Change is hard in the world of energy, and nothing shows that more than attempts to change the deep roots of the vehicles Americans drive every day. Almost all the oil we use as a nation goes for transportation, with all the implications that brings in terms of dependence on foreign oil, gas prices that rise and fall on international markets, and global warming. And technologically speaking, we do have alternatives – none of which are catching on fast.

Officially, the Obama administration has set a goal to have 1 million electric cars and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. In reality, unless we pick up the pace, it’s not going to happen. GM sold fewer than 10,000 of its innovative Volt in the first half of this year, for example.

There are other alternatives to gasoline, too. Natural gas is cheap, cleaner than gasoline, and is already in use as a fuel, particularly for heavy duty vehicles like buses and trucks. But there are still only about 40,000 heavy duty vehicles powered by natural gas in the U.S., out of about 9 million total.

There also were alternatives to oil when the automobile was first invented, more than a century ago. But there’s a reason why we’re not driving around in the descendants of the Stanley Steamer. Oil won out for good reasons: it was the most efficient fuel in terms of cost, the easiest to deliver to consumers, and required the least effort from drivers.  Of course, that was before OPEC and catastrophes like the Exxon-Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills.  And it was before scientists worldwide began making forecasts about global warming.

With its enticing pros and troubling cons, oil may or may not stay on top as a transportation fuel. But if we’re going to reduce our reliance on it, here are two things to watch:

How do much you have to pay up front? Right now electric and natural gas vehicles cost significantly more than conventional vehicles. A Volt costs about $40,000, although there’s a $7,500 federal tax credit to bring that price down. The hope is that higher fuel efficiency means you’ll save money over the long run. But that calculation depends on multiple factors: the cost of the vehicle, the price of gas, and the price of your alternative fuel, not to mention whether buyers are willing pay ahead of time for savings later on.

The biggest part of the cost of an electric car or a plug-in hybrid is the battery. In recent weeks, there have been a number of reports examining what the impact would be if there were a breakthrough in battery technology that made these cars cheaper. Some analyses, like the one contained in the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook, are pretty modest. The EIA estimates a battery breakthrough could boost battery powered vehicles to nearly one-quarter of auto sales by 2035, compared to 8 percent without one. Other assessments are more optimistic.

Either way, the calculation is still about up-front costs for a new technology versus the price of gasoline. And the projections depend on making good guesses about two things that are hard to predict: innovation, and the price of oil.

Is it convenient?  We’ve spent a century putting a gas station on every corner, with more than 157,000 in operation now. But we don’t have plug-in chargers or natural gas pumps on every corner, or anywhere close. During the oil price spike of 2008, Utah saw a surge in interest in natural gas vehicles, for one very good reason. A local utility, Questar Gas, chose to open its pumping stations to the public. But that’s the exception. The EIA estimates that as of this year, there are 1,047 compressed natural gas fueling stations and 53 liquid natural gas stations in the United States – and more than half of them aren’t open to the public.

The situation isn’t much better for all-electric cars, particularly given that it takes much longer to charge a battery than to fill up a gas tank. On the plus side, about half of American households park their car within 20 feet of an electrical outlet, according to the Energy Department. On the other hand, half don’t. The advantage of a plug-in hybrid, of course, is that it also has a gasoline engine for those awkward moments when you don’t remember to plug it in. Even so, there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here. We don’t have the infrastructure for alternative vehicles because there aren’t enough of them on the road, but we can’t put more on the road without the infrastructure.

There’s nothing magical about petroleum. We can change, and there are reasons to do so, especially with the Energy Department predicting that oil prices will nearly double over the next 20  years. But unless we get a lot smarter about how to alter the fundamental dynamics of cost and convenience, most drivers will still opt for filling up rather than plugging in.


  1. Jack
    July 19, 2012, 7:36 pm

    BTW – the Stanley Steamer was powered by ……………………….
    GASOLINE !!!

  2. jade
    July 19, 2012, 6:46 am

    I think it should be up to the oil companies to figure that out or invest money in universities where a new discovery will most likely happen. Gas stations can also introduce hydrogen stations.

  3. Rick
    Manassas, VA
    July 18, 2012, 9:59 pm

    Ethanol has been widely touted as an alternative to gasoline. Let’s review the facts based on data publicly available from government websites:

    – One acre of corn will produce 328 gallons of ethanol
    – Production requires energy, currently (you guessed it!) gasoline; requires 140 gallons of gas to distill the 328 gallons of ethanol
    – Ethanol produces 50% less power than gasoline; therefore it requires 1.5 gallons of ethanol to produce the same power as 1 gallon of gas; so if we used ethanol to power distillation, it would require 210 gallons resulting in net production of only 118 gallons per acre of corn
    – In 2010 there were a total of 1.74 million acres of corn planted/produced in the USA.
    – If the entire USA production of corn (none for the dinner table folks) were used to produce ethanol, we could produce a net 205 million gallons
    – BUT, let’s be optimistic and assume we find a different source of energy for distillation so all this production is available for our cars. We could then deliver a whopping 570 million gallons of ethanol – in one year
    – We consume an average of 485 million gallons of gasoline on this country EACH AND EVERY DAY.
    – Our entire year’s production of corn based ethanol – 570 million gallons – would last a grand total of 28 hours.

