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A Future Without Oil?

Proponents of alternative fuels are seeing a rare convergence of technology, money, political will and motivated motorists.

April 16, 2006|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Jon Spallino drives a $1-million car to work.

Banish any thought of a flashy red Ferrari. Since June, the Redondo Beach resident has been tooling around in a rather pedestrian-looking, two-door Honda FCX.

What matters is on the inside: hope for a future without oil. The Honda runs on electricity from a hydrogen-powered fuel cell tucked under the seats.

"I was sure I would be giving up something in terms of utility or comfort or performance," Spallino said. "As it turns out, I haven't given up anything."

Spallino is part of an accelerating push toward alternative forms of energy. Researchers and investors -- and President Bush -- are talking hopefully about powering cars and trucks with hydrogen and fuels made from corn, prairie grass, even French fry grease. Despite scientific advances, increased investment and unprecedented political backing, plenty of potholes remain.

The most daunting of those is the magnitude of the task. Cars, trucks, trains, planes and other vehicles account for 7 of every 10 barrels of oil consumed in the U.S.

With such a deep reliance on oil, the transportation world has been nearly impervious to change. Electric-hybrid vehicles are barely a blip, alternative fuels have made only tiny inroads, and a push for more fuel-efficient cars has stalled under the Bush administration.

"In the transportation sector, we've essentially made no progress in the last 25 years," said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative, which he promoted in a February tour of research sites, would inject badly needed money into alternative-fuel programs.

Critics say the commitment is paltry. Bush's fiscal 2007 budget seeks about $150 million for biofuels and $290 million for hydrogen-related research. By comparison, the government spends an estimated $150 million a day in Iraq.

But proponents believe the decades of inertia could be broken by a rare convergence of technology, money, political will and motivated motorists.

"I see a broader base of interest and support now than ever before," said James Boyd, a member of the California Energy Commission.

Even the president, a onetime oilman, shifted his stance by declaring in January's State of the Union speech that the country was "addicted to oil" and that it should "move beyond a petroleum-based economy."

Renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel hold the greatest promise of immediately reducing oil consumption because they are available today for use in existing vehicles.

Ethanol is made from organic material such as grain crops, wood chips and agricultural waste. A distillation and fermentation process, similar to what goes on in a brewery, converts corn kernels and the like into ethanol.

The fuel is made from renewable sources, boosts octane levels and pollutes the air less than gasoline does. Regular vehicles can run on gasoline blends of as much as 10% ethanol without changing anything, and the nation's more than 5 million so-called flex-fuel vehicles can use gasoline blends with as much as 85% ethanol.

Government subsidies help keep the cost of ethanol close to that of gasoline, and last year, oil companies blended ethanol into about one-third of the nation's car fuel. In California, ethanol has been widely used as a component of cleaner-burning gasoline since 2004, when the state banned the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether because it contaminates groundwater.

About 4 billion gallons of ethanol were used last year, replacing 170 million barrels of oil. Under a federal mandate, ethanol consumption could almost double by 2012.

"It is the only option we have today in terms of a liquid fuel alternative to gasoline that can be used in the existing distribution system," said Neil Koehler, who has spent half of his 48 years pushing ethanol as a way to loosen crude oil's hold on cars.

Fresno-based Pacific Ethanol Inc., where Koehler is chief executive, recently won an $84-million pledge from Microsoft chief Bill Gates' investment firm. The company plans to open the first of five ethanol plants this year in Madera County.

Still, ethanol is no silver bullet.

Growing corn consumes oil products -- fertilizers and tractor diesel -- and processing equipment runs on natural gas or coal. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, so vehicles won't go as far on a gallon of fuel. And ethanol comes with its own air pollution headache -- although much smaller than gasoline's -- because ethanol makes gasoline evaporate more easily, releasing volatile organic compounds, a component of smog.

Today, fuel ethanol is made mostly from corn and other grains in the United States and from sugar in Brazil. But because farm land is limited and those source crops are arguably more valuable as food, experts say the long-term value of ethanol is that it can also be made from plant fibers of all kinds.

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