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The Future of Transportation is Green

Posted Sep 08 2008 5:01am

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Americans love cars. With a population of around 300 million, Americans proudly own more than 247 million registered vehicles — or just about 1 car for every 1.2 people. These cars present a great burden on our environment. Even children know that cars need oil to run. Without oil, today’s cars become tomorrow’s junk. But just how much oil do Americans consume? With 4% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s oil demand. Take that in for a second. We use 25% of the world’s oil, but only have 4% of the population.

When we look to the future of transportation, we should embrace realistic expectations. For example, MIT researchers have aCity Carconcept for the urban city of tomorrow. The City Car system uses stackable, electric cars that are checked out and returned as needed; like the luggage carts at an airport. Put in a quarter, take out a car, and when you’re done, return the car to the rack. Although this plan is perfect for a city environment where residents typically don’t own cars, this doesn’t really work for the typical average Joe or Jane American.

For the majority of us not living in urbanized super-cities, the move towards green transportation will be the personal automobile. Ideas range from car conversions to car replacements. T. Boone Pickens recently went public with thePickens Plan. Created more for the economy than the environment, the Pickens Plan calls for a dramatic increase in wind power (using the power of wind to generate electricity). Pickens believes that by replacing the natural gas used for electricity generation with wind, we can then redirect that natural gas resource against our dependence on oil.

The Pickens Plan provides a renewable resource (wind) for electricity generation, but still relies on a non-renewable resource (natural gas) for transportation. With vehicle conversion kits selling for $500 - $2000 (and natural gas costing much less than oil), the suggestion does help the economy. TheCalifornia Energy Commissionreports using natural gas as vehicle fuel results in a 30% reduction of greenhouse gases. Its a great start, but using a non-renewable resource and still producing 70% of the same greenhouse causing exhaust doesn’t feel like the future to me. In my mind, the Pickens Plan is great for the future of our power grids, but not the future of transportation.

The future of transportation needs renewable resources. From Hydrogen to Electricity, many choices exist for tomorrow’s energy buffet. But which technology serves the needs of both the population and the environment?

Electric Cars

Racing towards the showroom, companies likeTelsa MotorsandWrightspeedwork to bring the next generation of personal vehicle to today’s market. The benefits of electric cars seem obvious. We already have the infrastructure to deliver electricity where needed, electricity provides a cheap method of fueling our transportation needs, and electricity can be generated from renewable resources (such as wind and solar). And of course, electric cars produce no exhaust.

It sounds great, but the initial cost of moving to electric cars creates a huge roadblock. No conversion kit exists to modify your existing combustion engine to an electric one. Electric engines and combustion engines are as different as water and, well, oil. The cost of replacing 247 million vehicles provides an obstacle so large that gas vehicles will remain in our lives for at least a generation.

Hydrogen

You have to love a vehicle who produces water as exhaust. Hydrogen fuels vehicles through hydrogen fuel cells. These fuel cells power your cars battery through a chemical reaction. Think of it as an electric car where you create your own electricity. The positive? Hydrogen comes at us from all directions. The Sun spits out more hydrogen every day than we could possibly utilize. For all purposes, hydrogen remains the ultimate renewable resource.

Even though hydrogen fueled cars produce only water for exhaust, the process of creating usable hydrogen produces large amounts of carbon dioxide. It may be green personally, but the manufacturing of hydrogen tends to be a whiter shade of pale. Also, hydrogen production is expensive and will need a new method of transportation (and distribution) to consumers. And again, you won’t be able to convert your existing car to use hydrogen fuel.

Where do we go from here?

If we want renewable resources to fuel personal transportation, we will need to be patient. Sure, the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line. But faster isn’t always better (or easier). Sometimes in life, the best way to get to point B is to slow down and take the scenic route. Converting existing vehicles to use natural gas or propane can provide a time to phase out the life span of existing vehicles as well as building the infrastructure for tomorrow’s fueling stations.

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