Which fuel for energy sustainability to make our vehicles more economical?

Which fuel for energy sustainability to make our vehicles more economical?

All modern, industrial economies are dependent upon fossil energy. Fossil energy is non-renewable, at least within any reasonable human time-frame. If we continue to rely on non-renewable energy to fuel our economy, we eventually will run out.

Experts may disagree about how long different types of fossil energy will last, however, no one disputes the fact that we eventually will have to find alternative energy sources or we will have no economy, no society, and thus, no civilized human life on earth. Our major disagreements arise from questions concerning what, if anything, we ought to do about running out of fossil energy.

The high gas prices of last summer brought the issue of energy sustainability to the attention of many drivers. Will there be gasoline shortages? Will we be able to afford the fuel so we can drive? What happens when there is no more oil? These questions still need to be answered.

Currently, the price of gasoline is lower. The economic slowdown in North America, combined with the previous high prices, have caused people to drive less, buy smaller vehicles and change their driving habits for a more economical style. With less demand for gasoline, the price has dropped, but when the economy rebounds you can be sure the prices will climb again too.

Other parts of the world also have increased need for gasoline. The huge populations of China and India are now becoming more affluent and looking for personal transportation and the fuel to drive it. So what will it take to provide energy sustainability?


  • Environmental pollution challenges, acidification and global warming
  • Pressures to de-centralize power generation
  • Energy security issues
  • Increasing vehicle numbers and energy consumption
  • Limitation and concentration of fossil fuel reserves
  • Long term sustainability of energy supply
  • Energy storage and conversion for renewables
  • Increasing marginal costs and limits for further optimization of conventional technologies
  • Oil is a non-renewable resource, and we cannot sustain our current rate of use indefinitely. Using it wisely now allows us time to find alternative technologies and fuels that will be more sustainable.
  • Patterns of global energy supply and evaluation; fossil fuel energy vs. sustainable energy; current energy reserves; resource assessment; environmental impacts
  • Continued efforts to maximize renewable energy use, both to replace existing fossil fuel generation, and to offset oil use in daily operations.
  • Major efforts by all energy users to reduce demand through adoption of a variety of demand-side management programs and energy efficiency measures

Most conventional economists, meaning neoclassical economists, argue that we should do nothing, that we should allow energy from various sources to be rationed by rising markets prices as they become increasingly scarce. As prices rise for energy from one source, exploration and development of alternative energy sources also will become more economically attractive. Long before any given energy source is exhausted, alternative sources will not only be discovered but will become economically feasible. Thus, if we simply trust the market economy, they say, we will never run out of energy.

The smart economy is a green economy. Unsustainable economics brought the world markets to our current position. Following a sustainable path will bring us out. It will mean a resilient economy avoiding ‘boom and bust’ growth. A key feature of this approach is building the innovation or ‘ideas’ component of the economy through the utilisation of human capital - the knowledge, skills and creativity of people - and its ability and effectiveness in translating ideas into valuable processes, products and services. A second important aspect is the greening of the economy and the development of green enterprise.

The short-term and immediate solution is to make our vehicles more economical. The United States’ Corporate Average Fuel Economy rating, or CAFE, is currently 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.2 mpg for trucks under 8,500 GVWR (US mpg, about 8.7 and 10.6 L/100 km respectively). Proposed regulations will increase this to an industry average of 35 mpgUS, or 6.7 L/100 km. To do this, smaller and lighter vehicles will be one of the keys.

It is generally known that lighter vehicles get better fuel economy. For example, a 10 per cent reduction in weight will provide about 4 per cent improvement in fuel economy. If vehicle size is also reduced along with the weight, and a smaller engine used, the economy can improve up to 8 per cent with no change in vehicle performance. However, in the past 10 years, the average weight of vehicles in North America has increased 10 to 20 per cent. Some of this additional weight is because of more safety and convenience features, but most of it is simply due to larger vehicle size. Park a new pickup truck beside one ten years old, and the size difference is remarkable. Small and light is good when it comes to fuel economy.

Another way we can improve fuel economy is to go back to the performance levels of 1987. If we look at the horsepower increases and performance levels since that time, acceleration times for cars from zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) have dropped from 15 seconds down to 9 seconds, with average fuel economy improving slightly. Trucks are similar, with zero-to-60 times going from 15 seconds down to 10 seconds on average, but with fuel economy staying the same. Several technologies have enabled this, such as direct fuel injection, variable cam timing, variable induction systems and reduced internal engine friction. Performance is great, but if we used all those improvements for fuel economy instead of power, passenger cars that now average 29 mpgUS would now be getting 38 mpg, and trucks would jump from 21 mpgUS to about 30 mpg.

The internal combustion engine will still power the majority of vehicles on the road, so improving fuel economy significantly will help extend our energy reserves, but for true energy sustainability, we need to be using a renewable energy source. Electric vehicles sound good, but only if the electricity is generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro (water) power. In Canada, our electrical generating capability is much cleaner than the U.S., but there are still coal-fired and natural gas-fuelled generating plants, so that is not the answer to energy sustainability.

Hydrogen fuel would be the ultimate solution. Pollution-free hydrogen can be used for fuel in conventional internal combustion engines or as fuel for electric fuel cells. The problem is producing it efficiently, storing it, and transporting it to where vehicles need it. Using electrolysis to produce hydrogen has little benefit, as the energy comes from traditional power generating stations. If hydrogen is separated from methane gas, less energy is wasted, but there are still storage and transportation issues.

Ethanol and biodiesel may be the most practical solution. There has been much controversy about the total cost in emissions and energy usage it takes to produce these fuels, as well as the impact of diverting food for fuel stock. Some say it is not practical or economical, but new cellulosic methods of producing ethanol from non-food plant material look promising, although they are complex. New microbial bio-diesel research may make this the renewable fuel we are looking for.

Energy sustainability is the long-term goal, but on the road to achieving it, there is much that can be done to extend the resources we have now.


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