There’s a chewy chunk of truth in the perception that all-electric cars are expensive, because many of them are.  In June, 2019, the average cost for a new car stood at $36,600, compared to a $55,600 average for a battery-electric.  But averages conceal as well as reveal, so let’s keep on chewing.  For EVs, that average gets a substantial push skyward by plenty of high-end all-electric models.  Cases in point:  2021 BMW i3s:  $47,650; 2021 Mustang Mach-E Premium:  $52,000; 2021 Audi E-Tron:  $65,900; Tesla Model S Long Range:  $79,990; 2021 Porsche Taycan Turbo:  $150,900.  And so on.  Even the $7,500 federal tax credit, available for all these models except Tesla, isn’t going to make a big difference up there in the financial stratosphere – and most of us don’t live there anyway.

Back on earth, what about affordable new electric car options?  They’re out there.  Kelly Blue Book, reporting in September 2018, noted an average new car price of $35,742, and a total of 10 all-electric and 13 plug-in hybrid models with MSRP below that.  Less than three years later, choices have boomed.  As of April 2021 14 different makers offer 41 different all-electric models and trim levels; 21 OEMs have brought 45 different models and trims of plug-in hybrids to market.

Whatever the price, a new car is always a substantial expenditure.  At this point, Wentworth J. Stumblewhistle III – your inner CPA – should chime in with a reminder that an automobile is, in fact, a depreciating asset, not an investment.  With that in mind, what’s the best way to avoid some of the financial burden of a new car – the depreciation hit when you drive off the lot, sales and personal property tax, insurance? What about a used car?  Specifically, what about a used electric car?

When it comes to EVs, there are advantages to buying used that add up in an even bigger way than for a conventional model, and we’re happy to walk you through some of them.   For starters, depreciation has tended to be steeper with many all-electric models than it has been for conventional cars.  This isn’t true for some brands.  Used Teslas tend to hold their value longer than most EV brands – but that’s not really the market we’re looking at here anyway.

Some handy examples from CarGurus:  A 2020 Hyundai Ioniq SE EV, with 1,058 miles for $18,999.  MSRP for a new version of the same year, make and model – $34,295.  Even with the $7,500 federal tax credit that’s still nearly $8,000 cheaper with barely 1,000 miles on the odometer and an estimated range of 170 miles per charge.  A 2020 Chevy Bolt, with a starting new  MSRP of $36,620 and an estimated range per charge of 259 miles:  with just 3,030 miles, $22,519.  Older models are even more affordable:  A 2017 Nissan LEAF with 18,974 miles on the odometer and an estimated 107-mile range – $12,575.  (Disclaimer – These specific listings are only illustrations, and we’re not endorsing any specific brand, model or dealership.  And by the time this is published, these links may not work anyway, as the cars listed may have sold.)

So, what’s the catch?  After all, if it sounds too good to be true . . . Let’s just say it’s complicated.  For starters, all electric vehicles lose battery capacity over time.  This doesn’t mean they’re bad cars – that’s just the nature of batteries as they charge and discharge thousands of times.  A fairly extensive study of 6,300 electric cars, covering 64 different makes and model years came out in July 2020.  It found an average annual capacity loss of about 2.3% from time of purchase.  In other words, a new EV purchased today with a range of 150 miles should have a range of about 133 miles in 2026.  So, does the 2017 Nissan LEAF listed above still have a range of 107 miles 6 years after it was sold?  Probably not.

There are other variables in play when considering a used EV.  Beyond age and mileage, where was the car driven?  High temperatures can mean faster loss of EV battery capacity, so buying a used EV in Portland might be better than buying one in Phoenix.  How was it charged?  Some studies indicate that frequent use of high-speed charging can substantially cut into battery capacity, in some cases after a few dozen high-speed charging sessions.  Scientists are already working to find ways to work around this issue, through improved battery design and improved charging cycles.  But how much high-speed charging a pre-owned EV used isn’t the kind of information you’ll find in a Carfax.

