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The Future of Alternative Fuels
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Dirksen Senate Office Building

Over the past two decades, the United States has invested heavily in research and development into fuel sources and technologies that could potentially reduce our reliance on petroleum-based transportation fuels. Bio-based fuels, hydrogen, and electricity represent the most prominent transportation fuel alternatives. Each of these sources faces technological and/or economic challenges of varying degrees if they are to become competitive with gasoline.

This briefing, one of a series on America's energy future, explores the policy issues surrounding the development and growth of the market for alternative transportation fuels.

Video of the briefing and commentary follows below.

Video of the Briefing
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Edward F. Hand - Introduction
Acting President,
Resources for the Future



Link to Video 


Ted Hand is acting president of Resources for the Future. Since 1980, he has been RFF's vice president for finance and administration, responsible for all financial and administrative operations, including investment management, budgeting, accounting, contracting, human resources, and information systems. He was formerly assistant comptroller of the Naval Intelligence Support Center in Washington. In June 2005, the RFF Board of Directors appointed Mr. Hand to serve as interim president of the institution until a permanent president is named to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Paul Portney. Mr. Hand is a graduate of Brown University and received his masters in business administration from George Washington University.






Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND)
Congressional Host


Link to Video



Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) was reelected to a third term in the U.S. Senate in November 2004. Prior to this, he served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was named Chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee in 1998, a position he continues to hold today. Dorgan was Assistant Floor Leader from 1996 to 1998. Throughout his career in both the House and Senate, Dorgan has fought for the interests of rural America, for sensible spending reductions and responsible government, and to protect the environment.

He received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of North Dakota in 1965 and went on to earn his Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Denver. He later worked for a Denver-based aerospace firm. His public service career began at age 26, as the youngest constitutional officer in North Dakota's history when he was appointed State Tax Commissioner. He was later elected to that office in both 1972 and 1976, and was chosen one of "Ten Outstanding State Officials" in the United States by Washington Monthly magazine.







Daniel Sperling
Director, Institute of Transportation Studies,
University of California, Davis

Daniel Sperling is Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy and founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He also co-directs UC/Davis's Hydrogen Pathways Program and New Mobility Center.


Link to Video

Presentation Slides 
(Printer-friendly PDF format) 



Dr. Sperling is recognized as a leading international expert on transportation technology assessment, energy and environmental aspects of transportation, and transportation policy. He is associate editor of Transportation Research D (Environment) and a current or recent editorial board member of four other scholarly journals.

He was selected a lifetime National Associate of The National Academia in 2004, is founding chair and emeritus member of the Alternative Transportation Fuels Committee of the United States Transportation Research Board, and serves on many advisory committees and boards of directors for environmentally oriented organizations. He consults for international automotive and energy companies, major environmental groups, and several national governments.






Carolyn Fischer
Fellow, Resources for the Future

Carolyn Fischer is a Fellow at Resources for the Future, where her research focuses on policy mechanisms and modeling tools that cut across environmental issues, including policy design, technological change, international trade and environmental policies, and resource economics. Her work in climate change and energy policy has explored designs for emissions training programs, particularly allocation schemes, and she has conducted research on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, renewable portfolio standards, and energy efficiency. 


Link to Video

Presentation Slides 
(Printer-friendly PDF format) 



Fischer also has taught at Johns Hopkins University and was a staff economist for the Council of Economic Advisers. She received her B.A. in international relations and economics at the University of Pennsylvania and her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Michigan.





Question & Answer Session


Link to Video





Briefing Summary

More Bad News than Good When It Comes to Alternative Transportation Fuels

The U.S. economy is rapidly becoming "re-carbonized," said noted transportation analyst Dan Sperling, who spoke at the June 20 Energy 2050 seminar on the future of alternative fuels. Reserves of conventional oil--cheap to extract and found primarily in the Middle East--are dwindling. In response, politicians and oil companies are looking for more sources of "unconventional" oil, which has large environmental and economic costs and produces high amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs).


Facts and Statistics on Alternative Fuels



"The era of easy oil is over," said Sperling, quoting Chevron CEO David Reilly from a recent company advertising campaign. With two-thirds of U.S. oil imports being used for transportation, record-high gas prices, and ongoing, deep concern over our dependence on foreign oil, the big oil companies are starting to shift course and explore alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels.


But sustaining real change will be difficult, said Sperling, who is the founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. The trends are all going in the wrong direction: cars keep getting bigger and heavier, average fuel economy levels are falling, and the number of cars per licensed driver is growing.


"We have to break our hopeless addiction to oil," said Sen. Brian Dorgan, D-ND, who opened the seminar. Doing so will require setting goals, targets, and timetables, he said. Unlike Social Security, where the projections keep shifting, he said, "this is a real crisis."


The Senate Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus co-sponsored the event with RFF, GLOBE USA (Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment USA), and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.


Technically possible but politically unlikely


So what can be done right now to reduce energy use and GHG emissions? There are options, Sperling said, but they are highly unpopular with voters and politicians. Reducing vehicle travel to any substantial degree will be impossible, he said; the percentage of the population that uses public transportation is less than 2 percent. Improving conventional automotive technology holds great promise but gains to date have not gone toward fuel economy, he said. Instead cars now have a lot more horsepower and are a lot faster. Expanding the use of alternative fuels holds the most promise but only in the long run. Billions of federal dollars have been spent on research over the past 20 years but with no substantial return to show for it.


Alternative fuels have so far failed in the United States, Sperling said, for two reasons. Public support dissipated when studies showed that the public benefits were oversold: the air quality benefits tended to be small and the environmental costs (in the case of synfuels) were large. Market interest evaporated: battery-powered electric vehicles were too expensive for automakers and customers, and natural gas-fueled vehicles would require new fuel distribution systems for consumers (although Honda has begun taking steps in this area).


Conversely, hydrogen fuel cells could work, Sperling said, although widespread market acceptance is years away. They could virtually eliminate greenhouse gases, air pollutants, and oil use from the transport sector and possibly others. Hydrogen can be made from a range of sources, including water, biomass, and coal. And the automotive industry believes that fuel cells are the Holy Grail, unlike their attitude toward all previous alternative fuels, he said.


In the meanwhile


RFF Fellow Carolyn Fischer turned the discussion toward policy alternatives for addressing the problems of oil security and climate change. By 2025, vehicle miles traveled are expected to double, she said. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles could represent 10 percent of the market by then, if technology and fuel distribution issues are resolved.


"But a fast transition to hydrogen will be challenging and costly," she said. "Should we wait longer or push forward?"


Equivalent, intermediate actions could go a long way toward meeting that same basic goal of lowering the amount of GHGs produced, she said. These include requiring a 10-percent improvement in conventional fuel economy, a 10-percent increase in the use of biofuels, a 10-percent displacement in the number of private vehicles by public transit, a 35-percent market penetration of hybrid vehicles, or a modest mix of the above.


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