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Long road ahead for alternative fuels

By Blogger on 11 Mar 2010

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Image: The Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car

Alternative fuels for vehicles have, in recent years, become one of the most hyped topics in motoring. The frequency which it is mentioned in the media or by politicians may seem to suggest that alternative fuels are the future of motoring and marks the way forward. At the risk of sounding like an idiot (should I be proved wrong by future events), I proffer my opinion - alternative fuels will not become mainstream in our near future; in fact, I might die before that happens (I am 26, by the way).

The reason for my lack of optimism for alternative fuel technologies like electric vehicles is based on my prediction that such technologies will remain too costly or impractical to outweigh the costs of continually using petrol/diesel. And, it is likely to remain so in the near future.

First, let me show why I believe that petrol/diesel is likely to remain cheaper than alternative fuels in the next few decades. This is because our supplies of oil are not really running out as quickly as the media and doomsayers will have us believe. In 2009, Exxon Mobil, one of the largest oil companies in the world, replaced its reserves at 133%. This means that Exxon was able to find more new sources of oil than it produced/consumed. Roughly speaking, its reserves would have increased in 2009. The 10 year predicted replacement ratio is estimated to be 112%. This hardly seems like an oil supply or energy crisis in the making, if you ask me. If we factor in the fact that research and development in extraction methods is always ongoing, it could be a very long time before we run low on fossil fuels. I would say there is a high chance that it would not happen within the next few decades, possibly longer.

Now, moving onto alternative fuel technologies. Those with the highest chance of success are those that do not inconvenience the end users much. After all, humans are very much used to a certain driving lifestyle. We drive until petrol runs low, find a petrol station, top up, drive some more. Having to charge a battery operated car daily or having to wait more than 15 minutes to get a "full tank" probably will not find much favor with the bulk of motorists here. After all, if the costs of petrol operation do not spike dramatically as I assert, then there is little incentive to bear with such inconveniences. When we add the higher upfront costs of battery technology, electric cars really have much room for improvement before they can supplant petrol powered cars.

So, we are left with alternative fuels like CNG or perhaps hydrogen fuel cells. These technologies operate remarkably similarly to petrol driven vehicles. Not much change of habits required for drivers. But this doesn't mean it is a sure shot. After all, these technologies have their own obstacles to surmount. For one, we are not sure which is the way forward. Currently, CNG is more developed but it is also based on a finite resource (same as petrol). Hydrogen fuel cells are still a nascent technology at best but may offer more advantages compared to CNG. And who knows what other technologies there are on the horizon? With such uncertainty, can we really expect that costs will go down in the near future? After all, research will have to be diversified among these technologies (like hedging bets), driving costs up and delaying development. Furthermore, will private entities or governments invest millions or billions in building enough new "refuelling" stations or retrofitting existing stations when there is so much uncertainty involved? I doubt it. What is likely to happen is that only a handful of stations will be built, heavily restricting the convenience that forms the advantage for such types of technologies.

What we really need is an alternative fuel technology that is cheap and simple. It must either be so cheap to manufacture, maintain and "refuel" compared to petrol technology that users will be persuaded to make the switch despite its inconveniences OR it must be just as convenient as petrol technology and not much more pricey. And, as hard as I try to scan around, I can't seem to locate such an alternative fuel anywhere in sight. So UNLESS a revolutionary technological advancement (along the likes of the Internet) is made, I would say that it is a long and tough road ahead for alternative fuel technologies.

hybrids, alternative fuel, petrol

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