Op-Ed: Why Can't America Make Alternative Fuels Work?


60 years ago, there didn’t seem to be a single challenge America couldn’t overcome. Now, there’s just a lot of negativity about America, especially when it comes to alternative fuels. What are these people so afraid of?

In particular, I’m talking about how in the same breath a person can criticize Big Oil for rising gas prices, and then start talking trash about any kind of alternative to gasoline for fuel. It makes no sense to me that we, as Americans, should have nearly infinite options when it comes to buying just about anything you can imagine, except fuel for our cars. That’s all I really want. Options. I want a gas station that sells more than gas. I want CNG, I want propane, I want different ethanol blends, and I want charging stations that are built by a combination of private and public investment. Is that really asking so much?

For some people, it apparently is. It’s as though we’re afraid of messing with the formula that has made America the most effective economic giant in the world for the last century or so. Make no mistake about it, putting cars into the hands of the common people radically altered the human dynamic. No longer were people confined to the towns where they were born, or reliant upon massive railroads who dictated where tracks were or weren’t laid.

If I had to pick one symbol for America in the 20th century, it’d have to be the Ford Model T. For thousands and thousands of years, the fastest mode of overland travel was the horse, which like humans required lots of food and lots of rest. But with the advent of the automobile, people now had a source of mobility that could take farther and faster than even the swiftest thoroughbred, and required only a few gallons  of a seemingly inexhaustible source of fuel.

But we’re in the 21st century now. America may no longer be the world’s most prolific economy in as little as 5 years. There are many billions more people in the world today than there were 60 years ago. And there people are starting to get their hands on automobiles too, changing the dynamics of their lives as well. The world is changing, and if America wants to stay on top, we need to be the innovators in the 21st century that we were in the 20th century.

The problem is, there aren’t a whole lot of things left that we can take the lead in, and not everything we’re first in is exactly admirable. So why would anyone believe that, at a time when the entirety of the rest of the world is leaning towards renewable fuels, would we want to in the other direction? If Europe and China want solar panels and electric cars and wind turbines, well they should buy it from America. That’s a surefire way to get our economy back on track, and the oil companies called before Congress this week have the knowledge and resources to make it happen. So why don’t they?

We’re afraid. We don’t want to mess with success. Oil is cheap and abundant, except its not anymore, and we’re afraid that our lives our going to be lesser for it. So we want to drill for more oil and build bigger highways to we can sit in longer traffic jams and pay ever more for gasoline, because there really is no other option?

That’s bullshit. That’s an Americant attitude, like there is something out there that we, as Americans, can’t do if we just put our noses to the grindstone and make it work. I’m a big World War II buff, and I still marvel at how, almost overnight, this country was able to completely re-machine its entire infrastructure into the Arsenal of Democracy (such a badass name.) People grew victory gardens, recycled everything, carpooled to save fuel, and only bought meat on certain days of the week. People really got into the war effort, to ensure victory in the face of adversity.

So why can’t we do the same today, only do it for alternative fuels? Electric cars and the battery systems in particular will require some time and investment, but it is certainly doable, especially here in America. So why are we letting companies like Nissan and Renault take the lead? Why are the Germans and the Chinese leaders in solar and wind technology? Why are all of these countries developing newer and faster trains, when America used to have all of the top 10 fastest trains in the world. We already use natural gas and propane to heat our homes, why not use it to fuel our cars? There’s nary a home in America without a 240 volt connection, so the electrical infrastructure needed for EV’s is already here. Why can’t we have gas stations that sell more than just gas While we’re at it, lets bring back victory gardens and make recycling a bigger priority than it is for many Americans right now. Offer tax credits for people who grow their own gardens and keep track of their recycled goods. Republicans want tax breaks, right? Well, let’s make them work for it, and make it work for the average fellow, not just the right folks.

If we really worked at it, streamlined the approval process and just got down and dirty, there’s no reason we couldn’t have our economy completely revamped in a decade, creating millions of private and public jobs, preserving our natural resources and natural beauty and setting ourselves up to continue to be a world-leading economy in the coming century. The rest of the world wants to buy this stuff, so why not sell it to them with a good ol’ Made in the USA stamp on it.

