Americans are still searching for the perfect alternate fuel for
their vehicles that will save them tons of money, make the country
energy independent and help the environment.
There are plenty of choices and plenty of advocates for each. I am fond of the compressed natural gas route - at least as a bridge to something better. It's efficient, clean and we have lots of it in Oklahoma, which translates to jobs.
The three main contenders are gasoline or a gasoline blend, CNG and electricity. We can throw hydrogen into the mix but I haven't heard a lot about it lately.
We all know the benefits and hazards of gasoline and blends. My main complaint with biofuel is it relies on corn as an additive. I simply have a moral issue with running my car on food, although I do so. I know other additives such as switch grass have been explored, but those avenues are up against a heavy-duty lobby and the fact that Iowa (where the corn is) plays, for some reason, a pivotal role in selecting presidents due to its early caucuses.
For the immediate moment (Americans have a notoriously short attention span) the darling is electric vehicles.
Owners of electric hybrids exclaim that they can go weeks without stopping at the pump. Of course, owners of all-electric cars don't have to stop at all (at the pump).
I admire their dedication to wanting and purchasing an environmentally clean vehicle. I'm concerned about the environment also, hence my fondness for CNG.
But, do proponents of electric cars know where electricity comes from? It comes from generating plants, many of which are powered by coal. Some are fueled by natural gas and a few others by nuclear reaction. Gas and nuclear are much cleaner than coal (despite what the coal lobby says), but building either is expensive and a nuclear plant has little, if any, chance of being built. The cost is prohibitive and the public resistance is well-documented.
Further, let's pretend that 70 percent of the country suddenly bought electric vehicles and that 70 percent went home in the evening and plugged them in.
The U.S. power grid is old. It is safe and dependable, for now. But some experts believe that the U.S. is headed for rolling blackouts if the system is not upgraded soon - and that's without millions of electric cars being plugged in at the same time.
Critics of electric cars point out the fact that many are good for trips around town, but long trips are difficult. The batteries generally provide about four miles of driving for each usable kilowatt-hour of energy stored. It can take as much as eight hours to recharge the batteries and holding the charge varies by vehicle and by how it's driven. Plugging a car into a standard 120-volt American outlet would take a while for a recharge.
Of course, there are expensive home charging-stations or the hookup could be run through the high-powered connections that run home air conditioners. Apartment dwellers, however, are pretty much out of luck.
Then there is the environmental problem of disposing of the old batteries.
Also, how much does an electric car owner's electric bill go up? So far, it would still be cheaper than gasoline. The national average cost of a kilowatt hour is 11.53 cents. Costs vary by region and even state. Public Service Co. of Oklahoma charges 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour.
If the trend continues toward all-electric vehicles or even hybrids, it will eventually start to affect the fuel tax. Before you start to say "yippee," remember this: State and federal fuel taxes are what builds most of the roads, highways and bridges in this country.
In Oklahoma, where taxes of any kind are frowned upon, the tax for gasoline is 16 cents per gallon. It is 13 cents per gallon for diesel. Added to the federal fuel tax, the total is 35.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 38.4 cents per gallon for diesel.
Congress recently passed a federal transportation bill that will help Oklahoma and 49 other states build and maintain roads and bridges. Just last week, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation announced that it plans to rebuild or repair hundreds of bridges in the state. That money comes from the state and federal fuel taxes.
Oklahoma initiated its fuel tax in 1933, but it has not been increased since 1990. Still, about $250 million - nearly two- thirds of the revenue - was appropriated to ODOT and about $130 million - one third - went to local governments for roads and bridges.
So, if we continue down the road to electric cars, someone's going to have to figure a way to tax the electricity used for recharging. And, as long as electricity remains much cheaper than fossil fuels, it's going to have to be a hefty tax. If not, those electric cars are going to have a difficult time dodging the potholes and crossing a bridge will be even more of a risk than it is today.
The quest for an alternate fuel is a worthy goal. It is a matter of economics and national security.
I'm not sold on the electric-car route. But at least someone is trying.
The answer, of course, is the same as it was in my 1950s magazines - flying cars. We were supposed to have them by now. With flying cars, we wouldn't need roads. Or bridges. The folks at the magazines had it figured that everyone would have their own flying car by the 21st century.
Think of the billions of dollars to be saved. "A flying car in every garage." Let's see one of the political parties put that in their platform.
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