With the price of gasoline rising again, President Obama’s announcement of $44 million in competitive grants for new alternative fuel technologies for vehicles is well timed. The new round of grants, funded through the Department of Energy, focuses on onboard storage solutions for compressed natural gas, and on developing renewable biofuels from algae. The new technologies have a long way to go before they hit mainstream commercial viability, but when they do fleet owners will be among the consumers that stand to benefit from new choices in the fuel marketplace.
Breakthrough new technologies for natural gas
The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) is DOE’s funding arm for the new grants aimed at natural gas. About $30 million will go to a research competition to develop lightweight tanks and other technologies that would enable passenger vehicles to run on natural gas. Of particular interest is a call for projects that would enable consumers to refill their tanks from a home gas line. Though the research is aimed primarily at providing individual households with alternative fuel options, small businesses could also stand to benefit.
Breaking the petroleum monopoly with algae
The Department of Energy estimates that about 17 percent of the nation’s imported oil for transportation could be replaced by home-grown algae biofuel, and DOE already has more than 30 algae biofuel projects in the pipeline. The new announcement specifies an additional $14 million in funding for research leading to commercial scale algae biorefineries, with another $16 million forthcoming later this year.
While the addition of algae biofuel and other alternatives to petroleum won’t necessarily cause prices to drop over the long run, the availability of another domestic energy source may help even out the price spikes caused by global supply and demand trends, providing fleet owners with more reliability and predictability.
More options for fleet owners
In addition to natural gas and new biofuels, the adoption of fuel cells and electric vehicle technology is also providing fleet owners with new opportunities to manage their fuel budgets. One example is a new study from MIT which demonstrates that the payback period for delivery-type electric vehicles can be much shorter than previously thought. That’s especially true when you take into account the potential for engaging in vehicle-to-grid agreements that enables fleet owners to lend their EV battery storage capacity to local utilities.
Sustainable fuels for the future
Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, it is worth noting that both natural gas and algae are not impact-free. That is especially true of natural gas, where fracking (drilling into shale using a chemical brine) is causing a great deal of concern. On the other hand, there is at least some potential to harvest sustainable natural gas from landfills and other man-made sources.
As for algae farming, algae requires copious amounts of water to grow efficiently, and with that in mind ARPA-E is focusing on projects that reduce the need for water and added nutrients.
Real-time solutions for greater fleet efficiency
For the here and now, Department of Energy’s Clean Cities initiative offers currently available strategies for fleet owners to reduce emissions and save fuel. Fleet owners are also benefitting from a raft of new studies on fleet efficiency, some of which demonstrate that relatively simple strategies like route adjustments and driver training can lead to a substantial reduction in fuel use. Fleet owners that keep those basics in mind when transitioning to new technologies will stand to get the most benefit out of their investment.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.