So next time someone starts spouting off at the mouth about how they hate alternative fuels, ask them if they hate America too. Because the formula for the last century isn’t going to work for us by in the next century. There’s a lot of work to be done, but its nothing we, as Americans, can’t overcome, if only we give it a chance to work.

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. You can read about his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout or follow his non-nonsensical ramblings on Twitter @harshcougar.

About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he’s running, because he’s one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.

  • Of course we all get it. We read Chris’ stuff because we care about automobiles AND the environment. The way it works in the US, autos ARE our mass transit. That doesn’t make it right, but it is what it is.

    There’s nothing but common sense in this rant. Problem is that our Congress has grown fat and lazy on the bribes – ooop – campaign contributions from Big Oil. There should have been tighter CAFE standards decades ago. And where is the public investment in developing a biodiesel production infrastructure to meet a public demand that will appear when the stuff gets cheap? Do you think that is likely if Federal funding is controlled by a Congress that is controlled by Big Oil?

  • I know exactly why this happened, but it is not a short story.

    It began in the 60s with the hippies. the Nam war was on and flower children were dropping out and joining free love communes. They were lecturing us about the new ice age rapidly approaching and growing their own vegetables, which they conveniently believed and preached to us was the worlds best diet. They stayed in enough college classes, on their daddies dime, to avoid the draft and grew their own pot to smoke and brewed their own ethanol, to drink and to fuel their Volkswagens.

    We laughed at them.

    Jump ahead 30 years and we need to replace methyl tertiary butyl ether, MTBE, that turned out to not be such a safe gasoline oxygenator after all.

    Ethanol was the only viable replacement in sight. The fact that ethanol is a bit less energy dense and was the Hippy Love Children brew of choice was thought unimportant. We mandated it and we subsidized it.

    We did not do a good enough job of selling it.

    The Conservatives and big oil hated it on principle. Lower mileage, subsides and forced mandates became the anti ethanol rallying cry. Government, with their usual stupidity, ignored the objections and made no effort to explain the facts.

    (Until just a few weeks ago, few knew that big oil is subsidized also, and fewer yet know it is somewhere around 40 to 50 billion dollars a year, not just the 2 to 4 billion being reported by Obama and the press).

    Quickly forgotten or ignored is the fact that ethanol is intended as a replacement for MTBE and is necessary to oxygenate the gasoline.

    Now millions of Americans believe the hippies grown up are forcing an inferior product on us by subsidizing and mandating it and that it would never have happened without these federal subsidies and mandates.

    The same people started pushing subsidized and mandated wind and solar, so Conservatives have painted them with the same brush.

    Conservatives also understand the obvious, that Liberals and greens are maliciously denying us the right to drill our own plentiful oil reserves. We despise them for taking our drilling rights away from us and it is obvious that they are directly responsible for the high pump prices and hundreds of billions of our dollars hemorrhaging out of America to buy oil from our enemies, factors that are impoverishing America today.

    While half of Americans love the word Green, the other half despise it and many millions will never willingly purchase anything labeled green.

    The claims for anthropogenic global warming, just like the earlier anthropogenic ice age claims, have now been thoroughly discredited, tho some die hards stubbornly cling to them and fools in America today keep trying to legislate horrendously expensive solutions to this non existent problem.

    Conservatives should be at the vanguard of the Age of Bio Technology, instead of fighting it every step. I do not know how to fix this. Education would do it, except that Conservatives, including myself, have learned long ago to not believe anything coming from Liberals or Democrats.

    Few Americans, even liberals who support bio fuels, know that we are now entering the Age of Bio Technology, or that it is quickly becoming the greatest wealth creation age in world history, and that it was all started by the 60s hippies and their ethanol.

    The world wide Age of Bio Technology is now unstoppable. Since companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Cosmo Oil of Japan, Petrobras of Brazil, India Oil, EI DuPont, Dow Chemical, Cargill Louis Dreyfus, Poet of Kansas, ADM and all of the worlds major nations and militaries are investing multiple billions of dollars in capturing world ethanol market share, bio Jet fuels and bio military fuels dominance, world bio food and animal feed market shares and world bio plastics and chemicals market shares.

