With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly hard to ignore, more and more environmentally conscious consumers shift to alternative fuel vehicles.
According to a 2012 survey by French multinational corporation Capgemini, only 15% of respondents worldwide said they would purchase an alternative fuel vehicle. Demand for ecologically sensitive cars has risen since then, with over 74,000 hybrid vehicles registered in Spain and almost 22,000 alternatively fueled cars sold in Switzerland in 2018.
Whether you want to save the environment or save on gas money, an alternative fuel vehicle may seem like the right choice. However, it’s important to remember that, just like other products, alternative fuel vehicles have several different types, many of which may not appeal to the kind of driver that you are.
What is alternative fuel?
Alternative fuel is any fuel derived from a source other than petroleum. According to the US Department of Energy, most alternative fuels in the US are produced domestically and from renewable sources, meaning that the US is less dependent on other countries for oil. Countries worldwide view alternative fuels as a better option than diesel or gasoline in terms of air pollution.
Air pollution is a global problem, and the choice of fuel plays a significant part in it. Researchers from the International Council on Clean Transportation and two US universities found that around 385,000 people worldwide died prematurely in 2015 because of air pollution from vehicle exhaust emissions, and diesel vehicles caused 47% of the deaths.
Alternative fuels like ethanol, biodiesel, electricity, propane, hydrogen, and natural gas are attractive because they produce either fewer or no harmful air pollutants. Ethanol, produced from crops, produces less greenhouse gas than gasoline or diesel, while biodiesel, produced from animal fats and vegetable oils, produces fewer air pollutants than petroleum-based diesel. Propane and natural gas produce fewer air pollutants and greenhouse gases than gasoline, but hydrogen produces no harmful air pollutants. Electricity may seem like a great choice considering it would not cause any tailpipe emissions, but generating electricity would still produce greenhouse gases and pollutants.
Types of alternative fuel vehicles
Gas-electric hybrids are cars that combine a gasoline engine with at least one electric motor to move the vehicle. The hybrid motor then replenishes by recapturing energy through a regenerative braking system. There are several versions of hybrids used for different purposes, such as maximum fuel savings. The first hybrid models, from Honda and Toyota, arrived in the US in 1999. Gas-electric hybrids are considered the most common alternative fuel vehicles, with over 50 models in the market.
2. Plug-in hybrid
Plug-in hybrids have larger batteries than gas-electric hybrids, allowing the cars to run on electricity alone for limited distances, generating zero emissions. A plug-in hybrid’s battery pack can be fully recharged when connected to an electric power source like one at a public charging station or at home. A larger battery makes it more expensive but worth the 15- to 55-mile driving range powered solely on electricity. A larger hybrid battery is especially useful for people who have a short commute and can recharge the car daily. If the car loses charge, it will run on gas.
Electric vehicles run on battery power alone, which means it does not have a gas engine. The demand for electric cars has been growing since they were made available in 2010, but “range anxiety” prevents many from going fully electric. Drivers fear that they may end up driving too far, leaving them stranded before they can get to an electrical power source they can use to recharge their vehicle.
Any car that operates on diesel can also use biodiesel. Biodiesel is usually made from a combination of resources such as vegetable oil, recycled restaurant grease, and animal fats. It burns more cleanly than petroleum-based fuels and is non-toxic, sustainable, and biodegradable. However, most biodiesel contains a mixture with conventional diesel fuel. Biodiesel has also shown to partly solidify in below-freezing temperatures and corrode rubber hosing and seals.
Flexible-fuel vehicles run on fuel mixtures that contain up to 85% ethanol, made from corn. These have become more common in the US since the government required more vehicles to use renewable fuels combined with gasoline. Unfortunately, ethanol has less energy than gas, causing drivers of flex-fuel vehicles to gas up more frequently than if they had a car fuelled by gas. Many also believe that the corn made for ethanol pushes up the cost of corn made for food.
6. Natural gas
Natural gas vehicles use either liquefied or compressed gas to run a mileage similar to gasoline vehicles but with cleaner emissions. In 2013, the US Department of Energy estimated that around 112,000 natural gas vehicles were in operation. In 2017, over three million natural gas vehicles were in service in India alone.
7. Fuel cell
Cars powered by fuel cells produce zero emissions and can be up to three times more efficient than vehicles powered by gas. The fuel cells can convert oxygen and hydrogen into electricity, powering the car’s electric motor. They have yet to become widely available because of the lack of hydrogen fueling stations and the high cost of the vehicles.
Propane, sometimes known as liquefied petroleum gas, is a by-product of crude oil refining and natural gas processing. Propane vehicles are easy to maintain and produce reduced emissions; propane itself costs significantly less than gasoline but must be kept in a pressurized tank.
Alternative Fuel Vehicles – Which One is Right For You?
While steam- and solar-powered vehicles continue to be tested and developed for efficient and sustainable travel, the current options among alternative fuel vehicles seem promising. Deloitte estimates that electric vehicle sales will reach 21 million in 2030, and battery electric vehicles will account for 70% of total electric cars that same year. The cost of manufacturing batteries will reportedly continue to fall, making saving the environment all the more comfortable to do.