Coming clean about alternative fuels

There is a good reason for that: Autogas generally beats natural gas and electric vehicles on practicality and cost, at least for light-duty vehicles.

In most countries, Autogas holds an even bigger cost advantage over biofuels and electric vehicles, which can usually compete only with hefty subsidies. And, boy, do they enjoy big subsidies. At the last count, biofuels alone are being subsidised to the tune of $24 billion per year worldwide. Politicians and the green lobby justify these subsidies on environmental grounds (even though farm policy is more often than not the primary driver of subsidies to biofuels), claiming that pollutant and greenhouse-gas emissions from both types of fuel, as well as from natural gas, are lower than those from Autogas.

But hold on a moment. Are the other alternative fuels really cleaner than Autogas? The answer is: not necessarily.

Let’s take natural gas first. It is undoubtedly true that tail-pipe emissions of vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) are lower than from Autogas vehicles. But when you take account of all the emissions along the supply chain – from well to wheels – then Autogas can, and often does, outperform natural gas – as one of the stories in this edition of Autogas Updates points out. It all depends on the distance over which the gas has to be transported by pipeline or LNG; the further the distance, the more energy is consumed and, therefore, the higher the emissions. And emissions of methane – an extremely potent greenhouse gas – from leaky pipelines can also be significant. The reduction in emissions of regulated pollutant gases compared with gasoline and diesel are generally comparable for Autogas and CNG.

What about biofuels? Ethanol derived from sugar cane in places like Brazil certainly results in far fewer carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than either conventional fuels or Autogas as relatively little energy is required to produce the fuel. But the emissions savings associated with ethanol derived from corn and other starchy crops are much smaller, if any. A recent study by the US energy laboratory at Argonne shows that CO2 emissions for corn-based ethanol in the United States – the world’s biggest ethanol producer – are significantly higher than from Autogas and barely lower than from gasoline. The emissions savings from biodiesel, which is the leading biofuel in Europe, are generally bigger, but not much bigger than those from Autogas.

And finally to electric vehicles. Surely plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles are cleaner than Autogas? Again, not necessarily so.

A recent study by researchers at Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that electric cars might actually pollute much more even than conventional gasoline- or diesel-powered cars, especially if coal is used to produce the electricity. Only where renewables or nuclear power accounts for a large share of generation do electric vehicles deliver any significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Electric car factories also emit more toxic waste than conventional car factories as producing batteries and electric motors requires a lot of toxic minerals such as nickel, copper and aluminium. And across the other impacts considered in their analysis, including the potential for effects related to acid rain, airborne particulate matter, smog, human toxicity, ecosystem toxicity and depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources, electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on a par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation.

I am personally convinced that electric vehicles will eventually emerge as the dominant transport technology around the world. But that is not going to happen soon. We still have a long way to go in shifting to low-carbon power generating technologies and in addressing the broader environmental drawbacks of electric vehicles, as well as in bringing the cost of producing and running those vehicles down to a level than makes them competitive with conventional internal combustion engine vehicles.

The upshot of this is that Autogas has an important role to play in addressing the environmental problems associated with road transport, including climate change, for the foreseeable future. The need to switch to alternative fuels has never been more urgent as the real health costs of diesel cars come to light and the devastating effects of climate change become more apparent.

Disagree? Agree? Either way, Trevor would like to hear your reaction and any thoughts you might have about Autogas Updates! He can be reached by email at