    The Age of Bio Technology is happening no matter what American Conservatives do. It is a shame that so many are missing it.

    • “We despise them for taking our drilling rights away from us and it is obvious that they are directly responsible for the high pump prices…”

      Hmmm, well considering that we have less than 5% of the worlds oil reserves and use 20% of world production…it seems like you’re asserting some thing that can’t really be true.

      Also, considering that the price went up by 33% in less than a year with no change in supply…frankly your logic isn’t even remotely close to reality.

      Now, I will COMPLETELY agree with your statement about “hundreds of billions of our dollars hemorrhaging out of America to buy oil from our enemies, factors that are impoverishing America today.”

  • A couple quick points.

    Victory Gardens were necessary to free farmers from the task of feeding civilians so they could instead feed our military fighting in WWII.

    In our new, interconnected world, we cannot convert food stocks to automobile fuels without elevating the global price of food. At least, we won’t pursue such things if we care about preventing third world starvation due to their being priced out of the food market.

    Add to that the fact that food based fuels generate almost as much CO2 as petroleum based fuels and…yes….the cost of subsidies and decreased mileage. Feeding corn to cars makes no real long term sense.

    Wind power is equally dubious. If we need to get 200 Mw from coal, then we build a 200 Mw coal fired power plant. If we want to get 200 Mw from wind power, then we have to install several times that in wind turbine towers.

    Solar is on the border of being cost competitive with carbon based technologies, but then we have the problem of getting the power from the places with lots of sun to the places where people actually live.

    We might be better off by focusing on fuels rather than on cars. Algae based fuels are already possible. And we have microscopic critters that will convert everything from sewage to tires into a pseudo-petroleum.

    Why not use that most expedient of incentives to persuade companies to deploy those existing alternative fuel technologies? Eliminate all fuel taxes for non-petroleum and non-food based alternative fuels. Watch Exxon and friends fall all over themselves to build 21st century refineries!

    • @ Dann

      Brazil has been using ethanol for years, and their economy is booming. Add to the fact that higher gas prices already cause higher food prices, and it seems to be like we’re right back at square one. A wash, if you will.

      The glory of wind power is that there are places where the wind almost always blows, especially along coastlines. And considering that states like California already import huge amounts of power, and I see no problem getting wind power from Point A to Point B. Same with solar power. We might as well get something out of the desert, right?

      Algae is possible, though its not nearly ready for prime time. I agree with elimating fuel taxes to spur alt-fuel adaptation, except there are already programs in place that actually pay people to use fuels like CNG, propane, and even ethanol. We either need more, or another way to convince people to head in this direction.

    • @ Dann

      I think Christopher’s main point was about the mindset behind the Victory Gardens and that everyone pitched in and did what it took to get there. He’s not trying to talk about the whole food for fuel discussion but rather questioning what the hell happened to our ability to focus as a great nation and make something happen!

      Have we all become so self centered that we can’t make the necessary sacrifices and changes to get us where we need to be?

      I’m not talking about making everyone give up their car or changing their way of life. I’m talking about all the little things.

      A good example is why does everyone want to fight against Electric Vehicles? Hell, for families with multiple cars, it would be relatively easy to make at least one of them an EV. Yes, it cost a little more up front, but when you factor that into the price of the car note….why do you care if you pay $300 a month for a new gas car plus $200 a month for gas to total $500 a month or whether you pay $450 a month for an EV that uses only American generated electricity and not foreign oil?
      yes, the EV may only have a 100 mile range, but if it’s a second or third car used for commuting around town…so what?
      How many people could do this and actually save themselves money? How many of those people won’t even consider it because they’ve somehow been convinced it’s not “American” to do anything other than burn oil. What the hell is that all about?

      I thought being an American was about having the ingenuity to find a better way and the focus to get it done.

      What happened to us?

  • I have long argued that for the car and energy money to get behind change you appeal to the one thing that moves motoring behaviour, even if it looks politically incorrect.
    For the next 20 years mandate that the overall maximum highway speed is unlimited if you are not using fossil fuels.
    Problem solved in hurry.

