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NPC study sees alternative transportation technologies growing

US transportation is undergoing changes that could evolve and accelerate depending on how soon fuel and vehicle technologies advance and whether they are economically viable, the National Petroleum Council said in a recent study. Plug-in hybrid, fuel cell, electric battery, and natural gas-powered passenger and heavy-duty vehicles could be widely used over the next decade if technology and infrastructure barriers can be overcome, it suggested.

The report, “Advancing Technology for America’s Transportation Future,” warned that the scale of such an effort would be enormous, and advances are not assured even with sustained investments in technology and infrastructure. “They will be driven by the combined effects of economics, technology, environmental, and other policies, and consumer demand—yielding incremental and continual gains for the US,” it said.

NPC prepared the report in response to questions raised in 2009 by US Sec. of Energy Stephen Chu about fuels, technologies, industry practices, and government policies through 2030 for auto, truck, air, rail, and waterborne transport, and in 2010 about possible government and industry actions to cut by half greenhouse gas emissions from US transportation by 2050. The council submitted the report to Chu on Aug. 1 following 2 years of review and analysis by more than 300 participants from government, the oil and gas industry, academia, and other disciplines.

“This is a very promising technology story and, indeed, a good-news economic and energy story,” said Marathon Oil Corp. Chief Executive Clarence P. Cazalot Jr., who chaired the committee that prepared the report.

All paths will work

“The report looks at accelerative alternative fuel and vehicle development,” Linda A. Capuano, Marathon’s vice-president of technology, who chaired the report committee’s coordinating subcommittee, told reporters following the NPC meeting. “The good news is that all the paths will get us there. Only time will tell which ones we’ll use.”

The report said internal combustion engines (ICE) are likely to remain dominant, with liquid fuel blends playing a dominant but reduced role. “Vehicles powered by petroleum and [ICE]—the foundation of travel for over a century—continue to become more efficient and cleaner,” it noted. “They now run on petroleum blended with biofuels, some of their engines are assisted by electric motors, and they are being joined on the nation’s roadways by vehicles running on natural gas, electricity, and hydrogen.”

Reducing vehicular weight, improving aerodynamics, and electrifying drive trains are already being deployed and have the potential to raise vehicle fleet efficiency, the report noted. “Relative to 2010 levels, fuel economy could improve 60-90% by 2050 for a light-duty fleet of liquid ICE vehicles, primarily due to hybridization and incremental improvements,” it said.

But it also listed 12 priority technology hurdles covering light-duty engines and vehicles, biofuels, compressed natural gas, electricity, hydrogen, and medium and heavy-duty engines and vehicles. Consistent and sustained effort will be required to overcome these hurdles, “[but] because it is too early which of these efforts could succeed, a broad portfolio of technology options should be pursued,” it said.

The report also identified alternative fuel system challenges, but suggested strategies that could help mitigate this issue. “For example, natural gas vehicles can deployed first in heavy-duty vehicles that travel highway freight corridors, enabling more targeted fueling station deployment,” it said. Flexible bi-fuel vehicles allow the use of gasoline and varying alternative fuels before infrastructure becomes widely available, it added.

Reaching GHG target

It also suggested that additional technologies will be required to achieve the 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 that Chu mentioned. Assuming the 12 priority technology hurdles and the system challenges can be overcome, the report said all individual 2050 light, medium, and heavy-duty vehicle systems that were analyzed could achieve greater than 40% GHG emission reductions per mile from 2005 levels, the report said. But vehicle miles traveled for all three categories are projected to increase by 60-80%, effectively counteracting per mile GHG reduction gains, it added.

Chu said following the meeting that while he had not read the full report, presentations that were made about it showed the importance of continued research and development. GHG reductions could be greater than the study forecast since it covered nearly 40 years, and technological breakthroughs such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which did not seem practical 20 years ago, have dramatically changed the US resource outlook, he said.

“I hope there’s uniform recognition that there’s a right and proper role for government to fund research and development,” he told reporters. “It has helped create our strong manufacturing base. The government not only funded the necessary research, but was the first important customer for transistors and integrated circuit boards.” When more exotic R&D becomes less practical, basic technologies can take over, Chu said.

The report recommended that government promote sustained funding, either by itself or with industry, to overcome technology barriers without picking favorites; show leadership with state, local, private sector, and public interest groups in streamlining infrastructure development permit approvals; and consider full life-cycle environmental impact and costs across all sectors when evaluating GHG emission reduction options.

It also suggested that fuel, vehicle, and technology providers consider existing or new voluntary forums with federal and state governments and other stakeholders to address concurrent vehicle and infrastructure development.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.


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