Another issue is geographic, not technical.  Many manufacturers sell EVs only in certain areas of the country, particularly in California and the Northeast.  Accordingly, those are the areas where you’re most likely to find a used EV that fits your needs.  This means that you may have to travel to an out-of-state dealership and drive back or pay to have the car trucked to where you live.  Car shipping costs in April 2021 averaged between $800 and $1000 – not insurmountable, but still a substantial expense.

Yet even with all these considerations in the mix, there are substantial long-term advantages to electric autos compared with conventional models.  Service costs are nominal.  Without gasoline, oil, coolant or transmission fluid, routine maintenance is reduced to software updates and tire rotation, plus the occasional brake check.  Beyond the complexities of software and battery control systems, EVs are remarkably simple machines, with fewer possible points of failure and lower total costs of ownership.

Data to date support this.  Consumer Reports published a study in fall of 2020 that tracked long-term costs of nine different models of electric cars.  “For all EVs analyzed, the lifetime ownership costs were many thousands of dollars lower than all comparable ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles’ costs, with most EVs offering savings of between $6,000 and $10,000.  While new EVs were found to offer significant cost savings over comparable ICE vehicles, the cost savings of 5-to-7 year old used EVs was found to be two to three times larger on a percentage basis.”

Electric cars won’t work for everyone.  But for those interested in making the switch, yet leery of new car prices, an affordable used model may be a viable option.  And remember, whatever you’re looking to drive home, the sticker price isn’t the cost of a car – it’s only the first installment.  Total cost of ownership is, in the end, the best way to measure how long and how much you’ll be paying for personal transportation.

By the way, if you’re looking for a chance to investigate electric car options, MEC is participating in Drive Electric Earth Day 2021, with two events coming up fast.  It’s not just about the cars – there will also be giveaways and a chance to win a $250 Visa gift card.  To find out more, you’ll want to click on the buttons for the Kansas City area events or visit the Drive Electric Earth Day homepage for events all around the country.

Batteries are ancient, by today’s tech standards.  Benjamin Franklin is the first person we know of to use the term, and the first published science on the topic dates to 1791.  The days of metal disks stacked in brine are long gone (except in middle school science class).  Lead-acid batteries in cars and golf carts are still common and will be for years, given their low cost.  But the focus here is on the next generation of large-scale systems.  And the question is how these batteries – bigger and more powerful than anything we’ve known  can redefine and remake the world’s electrical grid. 

You’ve likely heard the expression “lightning in a bottle”.  Storing electricity at industrial scale is very much like that.  Electricity moves fast.  In copper wire or other conductors, it’s traveling at somewhere between 50% and 99% of the speed of light.  And in grid operations, it has to be sold – that is, used – as soon as it’s produced.  If it isn’t, grid and utility engineers run the risk of power plants disconnecting, since they’re only designed to run in a very narrow range of conditions.  What this next generation of battery tech provides is a way to store that electricity and in doing so provide a whole basket of benefits – financial, technical and environmental.   

Arguably the biggest single benefit battery storage provides is the ability to capture electricity from renewable sources.  Obviously, the wind doesn’t always blow.  And even when it does, that’s an issue in itself.  In February 2017, the Danes powered their entire country for 24 hours on windpower.  But if a wind farm produces more power than needed, the system operator must start shutting down turbines or face overloading the grid.  And while the sun defines “predictable”, solar plants only provide power for so many hours per day.  Large-scale storage means that intermittent, low-cost, and environmentally-friendly electricity can be stored now and used later.    

Having large amounts of electricity in storage and ready to go at a moment’s notice is a financial boost for power companies.  It means that utilities can sell back low-cost power from renewables to meet peak demand; when power sells for far more than it cost to generate.  It also means that utilities can meet their own demand spikes without having to pay the often-bruising high prices electricity markets produce at peak demand. 

There’s more.  Energy storage can improve the system’s operating reserve.  Like energy, the grid is always moving – more demand here, less demand there, big storms and equipment failures now and again.  It’s a dance that never stops.  Engineers and analysts meet these constant changes with machines and data to keep the system balanced.  But they are never 100% correct in predicting what will happen on any given day.  Having stored reserve power that can be deployed in seconds boosts the operating reserve, and in doing so, boosts grid stability.  Improving stability can mean lower infrastructure investment costs.  It can also cut the costs of “black starts” when generators go down.  Typically, they have to be restarted with diesel generators, but battery systems for just this purpose have already been successfully tested. 

