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Alternative-fuel vehicles a growing niche market

PITTSBURGH – Margie Gilfillan fondly recalls her electric hybrid car.

PITTSBURGH – Margie Gilfillan fondly recalls her electric hybrid car.

"I absolutely loved it," said the associate professor at Point Park University. "The mileage was terrific. Driving it increased my sensitivity to my driving method and how that affects the mileage."

But she gave up the Toyota Prius when the lease lapsed because the vehicle only had front-wheel drive – a challenge when presented with Pittsburgh's winters and terrain.

"I live on a hill. I needed the four-wheel drive. Pittsburgh is terrible with the amount of hills it has," Gilfillan said. "Otherwise, I would have kept it."

Vehicles that run on fuels like electricity, natural gas, ethanol, biodiesel and propane have been growing in popularity, but their market share is still small compared to the standbys of gasoline and diesel. And there are still kinks to work out before alternative fuel vehicles can be adopted more widely – access to fuel, needed infrastructure and greater awareness of the options.

When alternative fuels are used, it's more common to find them in fleet vehicles, said Jeremy Michalek, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of CMU's vehicle electrification group.

"It's an important but very small segment," Michalek said. "It's unlikely that any alternative fuel could completely replace petroleum in the near future."

The more likely scenario: a mix of several alternative fuels while petroleum products continue to fuel vehicles, he said.

Overall, the market is growing.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the number of alternative-fuel vehicles, or AFVs, in use nationally "has been increasing steadily during the past 15 years, largely due to federal policies that encourage and incentivize the manufacture, sale and use of vehicles that use non-petroleum fuels."

There were more than 938,600 alternative fuel vehicles on U.S. roads in 2010, up from 592,100 in 2005, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2010, the lion's share were fueled with E85 ethanol (65 percent), followed by propane (15 percent), compressed natural gas (12 percent) and electric (6 percent).

Governments and private-sector fleets are the primary market for alternative fuels, according to the Energy Department. They consume the largest amount of fuel and generally can travel a set distance and return to home base to refuel – a hub-and-spoke model.

Chuck Wichrowski, owner of Baum Blvd. Automotive in Pittsburgh, saw an opportunity in that growth.

His shop specializes in repairs and maintenance on alternative fuel vehicles, as well as conventional vehicles. It also has a free public charging station for electric vehicles and sells biomass fuel – in this case, a blend of chicken fat and soybean oil for about $5.38 per gallon.

"We have a customer base of university and medical professionals. They were buying cars like the Prius to a greater degree than the rest of the population," said Wichrowski.

Wichrowski also is a board member for Pittsburgh Clean Cities, an initiative launched by the Department of Energy, whose goal is to decrease dependence on petroleum.

"All of these are niche markets," he said. "Alternative fuels won't work for everyone, but for those they do work for, it's been very good. It's less likely that the average driver will use them, but if you have a taxi service or a garbage truck fleet, one alternative may work."

Ultimately, the decision will be about how it hits the bottom line.

"You can say, 'We should limit our dependence on foreign oil and reduce our carbon footprint,' but when you tell someone they can save $1 per gallon, then they're interested," Wichrowski said.

Tiffany Groode, director of automotive scenarios for Colorado-based consulting and research firm IHS Cera, sees a greater diversity of fuel options in the future.

"There are a bunch of solutions that can work together," she said.

Keep in mind, alternative fuels are not competing in a static market. They're also going head-to-head with more efficient conventional vehicles.

"I don't think there's a clear winner or loser," Groode said. "In addition, all of these have to compete with ever-improving gasoline. There's a lot of money being invested into conventional vehicles because there's already been so much investment in them. Consumers are used to them, and infrastructure is already in place. We're talking about 100 years of investment."

Natural gas fuel, in the form of compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas, has been driven by the shale boom.

"For fleets, natural gas works out well because they see about $1 per gallon in savings," Wichrowski said. "Trash haulers are a big user – some are taking methane from landfills and fueling their trucks."

Pittsburgh energy company EQT Corp. operates a public compressed natural gas, or CNG, station in the city. The drilling company has been slowly converting its fleet of both drilling rigs and road vehicles to run on natural gas, said David Ross, vice president for demand development. The company has 150 vehicles that can run on natural gas.

"In addition to us using the station, it's really been a great test case to help people who are interested in trying CNG," said Ross. Basically, it gives fleet owners the option of testing one or two CNG vehicles without the added expense of installing their own station.

When it comes to fuel usage, drilling rigs consume far more fuel than a personal vehicle. A personal vehicle will use about 2,000 gallons a year, while a rig can use that same amount in a single day, Ross noted.

"In terms of the medium- and heavy-duty market, a lot of companies have looked to natural gas for savings, which can compete with diesel prices," Groode said. "The main thing we have found is that it's very user specific whether natural gas is a good choice. It depends on what their profile looks like: the number of trucks, the average number of miles.

"But the reason there's so much interest is natural gas is at a lower cost, and it's believed that it will stay low," Groode said. "The belief is that diesel will stay high."

On the light-duty front, natural gas vehicles cost more than their conventional counterparts, and the payback period is longer. It could be 10 years for a private owner, compared to one to three years for a fleet owner, Groode noted.

Electric vehicles could do well in urban centers where there are shorter distances to travel, Groode said. The market saw a growth spurt after the Chevrolet Volt, a gas-electric hybrid, was released in 2010.

Still, one big question is whether drivers can reliably charge a car at home, Michalek said. Many drivers have at-home chargers, but someone living in a high-density area might find the only free space to park is two blocks away from the front door.

"We've found that less than half of the homes in the U.S. have off-street parking where the driver could have their own charger," Michalek said. "If we wanted to replace petroleum, we'd have a big parking problem we need to solve."

He has a plug-in hybrid, which he said is a good bridge between both worlds. "It's kind of genius because for a lower cost, you can drive on electricity but you don't have to worry about taking longer trips. And I have less need for a massive network of charging infrastructure.

"Also, since we don't know which alternative fuel will be the most competitive in the future, it allows us to keep option open," Michalek said.

Biofuel can be made from a variety of sources, but typically is ethanol derived from corn. Much is being mixed with gasoline or diesel to create E85 or E10, which refers to the percentage of ethanol. Most U.S. vehicles can run on a blend of 10 percent ethanol.

But biofuels currently don't have the cost savings that electricity and natural gas offer, Michalek said. "If something really changed the economics, it could replace petroleum quickly," he said.

There's concern over displacing food crops to grow fuel crops.

"There are other ways to grow the crops, like using switchgrass that can be grown on marginal lands," Michalek said. "That could potentially get the feedstock you need with less displacement of food and with less need for fertilizer."


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