Sunday, May 4, 2008

The trucking industry & a contest of diesel alternatives

Although heavy trucks (i.e. diesel tractor-trailers) make up a little over 1% of the total number of vehicles in the US, they travel about 4.5% of total vehicle miles and consume nearly 15% of total fuel in equivalent-gallons-of-gas. Heavy trucks are an integral part of the American economy and log well over 100 billion miles a year distributing goods and commodities throughout the country. So when it comes to replacing petroleum-based fuels, the freight transportation industry should be given leading priority.

To tackle the issue, I surveyed a variety of diesel fuel alternatives, rated them in five pertinent categories (greenhouse gas emissions, feedstock renewability, energy content, and supply-side and production-side infrastructure change requirements), and pit them against each other in a contest of sorts. The fuels and technologies with the highest scores were recommended to be sought after while all the low scoring fuels were recommended for abandonment. And as a civil engineer, I delved into a realm of technology that I know very little about; I wouldn’t be surprised if some fundamental flaws exist in the analysis. However, I feel any direction in this muddled domain is at least, in a sense, some direction home.

In doing my preliminary research, I found a mess of alternative options with no clear winner, and, in fact, no clear anything (hence the contest). Diesel replacement options are so disjointed and unclear, it’s no wonder little advancement has been made. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 outlined a plan to replace 30 percent of US petroleum-derived fuels by 2010 – a plan that was pushed back two decades in 2007. Even two of the qualifying fuel options outlined in the act are natural gas and coal-derived fuels – options that do nothing for carbon emissions, maybe a little for energy independence, and would seem to simply buy a little time.

Fortunately, the DOE runs a program called the 21st Century Truck Partnership. Unfortunately, it seems they’re waiting on a 22nd Century Truck Partnership to evolve before even thinking about replacing petroleum diesel – the program has goals to improve engine efficiency, reduce aerodynamic drag, make trucks use less fuel while idling (yeah, idling), and to convert trucks to hybrid technology. In a recurring US energy policy theme, these options are not actually based on alternative fuels and will do little more than buy some extra time. It is time to point our policy makers in the right direction and we can start by smoothing out some of the confusion in choices.

Thanks for a great class,

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