Friday, January 11, 2013

Compressed Natural Gas or Electricity as Vehicle Fuels--Which Would You Choose?

By Joel Huberman 

     In his recent Another Voice article in The Buffalo News, Craig Jackson described some apparent advantages of compressed natural gas (CNG) derived from fracking compared to conventional gasoline as a power source for vehicles. However, the article did not compare CNG-powered vehicles (CNGVs) with electric vehicles (EVs). Could EVs have even more advantages than CNGVs?

     As described by Mr. Jackson, CNG is currently affordable, abundant, and produced in the US or Canada. But it won't be affordable and abundant forever. It's a finite resource that, if heavily used, will run out within the next hundred years. In contrast, renewable energy sources (wind, water and sun) that can produce the electricity needed by EVs will be around for millions of years, their price (free) won't increase, and they're available throughout our country; we don't need Canada for a portion of our supply.

     Although CNG may be clean compared to gasoline, it should not be described as "clean" when vastly cleaner energy is available from wind, water and sun. CNG, like gasoline, is a fossil fuel. Burning it adds to the CO2 in our atmosphere and thus increases the rate of global warming. Even worse, producing natural gas (the raw material for CNG) by fracking releases into the atmosphere large amounts of such gas (as much as 9% of the total gas produced, according to a recent study in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature). Natural gas warms our planet more rapidly than CO2 (about 25-fold faster, averaged over 100 years). These large gas emissions mean that the total global warming impact of CNG is worse than that of coal! Furthermore, the process of fracking is fraught with problems, as is evident from the draft regulations released last month by the Department of Environmental Conservation. These regulations are intended to ensure that fracking operations don't poison New York's water supplies and don't endanger the health of people living nearby. The regulations may or may not achieve their purpose, but why take a chance when safer options are available? Wind, water and sun do not threaten our water supplies or our health.

     The most recent studies (for example the World Bank's November 2012 report, "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided", the International Energy Agency's "World Energy Outlook 2012", and PriceWaterhouseCoopers' "Too late for two degrees?") indicate that, if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels immediately and eliminate their use entirely within the next couple of decades. Which, then, would be most economical--building an infrastructure to support CNGVs, knowing that the price of CNG will rise with time and that its use may become illegal in the future, or building an infrastructure to support EVs, knowing that wind, water and sun will last forever, and the price of renewable electricity will decline after the initial infrastructure costs have been reimbursed?

     I want to make it clear that the electricity needed to power EVs currently comes from a mixture of renewable, nuclear and fossil-fuel sources. To make EVs as clean as they have the potential to be, we need to generate electricity completely from CO2-free sources. Numerous studies show that the transition to 100% CO2-free electricity can be accomplished readily with current technologies. It simply requires appropriate incentives to build the infrastructure.

     Also, there are significant environmental impacts involved in mining the metals needed for EV batteries. These can be controlled by proper regulation of the mining activities and can be minimized by further research to improve EV batteries. Despite these problems, EVs do currently make environmental sense in regions of the world (such as Western New York) where a substantial portion of electricity generation comes from CO2-free sources. Thus much of the promise of EVs will be realized in the future, when CO2-free electricity will be readily available everywhere. Contrast that with the predicted future of CNGVs, for which fuel will certainly become much more expensive before it runs out completely or is made illegal, probably within the lifetimes of today's children. Which would you choose?

No comments: