With the price of gasoline whizzing past $1.35 a litre, vehicles that are fuelled by other means may become far more attractive to drivers, but a Conference Board of Canada report warns policy makers the net benefits are not evident.
OTTAWA: With the price of gasoline whizzing past $1.35 a litre (in southern Ontario at least), vehicles that are fuelled by other means may become far more attractive to drivers, but a Conference Board of Canada report warns policy makers the net benefits are not evident and they need to consider how alternative vehicles will affect infrastructure, government finances and energy policies.
To maximize the use of alternative fuels such as natural gas, batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, the Conference Board contends substantial changes in fuelling technologies and the practices of drivers will be needed.
Are We Ready to Step Off the Gas? Preparing for the Impacts of Alternative Fuel Vehicles concludes that policy-makers need to consider more than the cost of the vehicles and their effects on the environment.
“The high purchase price of these vehicles compared with conventional vehicles and the lack of infrastructure to serve them have limited their use,” said Len Coad, director, of energy, environment and technology policy for the Ottawa-based think tank. “Widespread adoption will happen only when an improved vehicle with superior environmental performance is available at a comparable cost and minimal additional inconvenience.”
He said transportation is responsible for 27% of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with personal/light-duty vehicles accounting for 12% of that. The report also notes transportation has experienced the third-fastest growth rate of emissions (up 33% from 1990 to 2008) compared to other sectors.
There are six broad categories of transportation technologies each with benefits and challenges.
Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles using conventional fuels account for more than 90% of all vehicles in Canada. ICE vehicles can use renewable fuels such ethanol (E10 brands), which are relatively common, but E85 (85% ethanol) requires engine modifications plus fuel and retail infrastructures would have to be established.
Greenhouse gas emissions are lower using natural gas but vehicle choices offered by OEMs are limited and they face stiff competition from electric vehicles.
Hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles achieve a 40% to 52% improvement in fuel efficiency but cost $4,000 more than conventional vehicles and after 10 years represent just 05% of Canadian vehicles, which speaks to the time it takes for new technology to penetrate markets.
Full battery electric vehicles (BEV) can be outfitted to match certain driving patterns but the maximum distance they can travel between charges is limited, making them more suitable for local travel.
Hydrogen electric vehicles offering almost zero emissions would be suitable for certain niches where emissions-free performance is a must, but PEM catalyst and onboard storage costs will have to come down and a comprehensive hydrogen infrastructure must be established.
Although alternative fuel vehicles exhibit significantly better environmental performance than ICE vehicles, current upfront cost premiums exceed the savings from greater energy efficiency. And the report notes reduced ranges of plug-in hybrid electric and full battery electric vehicles, charging stations and battery replacement stations will be required, or motorists will have to be content driving shorter distances.
The Conference Board advises policy makers to consider infrastructure requirements, environmental impacts, and the relative cost of alternative fuel vehicles as they design rebates, subsidies or other incentives.
Bottom line, improved, more energy efficient internal combustion engines still have the edge on abatement costs, followed by next-generation renewable fuels, hybrids, plug-ins and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.