    • China is doing something like that in some big cities. If you want a gas car, you have to put your name into a lottery to get a license plate. The odds are around 17 to 1. If you buy an EV, you can get license plates immediately and bypass the lottery. Instant demand.

      That definitely wouldn’t work in the US. There would be pitchforks and torches.

  • Brazil is still referred to by some as a third world country yet they have been developing other fuels for years. Ethanol was introduced in Brazil back in 1978 and yet America has only recently started using it.

    • That’s because the oil companies don’t want you to use.

  • Pingback: Op-Ed: Why Can't America Make Alternative Fuels Work? – Gas 2.0 | Fresh Green World()

  • You poor, deluded, American, ass-hole! I feel so, so, very sorry for you! Please, just to break the propagandists spell on your “Noble, American, Can-Do” notions: Google, torrent, the documentary, “Who Stole The Electric Car”. Study this well! Did you know, that proven adequate, domestically feasible, expensive imported Lithium free, NiMh batteries were lost to the American folk’s access here? Stolen by an evil corpocracy? I dunno, you go figure! To protect shareholders ‘sunk money’ in gasoline powered cars, accessories? Did you know, Shanghai, China, has, up and running, NiMh battery powered taxis? In service over five years? Did you know, there are Toyota, Rav 4 EV ‘s running in California on NiMh batteries, and have been getting re-charged for seven to ten years, no problems, no degradation in power output! Did you know, Toyota was forced by powers you and I will never understand, to put a whole fleet of Rav 4 EV’s through the hammer-mills, here in the land of the “Free” land of the “Brave”? Did you know, down-town Tokyo is serviced by NiMh battery-taxis? With recharged battery exchange sites? All over the downtown? Did you know, S. Korea still produces these fine batteries? For China? not America anyways. Do you realize, batteries like these are required to make Wind Turbines much more efficient? To absorb nuclear generated electricity here in America, when commercial demand falls, over-night, every night?
    Can you imagine, a carbon fiber bodied, ultra-light car, that lasts virtually forever, equipped with these Miracle Batteries, serving all commuters in America, daily, running on Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal, Geothermal, clean, renewable, or perpetual if you please, electrical power? no gasoline taxes to reap! Governments would fall! Huge OPEC – Saudi investments in America, worth nothing! Over-night! Just for Hellery, Canadians, in Calgary Alberta, built and demonstrated a hemp-fiber, ultra-light car body! (Hemp for fiber, food, is legal in Canada!) They were slapped with so many protective American regulations the thing never got out of the show-room. Just like the Diloran cars! More fun with Yankee Doodle and his altruism: Diesel fuel, or #2 stove oil – same thing! not that much back in the past, was much cheaper, easier to refine, was used as heating oil in homes. Mercedes, in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s 80’s, 90’s sold, in Canada at least, 6 passenger, sedan, Diesel cars that gave over 40 mpg (Imperial Canadian gallons) with ease, in Canadian conditions, on #2 stove oil! Canadians were eventually forced to buy diesel-fuel,(same # 2 stove oil actually!) with road-taxes included, simply by having the # 2 stove oil dyed purple! Still, taxed diesel fuel in Canada for many decades cost half or even less than the cheapest gasoline! VW produced diesel-engined Rabbits, Golfs, that got fantastic mileage,engines outlasted gasoline engines by far too! Ran on #2 stove oil quite well they tell me! Americans, however, have been flim-flamed, propagandized, against highly efficient long lasting, high mileage yielding Turbo-Diesels from Europe! Check this out on this same net! VW even had a high efficiency TDI engined, Turbo Diesel/electric hybrid ready for sale in America! They with-drew it from the market at the last minute! no real explanation offered? America could, according to the laws of thermal dynamics, which clearly indicate that higher compression diesels are a full 40% more efficient than lower compression gasoline engines, by compression factor alone! no B.S.! lower their fuel consumption of expensive foreign oil by almost half! Add a turbo, and do even better! Go Hybrid and beat the Prius records all to Hell! But: will they? Hell No!
    Fact is: Ford, of Canada at least, offered in the 70’s, 80’s, a 1/2 tonne pick-up truck with dual-fuel option, Natural gas/ gasoline. You could get a pressure pump installed in your garage, or on the side of your house, to fill the natural gas tank, overnight! Never caught on in Canada though, gasoline was cheaper here at the time. They should offer these vehicles now! We pay $1.42 (Canadian dollars worth more!) a liter here in Toronto, Canada, today, Friggen’ ridiculous! Want more? China has already developed an oil free society! The have nuclear/electric powered bullet train networks and their electric powered associated infrastructures up and running today. They intend, with the help of Thorium fueled, benign waste product, plutonium free, easy to decommission, nuclear reactor power, to daisy-chain these networks, up into Siberia, over to Europe’s eastern boundaries, down to Vietnam, Myanmar, and out to China’s seas!All Nuclear/electric! No Oil needed!This is happening as we speak! Google, Tsinghua University, China, pebble bed, gas reactors! See for yourself! Imagine! A Pan Euro-Asian Empire! Coming in decades! While Americans get fingered up the bum by the Oil barons! woo-hoo!

