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Detroit Free Press: SAE panel: Many hurdles to alternative fuels

Joe Guy Collier, Detroit Free Press – Michigan
Published: Apr 18, 2007

A strong movement is forming to help wean U.S. consumers off gasoline, but key challenges must be overcome for alternatives to work, a panel of experts said Wednesday at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in downtown Detroit.

Powerful forces are lining up to drive change, said Margo Oge, director of the office of transportation and air quality for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Congress has made addressing climate change a top priority. President George W. Bush has set goals to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

The scientific community also has reached a consensus that human activity, the release of carbon-dioxide emissions, is causing global warming and could have catastrophic effects.

To address these issues, the auto industry should take a systems approach — focusing on both improving the engine and developing alternative fuels, said Oge. The combination of better engines and fuels will provide the solution, she said.

“I believe that this challenge is a great opportunity to innovate clean efficient technologies and export innovation to the rest of the world,” Oge said.

Oge pointed out that some in the industry resisted change in the 1970s over air pollution regulations, but the industry responded by meeting and even exceeding goals earlier than expected.

“In many, the first reaction was ‘The sky is falling. We cannot do it,’ ” she said. “Well, you know what, the sky did not fall.”

But switching to new fuels and technologies will not be an easy transition, said Darran Messem, vice president of fuel development for Shell International Petroleum Co. Convenience and price remain the top two factors for consumers in deciding what fuel they purchase for their vehicles, Messem said.

Gas and diesel, both based on petroleum, are the most convenient and affordable options, he said. Ethanol, for example, costs more and is less efficient.

“So the economics of alternative fuels and renewable fuels are going to be quite challenging,” Messem said.

Progress, though, is being made in alternative fuels such as ethanol, said Samantha Slater, director of congressional and regulatory affairs for the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group.

U.S. ethanol production hit 4.85 billion gallons in 2006, a 24% increase from 2005.

Production is expected to continue to increase with more plants being built and advances being made in ethanol production, Slater said. The industry is making rapid progress in widening the types of material that can be used to make ethanol, which could make it a more viable option, she said.

Contact JOE GUY COLLIER at [email protected] or 313-222-6512.

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