Different fuels key to future in USA
DATE:2008-6-14  FROM:  AUTHOR:  DOWN:3183

One surefire way to cut fuel costs is to find a substitute for gasoline.

USA President Bush signed legislation this year mandating that ethanol comprise 21 billion gallons ?or 15% ?of motor fuel by 2015, and 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Today, two-thirds of gasoline sold in the USA contains about 10% ethanol, saving consumers about 10 cents per gallon of gasoline, says Matt Hartwig of the Renewable Fuels Association. The higher mandate by 2015 could boost the per-gallon savings to 20 cents, he says.

By 2012, U.S. automakers plan to roll out large numbers of flexible-fuel vehicles that can handle blends with up to 85% ethanol. Yet at such high levels, corn-based ethanol costs 30 cents a gallon more than regular unleaded gas because of its lower mileage, AAA says.

The answer: cheaper cellulosic ethanol, now being developed, made from switch grass, wood chips and municipal solid waste. Such ethanol, if widely used, could bring back $2-per-gallon gasoline, says David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"Turning waste into fuel is really the holy grail," says John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute.

Cellulosic ethanol is at least several years away because breaking down the waste materials into sugar-based fuel is challenging.

Hybrid cars offer a shorter-term solution. The Toyota Prius costs $2,000 more than a comparable compact car but gets 45 miles per gallon. At $4 a gallon for gas, the Prius saves about $700 a year in fuel costs vs. a similar car, assuming 12,000 miles of driving a year, Friedman says. Waiting lists to buy a Prius can be several months.

Plug-in hybrids, still in development, will get even better mileage but are projected to cost $10,000 more than similar gas-based cars, Friedman says.

And hydrogen-fuel cell cars have huge potential because hydrogen is ubiquitous. But there are few fueling stations, so broad use is likely two decades away. "By 2050, there really shouldn't be many cars on the road using gasoline," Friedman says.

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