So, what do utility-scale batteries look like?  Imagine shipping containers lined up in an electrical substation, or row after row of gigantic desktop computer towers.  The Hornsdale Power Reserve, in South Australia, was designed and built by Tesla.  It uses lithium-ion batteries (like in your computer) and provides 129 MWh of power – enough to supply all the electricity for about 3,500 homes for an hour.  These projects sound large, though total deployments to date are tiny – globally about 6 GWh through 2018.  But there’s one simple fact that you need to remember.  In 2010, commercial battery packs cost about $1,100 per kilowatt-hour.  By December 2019, that price had fallen to $156 per kilowatt-hour, a drop of 87% – and nearly 50% of that total decline came in the preceding three years.  With costs set to break the $100 mark by as early as 2024, batteries are increasingly likely to be included in energy infrastructure and development for years to come. 

Kansas City International Airport is no stranger to cleaner fuels.  It began deploying compressed natural gas (CNG) buses back in 1997providing natural gas on site with its own high-speed fueling station.  This made the Aviation Department something of a pioneer in alt-fuel adoption.  The next step, though, was a big jump in fuel efficiency, and in October of 2017, KCI became the first US airport to deploy all-electric shuttle buses.  It’s currently running 7 BYD K7 battery-electric shuttles along with older CNG units. 

There’s no getting around the fact that up-front costs for electric vehicles are going to be higher than for equivalent conventional buses.  In fact, when the airport rolled out data on the comparative costs of different fuels, the contrast was stark.  A brand-new diesel shuttle buses cost about $385,000; for CNG, add an additional 14% for a sticker price of $440,000.  All-electric models come in at a fairly eye-popping $540,000, more than 40% more expensive than the price for a baseline diesel.   

But as anybody who’s bought a car knows, the sticker price isn’t the only price.  The sticker price, in fact, is only the beginning of years of recurring costs.  Kenny Williams is the Fleet Asset Manager for the Aviation Department and one of the main proponents of the EV deployment back in 2016-17 as the project began to take shape.  He broke it down as follows: 

Costs Per Mile (Including fuel and maintenance) 
  • Diesel – variable/volatile fuel prices; approximate costs $1.50/mile 
  • CNG – more stable fuel prices; approximate costs $1.00/mile, $0.45-.50 w. alt-fuel tax credit 
  • Electric – fixed fuel prices; approximate costs $0.50/mile 

Maintenance costs add up quickly for the shuttle bus duty cycle.  Oil changes for CNG units are about $170 and have to happen every other month.  Annual tune-ups add an additional $3,800 to CNG bus operating costs.  So, even with fuel at an economical $0.50/gallon thanks to the clean fuel tax credit, CNG bus maintenance per year comes in between $4,800 and $5,000 per unit.  It’s not like EV buses float on air.  Like CNG units, they need new tires, and fluid changes every 18 months add annual costs of about $165 per year.  But no internal combustion engine means no tune-ups, avoiding the lion’s share of regular maintenance overhead. 

And yet, even with maintenance savings of around $50,000 per bus over ten years, there’s still a big price gap between diesel, CNG and electric buses.  That’s where federal clean-fuel funding comes in.  Thanks to support from the US Department of Energy, KCI was eligible for reimbursements of $72,000 per bus, dropping their costs to just $2,000 more than comparable CNG shuttles.   

The same grant, “Accelerating Alternative Fuel Adoption in Mid-America” provided funding for charging infrastructure, covering about $100,000 of $225,000 in construction and equipment costs for the new systems.  KCI’s electric bus charging lot has eight pedestals installed, with space for an additional four slots if more EV units are purchased  Charging time is about three hours, and this “fueling” process hasn’t had any negative impact on operations.   

Kenny Williams talks EV bus duty cycles at the airport’s charging lot.

