Saving oil without the hydrogen hype

While many focus on grandiose dreams of all-electric vehicles and hydrogen, a new IEA report shows the staggering potential for improvements to petroleum-fuelled cars. And car manufacturers are starting to deliver thanks to credible, long-term policy commitments.

Sometimes it can very easy to get dazzled by the technological wizardry of breakthrough technologies such that you forget some of the more mundane, but also more immediately implementable, ways we might reduce carbon emissions. Also there are a number of talented PR people out there that can be incredibly adept at the old, ‘look over there at the wonderful breakthrough technology we need for deep emission cuts in 2050’ trick to divert our attention from the here and now.

Does anyone remember the hype around the Hydrogen Economy? 

Back in the early 2000s there was an incredible enthusiasm about how hydrogen was going to solve all our problems. It would power our cars with the only tailpipe emissions being water – how cool! Meanwhile, small fuel cell power stations would be distributed around where we lived and worked to produce power locally, cutting down the need for additional grid infrastructure. In addition the waste heat from power generation could be employed in homes and businesses for heating water and buildings.

It all seemed so wonderful. But for some strange reason it was being heavily pushed by coal and oil companies as well as Bob Lutz from General Motors (a noted doubter of global warming and champion of Americans’ right to own an SUV). Apparently gas and coal had a lot of hydrogen atoms in them that could be used to produce this hydrogen. And Bob Lutz felt that there was no need to regulate car fuel economy and emissions right now because it could all be solved just by focussing research into hydrogen-fuelled cars.

Just a few minor issues this vision. What happened to all that carbon in the coal and gas supplying the hydrogen? And didn’t we need to decarbonise electricity supply more generally, before we could cleanly produce hydrogen from water via electrolysis? While we might save something with electricity network infrastructure, what about all that new infrastructure we need to store and pipe hydrogen around the place? And couldn’t we make some pretty big improvements to car fuel economy right now without this elaborate and complicated hydrogen economy stuff?

Sometimes it pays to focus on the incremental improvements available now, and not get too carried away with grandiose dreams.

Last week the International Energy Agency released a Technology Roadmap for the Fuel Economy of Road Vehicles, which studiously steered clear of all-electric vehicles and hydrogen, instead focusing on what’s possible with petroleum still fuelling our motor vehicles.  It helps to illustrate just how far we could go through combining lots of incremental improvements. 

According to the report, technologies for improving the fuel economy of motor vehicles that are already commercially available and close to cost-effective could improve the fuel economy of vehicles by 30 to 50 per cent by 2030. 

The picture below illustrates why this is possible, outlining how a lot of the energy we pour into motor vehicles is dissipated.

Source: IEA (2012)

The table below shows that while each chip away from these energy losses in itself only delivers minor improvements, when combined they cumulatively add up to a 50 per cent gain before we even start to talk about employing hybrid-electric technology. 

Source: IEA (2012)

Of course some of these changes carry some big price tags, in particular the strong weight reduction. But I have been amazed by what manufacturers are managing to achieve relative to 2003 and 2004 when I was working on fuel economy issues in the government. 

Automatic stop start technology, turbo-charging, and the use of direct fuel injection have now filtered down into relatively run-of-the mill cars. These are delivering quite noticeable gains in fuel economy without sacrificing performance. 

A few months ago I hired a base model Volkswagen Golf while on holiday in Tasmania and was taken by how well it accelerated, allowing effortless overtaking in quite hilly terrain. I was then blown away to find it was powered by an engine with a tiny 1.2 litre capacity that back in 2004 was considered only suitable for tinny and tiny urban runabouts, best confined to congested city streets. 

With European, US, Japanese and even Chinese governments providing clear and credible signals about their intent to regulate for better fuel-economy and lower emissions, vehicle manufacturers have got seriously cracking on innovations to squeeze more out of a litre of petrol and diesel.

Pity about Australia, whose passenger motor vehicles have the worst fuel economy across the world, according to this recent IEA publication.

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