How to Choose Your “Fuel of the Future”

Department of Defense collaborates on Future of FuelThe vehicle fleet managers of today are dealing with a far more complicated fueling landscape than ever before, and that can throw an enormous roadblock in the way of companies seeking to improve the sustainability of their operations. The new options include shale gas, biogas, biofuels from a variety of sources, landfill gas, fuel cells and electricity, each of which solves one set of problems but may lead to the creation of other risks.

To help provide reliable information and consistent guidance, global consulting group BSR has launched the Future of Fuels initiative in collaboration with some of the world’s corporate fleet operators and sustainability leaders. However, fleet managers looking for a simple yes or no may find the initiative’s conclusions to be just as complicated as the fuel market.

Collaborating on the Future of Fuels

The initial partners on Future of Fuels include Coca-Cola, Nike, Suncor (noting its involvement in Canadian tar sands), UPS and Walmart.

The owner of the largest single fleet of vehicles in the world, namely the U.S. Department of Defense, is also weighing in.

DoD’s involvement could become a key element in the ability of Future of Fuels to address all available options because of its involvement in a wide range of new fuel sources and strategies.

One area of DoD focus has been biofuels from nonfood sources including algae, used cooking oil and camelina (a weedy, drought-tolerant oilseed plant).

DoD has also begun field-testing a mini-fleet of vehicles powered by fuel cells in partnership with GM, and it is exploring the interplay between electric batteries and microgrids, which potentially could be powered by solar, wind and other renewable sources.

Making smarter decisions on energy

BSR notes that despite the emergence of alternative fuels, Future of Fuels starts with a research platform that strongly indicates the continued dominance of fossil fuels. Given that context, Future of Fuels takes an all-of-the-above approach to fuel choices that shares the basic thrust behind President Obama’s energy policy.

Given the environmental and public health risks posed by unconventional fossil fuels such as shale gas and tar sands, this approach is not an optimal one for the long term. However, it could prove helpful as a framework for making decisions in the more immediate future.

To that end, BSR anticipates that Future of Fuels will draw on academic and other partners to produce research briefs that lay out the current state of information on the impact of various transportation fuels, and to outline the different options available to companies.

Perhaps most importantly, BSR expects the Future of Fuels research to help guide companies into forming partnerships with other sectors to improve their fleet sustainability, including fuel producers, vehicle manufacturers and customers.

Working together toward fuel sustainability

As described by BSR Senior Vice President Eric Olson, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome is rooted in the competitive nature of commerce and the oppositional aims of civic advocacy:

“To date, one of the biggest challenges has simply been getting these groups to talk to each other. Many work in isolation, leading to discourse that is often dominated by proponents of specific solutions who have one-sided views.”

To bring these diverse interests together in partnership, Olson proposes a framework that encompasses price, economic development, national revenue, and energy security as well as the “uncertain future of international policy development.”

That would seem to complicate the decision making process rather than making things easier on fleet managers, but perhaps that is the ultimate lesson to be learned.

Fleet managers who once had the relatively simple job of finding the right supplier with the right price, are now called upon to make decisions that have impacts far beyond the bottom line of their company.

Image: Some rights reserved by The U.S. Army.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.



Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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