What has the driver response been like?  Per Kenny Williams, “For most drivers, once they drive them, they really like them.”  The only minor hitch has been how drivers operate the bus HVAC systems – since they are battery-driven, power loss from cranking up AC or heating at full throttle can take a bite out of driving range when a gentler touch would work better. And KCI is planning on investing in additional EV units.  The economic toll of the pandemic has postponed acquisition of a few of the 12 units originally planned.  However, the Aviation Department is planning on ordering three more units in addition to the seven already in service.  These new buses will be slightly different.  They’ll have inductive charging systems, which will let them power up without cords or plugs, as they pick up passengers at the new terminal starting in early 2023.   

This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Vehicle Technologies Program under Award Number DE-EE0008262 . 

Metropolitan Energy Center (MEC) announces the first placements of all-electric zero-emission Class-8 yard trucks into service under a new grant project. The project, “Electrifying Terminal Trucks in Unincentivized Markets,” is the result of partnerships from Kansas City to Chicago, whose goal is to electrify terminal trucks in our regional market. The first placements of four planned have taken place at funding recipient Firefly Transportation Services. Based in Glenview, IL, Firefly provides zero-emission transportation options to freight yard, port and cargo sites, along with training and site preparation for all-electric operations.

The vehicles funded under this grant are manufactured by Orange EV. Based in Riverside, MO, Orange EV designs and manufacturers all-electric yard trucks right here in the heartland. They are also the first American company to commercially build, deploy and service 100% electric Class-8 electric vehicles. Before this year, Orange EV had yet to deploy one of their vehicles in the Kansas City area. Jason Dake, Vice President of Legal and Regulatory Affairs at Orange EV stated, “Not selling one of our trucks in our own backyard was a thorn in our side for a while,” he continued, “Seeing additional trucks deployed in the metro area through the project is a great feeling and most importantly, they are helping our community and improving the air quality for Kansas Citians.”

Additional funding recipients with all-electric truck placements planned in the near future are the Johnson County Wastewater Department in Leawood, KS and Hirschbach Motor Lines, a private long-haul carrier with emphasis on refrigerated and other specialized services. Hirschbach will deploy their truck at a client site in Wyandotte County, KS. Both Evergy and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas Board of Public Utilities will provide technical assistance, as needed, on electrical service and electric rate guidance.

Orange EV will also take possession of a demonstration truck to provide potential customers across the U.S. up to a 2- to 4-month trial period. During the period, they can use the tractor free of charge, viscerally demonstrating air quality, noise-reduction and cost-savings benefits in their unique work environments.

Yard trucks (also known as hostlers, terminal tractors, goats or mules) are designed to pull cargo containers and semi trailers in freight or intermodal yards, or at large manufacturing sites. The workload for these trucks is intense, pulling heavy loads almost continuously. The power required means that most yard trucks are diesel, which results in a great deal of diesel exhaust, one of the worst pollutants and a major source of poor air quality. Diesel exhaust is not only a health risk for workers on site, but it also threatens communities surrounding industrial zones, typically low-income neighborhoods. Even worse, low speed, high-power operations emit much more soot and other particulates than diesel operations at highway speeds. Systematically replacing diesel yard trucks with electric models could substantially boost air quality in and around America’s busiest freight hubs. At the same time, the cost savings both from eliminating diesel fuel and from operating a much more efficient electric powertrain is an attractive advantage.

However, the project is not only about improving air quality and saving money. Another key goal is to gather data on electric truck operations to validate broader deployments of battery-powered yard trucks. Telematics and data, supported by fleet interviews and operational evaluation, will be analyzed by another project partner and nearby neighbor, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Ultimately, MEC will create a deployment guide based on the real-world experiences of our project partners in Chicago and Kansas City so fleet operators across the country can make the move to cleaner, more efficient freight handling.

To learn more about this project or to request the demo truck for your work site, please contact Emily Wolfe.

This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) under the Award Number DE-EE0008887.

As we near the end of the year, it is anticipated that Congress will be discussing whether to extend certain federal tax credits such as the Alternative Fuel and Energy Efficiency Tax CreditsContact your representative to learn if they will support extending the Alternative Fuel Tax Credit and below energy efficiency tax incentives that also expire at the end of 2020. (Note that biodiesel credits are covered under the Biodiesel Income Tax Credit which continues through December 31, 2022. The Renewable Energy Tax Credits expire December 31, 2021.) 

