoline, but shut off the gas engines at times and run instead on a self-charging battery.

Some experts consider hybrids "bridge" technology, a stopgap until non-petroleum fuels get a foothold. Those include ethanol, which is alcohol made from corn, wood waste or other agricultural products, and biodiesel, which can be made from vegetable oil.

An estimated 4 million vehicles on the road today are built with "flex-fuel" engines that can run on a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, dubbed E85.

Many of them are made by General Motors. But GM has done little to publicize their existence, and officials acknowledge many "flex-fuel" vehicle owners don't know their vehicles can run on ethanol.

Critics accuse GM of adding inexpensive flex-fuel capability merely to win federal credits, thus allowing GM to build more large gas-guzzlers.

With Japan ahead on hybrids, and Europe leading in new diesel technology, GM has launched a marketing campaign to create its own alternative niche called "Live Green, Go Yellow." The company plans to mail yellow gas caps to owners of flex-fuel vehicles and team with OnStar to tell flex-fuel vehicle owners the location of the nearest ethanol fueling station.

The rub: Of about 175,000 gas stations in the United States, fewer than 600 pump the E85 fuel, according to Cogan.

Station owners say government and industry need to pump more money into making gasoline alternatives cheaper, cleaner and more available.

While ethanol, biodiesel and compressed gas are in limited use today, two more-speculative and higher-tech alternatives are drawing attention.

One is hydrogen, which for years has been considered the ultimate heir-apparent to petroleum. The other is a mixed-breed technology making a comeback: plug-in electric vehicles that can be coupled with ethanol engines.

Hydrogen has the strongest allure in the alternative energy world. It can never be used up, and it has zero tailpipe emissions. Its exhaust is warm water.

"Ultimately, a (hydrogen) fuel-cell vehicle will do to today's cars and trucks what today's cars and trucks did to the horse and buggy 100 years ago," said GM official David Barthmuss.

The big question is when. At the moment, unclean fossil fuels are still required to make most of the hydrogen being tested in cars. Meanwhile, fuel cell technology - where hydrogen and oxygen mix cleanly to create electricity - is too expensive to be used in mass-produced cars. Energy experts say it will take at least a decade for that technology to become marketable. Some say a decade is overly optimistic.

Car companies are covering their bases by dabbling with a variety of fuels and engine types.

GM is leaning toward hydrogen in the long term, but putting efforts today into ethanol. Volkswagen is focusing on biodiesel technology, but is investing in hybrids and hydrogen as well, spokesman David Geanacopoulos said.

One hydrogen critic with a different idea is upstart Felix Kramer in Palo Alto, Calif., a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

His company, The California Cars Initiative, has replaced the battery in the Toyota Prius hybrid with a larger one. It has to be plugged in to a wall socket, but it gives the car greater battery range, allowing most short trips to be taken using no gas at all. The car's engine can be built to run on ethanol, Kramer said.

The retrofit cost is more than $10,000, Kramer said, but he thinks auto companies could do it on a mass scale for $3,000.

Government officials as well as automakers and researchers, say there may never be a single fuel to replace gasoline. Instead, many say car buyers a generation from now will choose the car they want, then pick the engine and fuel source that suits them.

"We will need to rely on all of them to achieve the kind of independence we're looking for," Volkswagen's Geanacopoulos said.


Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service,

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