Alternative energy vehicles are increasing in popularity as stereotypes are debunked. Today's alternative energy vehicles can go as fast and as far (if not farther) than gas-powered vehicles. In addition, the cost for an alternative energy vehicle is declining as technologies advance. If you're considering a new vehicle purchase, you may be wondering how efficient are alternative energy vehicles?
Biodiesel Biodiesel is an animal or vegetable fat based diesel fuel. “Biodiesel is typically made by chemically reacting lipids (e.g. vegetable oil, or animal fat (tallow)) with an alcohol producing fatty acid esters” (Wikipedia). Translated for those of us who aren't chemists, what happens is this: glycerin is separated from the plant or animal fat, leaving 2 products - methyl esters and glycerin. Methyl esters is the chemical name for biodiesel and glycerin is used in a number of ways, including soaps and lotions.
Biodiesel is made from renewable resources of plant or animal fats. It has lower emissions compared to traditional diesel. “It is less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as fast as sugar.” For more about how biodiesel is made and the environmental benefits, visit Biodiesel.org.
The U.S. Department of Energy states that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions (B20 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 15%). Biodiesel is biodegradable, non-toxic and safer to handle. B100 does show up to a 10% decrease in economy and power and is not suitable for use in low temperatures. Additionally, there may be a slight increase in nitrogen oxide emissions.
Electricity All-electric vehicles run on electricity alone. Electricity is cheaper than gasoline or diesel fuel. But how efficient are electric vehicles? Electric vehicles convert 59 – 62% of electrical energy to power at the wheels. Internal combustion engines only convert 17-21% of energy to power at the wheels. EVs also emit no pollutants through the tailpipe. Power plants that produce the electricity used may release pollutants; although nuclear, air, wind and solar power production releases no pollutants. The motors in electric cars show stronger acceleration than ICEs and require less maintenance.
The concern with electric cars, and all alternative energy vehicles, is that technology is trading one set of problems (vehicle emissions and foreign oil dependence) for another set of problems (environmental damage from sourcing the materials, production pollutants, and long-term risks).
Ethanol Ethanol as a fuel has some challenges. Although it would help reduce dependence on foreign oil, it is not an efficient fuel. E85, for example, which contains 51-85% ethanol, produces around 27% less energy per gallon than gasoline. Ethanol is a high-octane fuel, though, so produces increased power and performance.
The most popular concerns with ethanol are whether A) Ethanol is using materials that would otherwise have been used for food, and thus contributing to world hunger and B) The environmental costs of producing ethanol outweigh any benefits.
Although it may be that none of the alternative energy vehicles are perfect in their efficiency, their environmental impact or the cost to purchase, maintain and operate. It seems that using public transportation, walking or biking are the best ways to stay green, avoid car accidents and save money.
Three Mile Island (1979), Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), and Exxon Valdez (1989) are just a few of the many devastating environmental disasters that have afflicted our planet in just the last 35 years. Though they’re responsible for countless human and animal deaths, diseases, and birth deformities, not to mention the destruction they cause our environment, these disasters also afford us an opportunity.
They offer us a chance to figure out what we can do to prevent similar disasters in the future. Each crisis also teaches us what we can do to minimize the damaging effects once we are inevitably confronted with the next environmental disaster. Here, we take a look at two events, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the molasses spill in Hawaii. Both disasters occurred in U.S. waters and both resulted in a huge loss to their respective natural environments.
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
On April 20, 2010 at approximately 9:45 p.m., CDT, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank off the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven crew members died in what would end up being called the worst natural disaster ever in the petroleum industry. Over the course of 87 days, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean until the gusher was finally capped on July 15, 2010, (though many speculate that the well still leaks). The oil spill was so massive that even into 2013 tar balls were washing up along the coastline. In fact, in June 2013, a tar mat (oil residue and wet sand) measuring 165 feet long and 65 feet wide was discovered on a Louisiana beach. Human and wildlife health issues continue to plague the United States southern coastal regions even today.
Lessons are still being learned from this tragedy, but the Oil Spill Commission that was put together by President Obama to determine what went wrong and what can be done to avoid a similar disaster in the future made some recommendations based on their findings. Included in their list of recommendations is the requirement that congress “significantly increase the liability cap and financial responsibility requirements for offshore facilities.” The committee also recommended that, just like other industries that are regulated, the offshore energy industry should be required to foot the bill associated with its oversight.
On the scientific front, the lessons learned from the spill highlight the collaboration between academia, local and federal government, and industry engineers and scientists. Marcia McNutt, PhD, and director of the USGS wrote in her findings that “A significant drawback in addressing many issues we confronted in Deepwater Horizon was the lack of peer-reviewed scientific publications from prior marine-well blowouts to help guide our actions; we will not make that mistake again by neglecting to publish for posterity the scientific lessons from this tragedy.”
Hawaii Molasses Spill
On September 9, 2013, a cargo ship’s pipeline leaked 233,000 gallons of molasses into the harbor waters off the Honolulu coast. The result was the almost immediate suffocation death of over 25,000 fish, and counting. The shipping company responsible for the disaster, a company called Matson, has declared that they will pay for everything related to the cleanup, but that will prove to be a very difficult task.
Molasses, unlike oil, floats to the bottom of water because it’s heavier. So, skimmers cannot be used to expedite the recovery of the molasses. The molasses will eventually wash away, but in the meantime, since it’s absorbing all of the oxygen, the animals that live in the harbor who need the oxygen to survive, can’t get it and are suffocating as a result. It’s not like the fish can call up a personal injury attorney in Honolulu. They need us to step up on their behalf and act, and that’s exactly what happened.
Prior to this incident, molasses wasn’t considered to be a dangerous substance, and no spill response plan was required. But, because of the high numbers of dead fish and the egregious environmental impact the molasses spill has had on the local environment, the government’s opinion has changed. In an almost immediate action, the Hawaii Department of Transportation began requiring all companies doing business in Hawaii’s ports to prepare and present spill response plans in an effort to reduce the environmental impact should anything like this happen again.
In both the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the molasses spill in Hawaii, lessons were learned that will hopefully help prevent future similar environmental disasters. Since not every disaster can be predicted, though, it’s good to know that part of the takeaway from these events includes measures that can be taken to act jointly and swiftly in order to minimize the impact of a disaster when it does strike.