  • Alternative Fuel Tax CreditA tax incentive is available for alternative fuel that is sold for use or used as a fuel to operate a motor vehicle. A tax credit of $0.50 per gallon is available for the following alternative fuels: natural gas, liquefied hydrogen, propane, P-Series fuel, liquid fuel derived from coal through the Fischer-Tropsch process, and compressed or liquefied gas derived from biomass. 
  • Commercial Building Energy-Efficiency Tax DeductionA tax deduction of up to $1.80 per square foot is available to owners of commercial buildings or systems that save at least 50% of the heating and cooling energy as compared to ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007 (or 90.1-2001 for buildings or systems placed in service before January 1, 2018). The deduction is available for buildings or systems placed in service after December 31, 2017 through December 31, 2020. Partial deductions can also be taken for measures affecting the building envelope, lighting, or heating and cooling systems.
  • Residential Tax Credits for Energy Equipment & Energy Efficiency Improvements: Homeowners can claim a federal tax credit for installing appliances that are designed to boost energy efficiency or making certain improvements to their homes (10% of cost up to $500 or a specific amount from $50-$300).  
  • Tax Credits for Builders of Energy Efficient HomesHome builders are eligible for tax credits for a new energy efficient home that achieves energy savings for heating and cooling over the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and supplements. A required amount of energy savings must come from building envelope improvements. This credit also applies to contractors of manufactured homes conforming to Federal Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards and meeting the energy efficiency requirements. Alternatively, a manufactured home also qualifies for a $1,000 tax credit if it meets ENERGY STAR requirements. 

If you would like additional information regarding the above incentives visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE)email your Clean Cities coordinator, or contact MEC at (816) 531-7283. 

Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL 47301

Electricity is tied to our lives in a way you might not expectand not in the sense of necessity or convenience.  Instead, our daily behavior, waking and sleeping, dictates how utilities generate power.  As we wake up, hit the lights, fire up the microwave or turn up the furnace, demand rises.  Through the day, generation increases to meet our needs.  Demand peaks in late afternoon and starts dropping at 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening as we leave the factory or office and head home.  This cycle changes with the seasons, with our use of air conditioning pushing demand to its annual high in summer.  It also varies from region to region. 

But whatever the season or region, from around 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM, electric utility output is at its lowest.  This nightly low-level output is called baseload generation – the minimum needed for essential systems that run continuously – and it never stops.  Baseload plants, typically coal or nuclearrun near or at capacity nearly all the time.  They’re the biggest power plants since the formula “Bigger = Better makes economic sense for systems in continuous operation.  These plans are extremely efficient.  They also run continuously because baseload plants are ferociously expensive.  KCP&L (now Evergy) completed its 850 MW Iatan coal plant in 2010 at a cost of about $2 billion.  The more continuous hours a plant that big and expensive runs, the sooner it can be paid off.  Nuclear plants are far more expensive, but that’s a story for another article. 

There’s another reason that coal and nuclear dominate baseload generation – time.  As demand for electric power grows through the day, there’s no reason that it can’t be met by increasing output at another coal or nuclear plant.  The question is how many hours or days later that electricity will arrive.  It takes days to bring a nuclear plant from a cold shutdown to full power, and up to eight hours for a coal plant to hit peak output even from a warm start.  On a 100F summer day, as air conditioner use spikes quickly to beat the heat, utilities don’t have hours to spare.  That’s why a second breed of power plants exists – peaking plants, designed to quickly provide electricity above and beyond baseload.   

Peaking plants are a very different animal from their baseload cousins.  They’re generally smaller, and typically operate using natural gas or pumped hydroelectric storage, depending on location.  They only operate for a limited number of days every year – as little as 10% of the time.  They’re also much faster to respond to demand spikes and can start generating power in five to ten minutes.  But speed has a price – they’re also far less efficient than baseload plants. 

