Las Vegas might seem like the last place where anyone would talk about responsible behavior. The city of sin caters to just about every known human weakness and addiction, while providing an opportunity for adults to play out their fantasies in relative safety. Still, it has a fleet of more than 5,000 taxis, tens of thousands of rental cars and thousands of buses to move around the estimated 40 million tourists who visit each year. Given such a huge transportation requirement, the 2008 Alternative Fuels and Vehicles National Conference in Las Vegas made some sense.
Of the 2,000 people attending this four-day conference, many were owners or fleet managers looking for ways to reduce high fuel costs or trying to catch a glimpse of what new technologies they would be facing in the future. Representatives from manufacturers like General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Honda were eager to talk about hybrids, plug-in hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells with almost anyone who would listen.
Delegates heard from a range of speakers as diverse as oil man and legendary energy investor T. Boone Pickens, green activist and actor Ed Begley, Jr., peak oil expert Robert Hirsch, General Motors technologist Larry Burns and racing legend Bobby Rahal. There were sessions about ethanol and biodiesel, hybrids and electric cars, hydrogen and natural gas, plus talk about alternative technologies for light, medium, and heavy-duty transportation. A ride-and-drive event provided participants with an opportunity to sample some new concepts and current products in the expansive parking lot behind the Rio Convention Center, the home for this year's conference.
What did everyone learn? The world is running out of oil, but America has an abundance of coal. It's possible to make liquid fuels from coal that could replace gasoline, but huge amounts of greenhouse gases are produced during the manufacturing process. Greenhouse gases are not only linked to global climate change, they're also earmarked for regulation, making any fuel made from coal extremely expensive.
Engineers in car company laboratories are working on electric vehicles and say they could have them ready within five to eight years. Federal regulations have been passed that require carmakers to meet higher fuel economy standards and also to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases their vehicles produce. It takes 20 to 30 years to integrate a new technology across the board in the auto industry. If electric cars make it to market, they will run on power that also comes largely from coal. Car companies are faced with either building a fleet of all-new electric cars with the hope that the public will embrace them, or staying with the tried-and-trusted designs and count on the coal and oil companies to come up with clean methods of keeping them fueled.
The economy of the United States-and the world in general-follows the level of oil production. Twice in the 1970s, oil shortages caused drops in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). So when oil supplies begin to decline (within the next decade, say the experts), the economy will begin to shrink and money will no longer be readily available to buy new cars. Instead of taking 20 to 30 years to adopt a new technology, it may take double that. The American fleet will be largely made up of cars at least 10 to 30 years old and doing nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If the intention was to replace the country's vehicles with clean and efficient ones, our ability to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the automobile will be severely limited.
Those who went to the right breakout sessions also found that ethanol will continue to grow in importance as a transportation fuel, especially when new, second-generation cellulosic forms come to market. There are companies hard at work on such processes and some of them are ready to go into limited-scale production. Some companies, like General Motors and Ford, are building as many flex-fuel vehicles as quickly as they can, while others, like Toyota and Honda, are dragging their feet.
As for hydrogen, there's a mixed message. American industry makes plenty of it, but takes it from natural gas (of which we have a good supply). This works as a reasonable automotive fuel with a few modifications to a vehicle's system. Many proponents are big fans of compressed natural gas as a stepping stone to a hydrogen-based fueling arrangement. Most hydrogen is produced for the oil industry, where it is used in the refining process, so fans of the gas say we can just make more. General Motors, Toyota and Honda are optimistic about hydrogen as a future fuel, but soon back away from any estimates on timing. Even its biggest supporters say it won't be viable until 2030 and not really mainstream until 2050. A global recession caused by declining oil supplies could delay the investment needed to make hydrogen happen.
Perhaps the most important message was this: there's no 'magic bullet' when it comes to solving future transportation problems. Every calorie of energy will find a way to be used to move us forward: gasoline refined from Canadian oil sands; compressed and liquefied natural gas; propane; coal-to-liquid and coal-to-gas synthetic fuels; ethanol from corn, plant cellulose and municipal waste; methane from garbage dumps, biodiesel from soy beans and other plants; hydrogen as a combustion fuel and in fuel cells; hybrids; plug-in hybrids; and all-electric vehicles with electricity made with coal, nuclear, wind and solar sources. None of these are being ruled out and some predict that they will all find a place in the new world of transportation.
The next Alternative Fuels and Vehicles National Conference takes place in April 2009, in another fantasy land: Orlando, Florida. With oil prices reaching new highs nearly every day and a new team in the White House, it should be interesting to see how many of these fuel and infrastructure options are still on the table and if we have any winners.