    • Aside from all the conspiracies, some imagined and some real, the problem is that we Americans have allowed ourselves to become part of the problem.

      We have allowed the big oil barrons and the super rich like the Koch brothers to spend enough money on campaigns to buy politicians and pay for advertisements convinceing us that it is our “right as Americans” to act this way.

      That somehow being ignorant and proud of wasting things while our country suffers is what being an American is all about. That driving a 6,000lb SUV when that person has never gone off road or hauled anything in his life is some kind of fashion statement and a “god given right as an American”.
      Sure, you CAN drive a 6,000lb SUV when you don’t need it…but why WOULD you?

      You also have a god given right to pick your nose and eat it but nobody would do it because it’s frigging stupid! Driving a 6,000lb SUV or truck you don’t need is just as stupid. When will we realize this?

      Hell, there are plenty of people who need a truck or SUV for work or a large family. Fine. What the hell is everyone else doing? Why would we do it? What made us think that was “American”?

  • From a blog called Fork in the Road over at Grushhour.com

    By now you know that prices for carbon-based fuels will continue to go up more frequently and more aggressively than they will be coming down. You already appreciate that this makes the extraction of costlier and dirtier carbon fuels more likely—fuels like oil from tar sands, coal, and natural gas from fracking. Likely you also appreciate that since these fuels can only increase in costs, this is what has been making innovations in alternative vehicles and fuels more attractive for innovators and investors.

    This means there are two competing ways out of the corner into which we are painted. One will impose changes in modal choices and on how and where we build and live. The other, on the kinds of cars we drive and energy we use. Hence we will soon arrive at a societal decision point that I am arbitrarily targeting for 2020, alluding to useful puns on “good vision” and “hindsight”. This is also far enough away that my predictions will be forgotten giving me some freedom from fear of retribution for my heresy.

    I propose that we think about this 2020 decision point as a fork in the road called “Cars-as-we-now-know-them”. I propose that at this fork, we have two fundamental choices. Toward the Right, we have the “New Automobility”—alternate forms of energy for mobility. Regardless of whether this is biofuels, electricity, compressed air or fuel cells, motive force will increasingly originate from renewables such as solar, wind and a dozen other ways to trap the sun. This route will make cars, energy, and mobility greener, cheaper and more plentiful. We will have more cars and generate more VMT. Congestion will threaten every last spare minute, and we will have a devil of a problem to fund infrastructure. The more of us that take the Right branch, the greater our societal evolution—and the more we will need road pricing.

    Toward the Left, we have the “New Modalities”—we will change our modal mix to tons more of carpooling, vanpooling, transit, biking, walking, telework and moving toward the center of dense cities. This route means changes in transit and urban livability and in health, settlement density and planning. The more of us that take the Left branch, the greater our societal revolution—and the more we will need road pricing.

    I have traveled both branches of this fork in my thinking over the past nine years, first the Left branch, then the Right. That is in the permanent record. Good people line both branches. We will not make uniform choices, but perhaps we can make informed ones. The question now is: “which approach will dominate the final numbers?”