As demand risesutilities have to produce more power.  They have three options  producing more from what’s already online, bringing additional plants into service, or buying it from other utilities.  Althree options cost money.  That’s why, as part of an overall movement towards deregulating electricity markets, some utilities now charge different prices for electricity, depending on when it’s needed.  Peaking power at 4:00 PM in August is much more expensive than baseload power at 4:00 AM in January.  On the other hand, if a utility has surplus, they can sell it for far more.  This evolving market is one of the reasons the industry is changing rapidly. 

“There is nothing simple about operating a power grid.” 

Other rapid changes are shifting the baseload baseline.  One key reason is renewable.  Other than the rapid growth in natural gas in the last 30 years, the big story has been wind.  From producing very little at industrial scale as recently as the year 2000, wind energy now produces more power than hydroelectricity.  But wind energy is generated at Nature’s pleasure.  When the wind really blows, the question becomes what to do with all that surplus power.  And when the wind doesn’t blow, what are the best resources to handle the load?  Electricity isn’t water or soybeans or money – it can’t be stored at scale, at least not yet.   

These are the challenges facing the power industry today as it adjusts to advancing energy generation technologies.  Grid integration or smart-grid tech is an emerging technology capable of managing the challenge.  It can handle variable amounts of energy from renewable sources, finding ways to store electricity, and maintaining reliable power suppliesmeeting one of the biggest infrastructure and tech challenges we’ll face this century.  Stay tuned.  We’ll provide more detail on that promising solution, and more, in forthcoming articles. 

                It’s probably an overstatement to call propane America’s most overlooked fuel.  That said, it does kind of fly under the radar.   For many of us, our only interaction with it comes when replacing a cylinder for the barbeque grill.  But beyond the bottle cage at Lowe’s, and once you leave the city, propane is ubiquitous.  In America, if you’re in the country, you’re in propane country.  83% of all households that heat with propane are in rural areas.  In the rural Midwest, it’s close to 90%.  Propane is affordable and easy to purchase and use, thanks to a well-developed supplier network.

Part of oil and gas formations, propane is one of the natural gas liquids (NGLs) along with butane, pentane and a few more.  During oil and gas production, NGLs come hissing to the surface, mixed with natural gas.  They’re then separated during refining and sold as feedstocks for plastics, solvents, and (in the case of propane) for heating and fuel.  They are a small slice of the global oil and natural gas market, about 14% of output.  But as fracking has boomed in the past decade, nearly doubling American propane production, more auto manufacturers and fleet managers are taking another look at propane-powered vehicles.

Propane Power

Like any fuel, propane has its pluses and minuses for transportation.  Propane is less energetic than either gasoline or diesel.  You would have to use 1.38 gallons of propane to match the energy of a gallon of gasoline, and 1.52 gallons to equal a gallon of diesel.  The flip side is that propane is cheap – it typically costs about 30% less than gasoline and 50% less than diesel fuel.  It’s also far cleaner than diesel, producing far less in the way of smog-forming chemicals.  This means that many components of diesel emissions control systems – DPF regeneration, diesel oxidation catalyst, selective catalytic reduction, diesel emissions fluid – are eliminated by switching to propane.  Diesel emission controls work, but they also make for complicated, expensive maintenance.

But in the end, there’s still an impact.   Propane is still a fossil fuel, and still part of the big global machine that produces oil and gas, and also pumps ever-more carbon into the atmosphere.  Or at least it was a fossil fuel, until now.

The Renewable Difference

What’s new?  Renewable propane.  It’s chemically identical to fossil propane, but produces between 60% and 70% less carbon when used.

Renewable propane and diesel have some things in common with biodiesel.  All three can be made from the same renewable feedstocks, like corn oil, soybean oil, tallow and waste grease.  But the methods to produce these fuels are very different.  You can make biodiesel at low temperatures and at small scale, in laboratories or classrooms – there’s even a user’s guide for high school students interested in biodiesel.  But renewable diesel and renewable propane come from refineries, produced by some of the same processes as fossil fuels.  They’re chemically identical to their petroleum versions, and have the same properties.

As a clean-burning, low-carbon fuel produced from renewable feedstocks, there’s a lot to like about renewable propane.  This is especially true in major markets like California.  There, tough clean air standards give cleaner-burning fuel an edge over conventional options, and clean fuel credits can sweeten the financial picture for users.  Today renewable propane only accounts for somewhere between 1% and 2% of all propane output.  But prospects for rapid growth of this lower-carbon and completely renewable energy source seem bright.

