As concerns grow over climate change, pollution and how much oil we actually have left, there’s clearly a need to develop alternative fuels.
The good news is that researchers have proven that vehicles can run on natural gas, electricity, hydrogen, nitrogen, biofuels like elephant grass – and even biodiesels based on restaurant grease or chicken waste.
The question, then, is which of these “alt fuels” offer the most promise.
Since there’s no single alternative fuel that by itself can replace gasoline, we’ll need to rely on more than one fuel source. What’s more, the transition will be relatively gradual.
Yes, we’ll see more and more “alt fuel” vehicles on the road. But new fuel technologies can take decades to fully implement on a massive scale.
As a result, it could take decades before the last internal combustion engine finally makes its way to a junkyard. UPS can adapt no matter which fuel source emerges, since we’ve long used our truck fleet as a “rolling laboratory.”
We plugged in our first electric vehicles in the early 1930s, added the first liquid natural gas/diesel-powered tractors in 2002 and in 2015 became the nation’s largest user of renewable natural gas (RNG) in the shipping industry.
In fact, we’re using up to 500,000 gallons of renewable liquefied natural gas every year to operate our fleet in Texas. And sometime during 2017, we’ll log our one-billionth mile using alternative fuels.
In the meantime, here is my take on the fuels of the future.
Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been around for some time, but the fuel we’re optimistic about is renewable natural gas (RNG).
Also known as biomethane, RNG can be derived from many abundant and renewable sources, including decomposing organic waste in landfills, wastewater treatment and agriculture.
As a result, the criticisms of natural gas – including methane leakage and water contamination – aren’t issues with biomethane.
Pipeline-quality RNG’s big selling point is that it’s one of the least “carbon intensive” of various alt fuels.
We all know the ethanol story, but researchers have made great strides with second-generation biofuels using palm oil, miscanthus (elephant grass) and prairie switchgrass to power vehicles.
The problem is these biofuels have a relatively low yield rate. For instance, an acre of switchgrass only produces 200 gallons of fuel.
Think of it this way: To power all U.S. energy needs in 2040, it would take a land mass a little larger than the size of the U.S. (3.3 billion acres).
In fact, to replace just liquid fuels, it would take a land mass just under the size of the continental U.S.
As much as I love the throaty rumble that a muscle car makes when it starts, the perfect driving machine may actually be the electric car.
My Nissan Leaf is elegantly simple.
With no mechanical parts, the only time I’ll visit a repair shop is when I replace the tires.
As battery technology improves and recharging stations become ubiquitous, you’ll be able to take your electric cars on long trips, too.
While many electric car owners feel proud, odds are you’re getting electricity from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. So to make electric cars truly green, we need to develop cleaner sources of electricity.
Alternative fuels like solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric utilities are growing fast. But keep your eye on nuclear.
Nuclear power developed a stigma following the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters, but the energy source has come a long way in safety, technology and output.
The big issue has been cost, since large plants run $7 billion each. But a new breed of smaller, modular nuclear plants has the potential to bring that cost down significantly.
These smaller reactors have a maximum capacity of 300 megawatts, or enough to power a mid-sized city. But they could be made in factories and shipped to sites, dramatically reducing the cost while improving safety.
If we’re looking for a clean energy source to fuel all of the electric cars that’ll hit the roads over the next decade, we’ll need to embrace nuclear.
Mike Whitlatch is VP of Global Energy and Procurement at UPS.
This article first appeared on Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy. Subscribe here to receive new content.