    The numbers just don’t work. This ethanol mandate was more about inflating corn prices for the farmers than solving the world’s energy crisis.

    And electricity – awesome! But what do we use to power the electric generating plants – coal?!

    Not saying we stop trying folks but it’s going to take something truly revolutionary to replace gasoline.

  4. MnmnM
    United States
    July 18, 2012, 7:33 pm

    How do Stanley Steamers heat water, Rex, and how do power companies generate electricity?

  5. Rex
    United States
    July 17, 2012, 4:19 pm

    Ummm, how do you suppose to heat the water in a Stanley Steamer, magic? It still uses some type of fuel to heat the water to steam, be it an oil, natural gas or gasoline..

  6. Jay Dubbe
    July 17, 2012, 3:15 pm

    Who says Americans need to change the way they drive? Since when did National Geographic become an activist magazine? Climate experts were worried about global cooling in the early 70’s, so why should we believe global warming? Are we to believe the earth goes through major climatic cycles every 30 years? Sorry, this article is weak.

  7. Andyvon
    July 17, 2012, 10:43 am

    I think most car owners are like me – to be perfectly honest. I wouldn’t get rid of my fossil-fuelled car or my right to drive and that desire outweighs any concerns I have over the climate. I worry and lose as much sleep over climate change as I do that the planet will be swallowed by the sun in 5 billions years’ time. I believe we should live for now and let future generations cope with whatever comes their way. It’ll be their problem and I don’t much care.

    Many may instantly decry me as callous or uncaring. However, I’m simply being honest and most critics would have to admit their ACTIONS show they feel the same way if they were honest too. Their addiction to their right to drive also outweighs their professed concern for the environment. If anyone genuinely felt different they would ditch their cars, never drive again and ride a bicycle. Let’s see how many do.

  8. paul antony Razzell
    United Kingdom
    July 17, 2012, 3:59 am

    what about fuel cell device that converts chemical energy of a fuel cell directly into electricity.

  9. Jenny
    July 16, 2012, 9:25 pm

    $40,000 is a LOT of money for someone making $10.00 an hour even with the $7500 rebate. Jobs are scarce these days and good paying jobs are going away, not coming back.
    I would LOVE to have a hybrid, but there is no way I can afford it. There are not many used hybrids OR other used cars that get good gas mileage for sale at reasonable prices. Most of the used cars for sale are at least 6 cylinders and get 17-24 mpg. People are hanging onto what few 30-35 mpg 4 cylinders there are out there. Dealerships have very few reasonably priced 4 cylinder models available.
    It gets harder to save money for big purchases, too, since the price of everything is going up as gas prices go up. Gas prices NEVER go down anymore due to refinery greed. The weaker dollar is also causing prices to go up, generally.
    I think our nation would be able to get more people into 4 cylinder cars if incentives were offered to buy them. I mostly only see incentives for large vehicles and hybrids, but no economy cars.
    Our economy is set up to bleed every last penny from us due to increasing taxes and fees, fees, fees. Businesses and banks keep coming up with more ways to get money out of us. It’s almost impossible to find a bank that PAYS interest on anything anymore, but they will charge you massive check and ATM fees. Americans are being nickle and dimed and $30. check feed to death in this country. No one has any money to get better cars!
    You just keep fixing the same old junk you have.

  10. Wat
    July 16, 2012, 3:02 pm

    Ethanol was used as lamp fuel in the United States as early as 1840, but a tax levied on industrial alcohol during the Civil War made this use uneconomical. The tax was repealed in 1906.[16] Original Ford Model T automobiles ran on ethanol until 1908.[17] With the advent of Prohibition in 1920, ethanol fuel sellers were accused of being allied with moonshiners,[16] -Wikipedia, Ethanol

    If you have to dig fuel up from miles underground and put it through an intensive cracking process IT IS NOT MORE CONVENIENT THAN DISTILLING ALCOHOL. Companies that put in more expensive input expect better returns, so of course they’d turn knobs in government to make all this infrastructure worth their while.

    Two, natural gas is a byproduct of oil extraction. There is less of it as it takes a longer geological timescale to produce. If we all switched to methane, we’d burn through it faster than the current oil reserves.

    Three, steam cars were abandoned because the long startup time, steam gets everywhere, and the risk of the boiler blowing. These were rectified as early as the 70s. The Enginion Steamcell of 1996 was extremely efficient and ran below SULEV standards. It was abandoned because the market “wasn’t ready,” and is now being used in electric generators. They decided to go the safe route and not invest in a line of cars no one would buy. Conservative corporations are reacting to a conservative culture. People won’t buy more advanced vehicles so long as they continue to be expensive and unadvertised. And companies won’t put in the effort to produce if they see no returns. Revolving door.