At MEC, our job is to keep tabs on energy use in the central Midwest, but why should that matter? Because the ways that people and businesses use energy can affect lives. Technology has yet to come up with a solution that moves people and goods without releasing some sort of air pollution, and air pollution affects human health.  The problem is that every power source that can power a vehicle will create emissions and will have a carbon footprinteven electric vehicles.  There are, however, many alternative fuel options that arefar cleaner than gasoline and diesel.  If you’re looking for a vehicle that produces less emissions, there are a lot of factors to consider when making your decision. 

Let’s compare the different ways that the energy we use affects our health. In 2017 the emissions from vehicles on the road passed up the amount of emissions released from power stations.  That switch has shown up as health problems, such as the increase of child asthma cases for families living near highways and railroads.That’s simply because vehicle emissions get concentrated in the air around the places that people and goods get transported. Transportation emissions are now the #1 source of greenhouse gases too, making it globally important to choose our transportation wisely.  For the sake of our local and global health, we must decide to make transportation cleaner. The question now is how. 

For some, their ideal chosen solution is to walk or bike more places, and to only shop for things in stores within walking distance of their house.  But what if you need transportation?  Remember that COVID shutdowns produced sudden, startling air quality improvements the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.  As residents of Los Angeles and New York saw with their own eyes, less vehicles on the road immediately improved their air quality, even in heavily polluted cities.  But the shutdown of society isn’t a realistic model for fighting climate change in the long run.  Movement of people and goods still must happen.  Are there cleaner solutions than what’s commonly used to move people and goods right now? The simple answer is yes.  For a more complete answer, here are options that make sense for our health, the economy and the environment. 

Electric vehicles (EVs), which plug in to an electrical supply to “fuel up, are creating a lot of buzz right now, and rightly so. All-electric vehicles have zero emissions coming out of their tailpipesso they appear to be the magic bullet for clean air around our roadways.  Plug-in hybrids are also great, in that they make use of electricity as a primary fuel, but are equipped with a fuel tank as a backup for longer trips.  EVs are great as urban or suburban family cars, transit buses, or local delivery trucks that rack up limited daily miles before returning to base to recharge.  Plus, long-range batteries, fast charging stations, and new heavy truck technologies are under rapid development, so the list of compatible uses is getting longer by the day.  

You may not realize that you can help your electrical grid become more efficient with the electricity being generated just by owning an EV and charging it at night.  The electrical grid is set up to estimate how much power is needed, and then generate slightly more than that amount to provide for our electricity needs.  Whatever electricity is generated at power plants either gets used, or it dissipates with non-use.  If you charge an EV overnight, it utilizes that energy that would otherwise be wasted. 

Biofuels are another cleaner transportation option available now.  They come from farm-produced food commodity byproductsthey emit substantially less air pollution when burnedand they’re surprisingly less expensive than the worst emission producers, gasoline and diesel.  Ethanol and biodiesel have been around for a while, and just like your cell phone, their design and our use of them has greatly improved over the last 20 years. 

In the 1990s, car manufacturers started figuring out how to protect the insides of vehicle fuel lines from the extra corrosiveness of ethanol blends, which is basically ethyl alcohol (moonshine!) mixed with gasoline.  By 2012, ethanol had busted into the mainstream, and most vehicle manufacturers now support up to 15% ethanol (E15).  To save money and get a cleaner burn in your vehicle, look for the E15 label on pumps at gas stations.  The added ethanol increases the octane, which is actually better for modern, more fuel-efficient engines.  Plus, the more ethanol mixed into gasoline, the fewer harmful, carcinogenic gases get released into the air around it All of this is why today most gasoline at the pump already has 10% ethanol in it.  You can choose higher blends if your vehicle is rated to use them.  Then it’s a matter of finding a local gas station where that blend is available to support your choice.  When you’re buying a family vehicle and want the option of using high blends of ethanol (E20-E85)ask to look at flex-fuel” options at your dealership Typically, a flex-fuel vehicle will have a yellow gas cap, indicating that you can safely use blends up to 85% ethanol, wherever you should find them. 