    Will we turn 50% toward New Modalities and 50% toward New Automobility? Or will it be 10:1 in favor of one or the other? The evidence, I argue is in favor of the New Automobility—simply because it is the path of least resistance. Rather than moralize, just look at the mathematical imperatives of entitlement, habit, culture, innovation, investment, desire, fear and inertia. To set these things aside in favor of pure and correct systems thinking makes us worse than blinkered.

    We need to explore both branches, dark or light, of the fork we are arriving at. At least as we start making these choices in the coming years, someone will have thought about their consequences. In the end, thoughtful solutions are all that can win the future back for us (or not).

  • A few comments on the comments:

    1. Brazil’s ability to rely on ethanol stems from one thing: they use a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the energy the US uses. Ethanol takes more energy to produce than it contains. It doesn’t work large scale, and is not feasible national or worldwide solution.

    2. larryhagedon is a fount of misinformation. AWG has not been discredited, in fact there are growing numbers of defections from the deniers camp, to the reality camp. And while media trumpeted the “new ice age” theory proposed by some back in the day, about 70% of real climate and environmental science back then was predicting warming due to increased CO2, not another ice age.

    3. fossil fuels actually represent hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of years of biomass production, concentrated and sequestered over time. The world burns at least 500 years worth of ancient biomass production per year. Today’s annual biomass production can’t even come close to replacing this, because most of the energy absorbed by a plant is used by the plant, and can’t be harvested and used later. It’s extremely inefficient.

    4. Because each year of fossil fuel use represents hundreds of years of biomass production, all sources of non-exhaustible energy combined (PVC solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) can only produce a fraction of the amount of energy on an annual basis, as what we are currently extracting from the ground. Even when you add the incredibly long-term toxic nuclear option, we will only be able to replace about 60-65% of fossil fuel energy with other forms of energy within the next 20 years. If we want to stop using fossil fuels, we will need to conserve enough to reduce energy demand by a whopping 35%-40%.

    5. The energy density and portability of fossil fuels runs circles around just about anything else. This is a real technical hurdle; we can refine other fuels to come *close* to the density of gasoline (ethanol) but of course that takes a lot of energy to do, which ends up using more energy than is in the final product. We simply can’t just replace gasoline with batteries or any other energy source and go about our lives as-is. Without gasoline, we will be forced to conserve.

    6. US oil reserves are pathetic. You can point to all sorts of regulations supposedly keeping the oil extraction industry down; in fact you can point to 1,000 of them, and if all regulations were lifted today and we started drilling like mad, the daily production capacity of all those sources would still only meet a few percent of the daily domestic demand.

    7. Agriculture is one area in particular that is extremely dependent on the portability and energy density of fossil fuels. Do you really think you can run a tractor or combine all day on solar and batteries? Can you even maintain your own lawn (if you own a yard) without gasoline?

    Absolutely, yes, the US populace, and especially ‘conservative’ leaders, have adopted a horrible “can’t do” attitude. Why? I think it stems from the fact that part of what will have to be done is to… conserve. That is what we aren’t willing to do, and why we justify the “can’t do” attitude. If the entire nation were galvanized to action, we really could attain the 65% renewable/non-exhaustable, 35% conservation threshold with very little loss of convenience or comfort, and be nearly petroleum-use free. Instead, we’re squabbling over marginal issues while the important stuff gets ignored.

    China’s and India’s population together is almost 9 times larger that US. Their oil consumption is growing at 10 times the US rate. Their demand growth will consume all known current, and probable future, spare oil production capacity in under 20 years. Conservation is coming, whether it’s voluntary, or forced. It just blows my mind that we, as a nation, aren’t completely focused on mitigating the impact of competition for energy by the rest of the world. Our public policy, and much public sentiment, is just the opposite: that we can’t invest in a stable and reliable energy future, but instead we’ve got to give more tax breaks to the wealthy, now. That’s sick, twisted, and demented.

    BTW, I’ve ridden a bike for transportation almost all my life. I estimate I’ve displaced over 150,000 car miles with bike travel so far (I’m 48). This is just one thing that *could* be done by many people, but few people are willing to do it. Most of us would rather take slow-poison pills (continued oil dependence, nuclear, fracking, more pollution, etc.) than suffer even the slightest inconvenience or deprivation now. May the Flying Spaghetti Monster have pity on us.