Biodiesel is another clean fuel option. It can be used in most diesel-fueled vehicles, and also supports the regional economy as a value-added farm product. It is a renewable fuel made from vegetable oils, primarily soybean and sometimes corn oil, but also from recycled cooking oil and waste fat. No, you can’t just pour the grease from your deep-fried turkey into your pickup. Just like petroleum, it has to be refined first, and biodiesel at the pump has excellent quality controlsMost diesel engines can use blends of biodiesel and petroleum diesel up to 20% (called “B20), which can be found at some area fuel stations. It’s also an easy drop-in fuel option for farming equipment, heavy-duty freight engines, and industrial work trucks. Fortunately for companies with large industrial fleets, fuel distributors are ready today to bring biodiesel or ethanol blends directly to industrial sites. 

Natural gas, or methane, the same fuel that cooks your food and heats your home, can be used in specialized “Near-Zero” engines that are made to burn it Natural gas is a clean burning fuel with much lower emissions than plain petroleum diesel.  It comes in two possible transportation fuel products: compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG).  Both are available in renewable options.  More on that later. Natural gas is widely available through existing pipelines, and fuel costs are lower and more stable than diesel. It’s a great option for heavy vehicles such as freight trucks, transit buses, and refuse trucks. And, because the engines are quieter than diesel engines, that 6 am trash pickup won’t disturb your sleep.  CNG engines eliminate nearly all smog-forming pollutantshence the trade name “Near-Zero” engines While CNG is available to the general public at some area fueling stations and you can convert some cars and trucks to use CNGit usually only makes financial sense for high-mileage vehicles or fuel-hungry service providers to use it.  A number of our regional governments and service providers are already using CNG today. 

Making natural gas more climate-friendly is a priority for many people and government agencies.  The ultimate low-hanging fruit in reducing climate emissions is renewable natural gas (RNG) which involves collecting and then using methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane comes from sources other than just underground and a whopping 39% of natural gas vehicle fuel comes from renewable sources like landfill gas, which comes out of landfills whether it’s used or not.  Other sources of RNG include wastewater treatment plants, food waste and agricultural byproducts Available in both liquid and compressed forms, RNG is rapidly gaining market share because of its ecologically friendly procurement methods Done right, RNG can even have a negative carbon footprint! 

Which fuel heats your grill AND gets your kids to school?  Propane (also called autogas for transportation uses) It’s yet another cleaner burning, low-emission fuel with notably quieter operation than diesel fuel.  That makes for a much quieter ride, which drivers appreciate.  Because of that stealthy qualitypropane is a popular option for fleets of larger vehicles, especially school bus fleets.  Propane on aautogas transportation contract costs much less than diesel, so school districts can save substantially on fuel costs.  Switching to propane also means that students don’t have to breathe diesel exhaust while waiting for their busesPropane is widely available, with distribution networks already in place nationwide.  Like with CNG, you can convert some personal vehicles to run on propaneand though a bit harder to find than gasoline, it is available at some retail fuel stations. Not to be outdone by its gaseous counterpart RNG, renewable propane is an emerging product As icing on the cake, propane engine manufacturers are actively developing their own version of a “near-zero” engine, expected to be available in coming years. 

Though none of these options are ‘perfect’, they each offer substantial benefits compared to conventional fuelslower cost, longer engine life, quieter operationslower emissions, and economic benefits to the farm economy.  Though no single alternative fuel captures all these benefitsthere’s likely an option that’s almost perfect for your needs When more people, businesses and government fleets embrace alternative-fuel options, the owners/operators enjoy lower costs, softer road noise and less air pollution.  And with more investment in alternative fuels, research and development efforts continue to make every available option even better Big picture: petroleum diesel is far and away the worst culprit in making our air harder to breathe.  In order to cut down on the emissions released into the air by our transportation practices, it’s necessary for all of us to recognize and support any and all options. We can’t yet eliminate vehicle emissions, but moving in that direction ifar easier than you might think.  

For more information on alternative fuels and vehicles, check out the Alternative Fuels Data Center.