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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2006 : Cleantech

Cleantech: On the Other Hand
It's up to corporate America to come up with market-driven solutions to the country's oil addiction that will surely postpone—if not entirely change—the fate of the human race.

by Dennis Walsh

Fossil fuels, and the energy-guzzling machines that consume them, may one day disappear. Like space travel and notions of life on other planets, everyone seems to accept that possibility as a reality. But we aren’t there yet.

The automotive industry has made a huge investment in building an infrastructure that has served America well. Automakers will likely continue to market the products they make as long as there is a demand for them. It took the automotive industry only a few short years to retool for the second World War. When the demand is there, the industry has responded. Until then, we are likely to see extraordinary efforts to maximize the infrastructures that are already in place; retrofitting existing technologies to produce a new and improved version of what is on the market.

For the most part, the oil industry will remain profitable by selling what it sells best. Make no mistake: The oil industry will continue to sell oil as long as it remains profitable or until our natural resources dry up, whichever comes first. When the oil is gone, the industry will have no choice but to sell whatever is the next best thing at that time.

Imagineers can create fantastic worlds of illusion. Regardless of whether life is a reflection of art or art is a reflection of life, this is not Hollywood. There are few real signs of significant change. There is no silver bullet. No one knows for sure how we are going to go from where we are to where we want to be. It seems that we will replace fossil fuels as a source of energy long before fossil fuels run out. Mankind is unlikely to topple into the abyss any more than we are likely to remain on a collision course into oblivion. What is much more likely is that corporate America—the automotive industry, in particular—will come up with market-driven solutions to America’s oil addiction that will surely postpone, if not entirely change, the fate of the human race.

Sustainability is a moving target. When we think we have it all figured out, the terrain changes, and the wind shifts. There is cause for concern; so few good guides left. There is, after all, only one Rocky Mountain Institute, and only one green@work. But the state of the union is this: We have faced our oil addiction head on, and we are doing something about it. Big business has made a round-one decision to back Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) fuel, a cleaner-burning diesel fuel containing a maximum 15 parts-per-million (ppm) sulfur, this year. For those who may not be aware of what is about to transpire, suffice to say, the goal of the game is to “increase fuel efficiency while reducing CO2 emissions.” The unwritten rule of the game is to accomplish that goal with no interruption to bottom-line profitability. Foreshadowing things to come, industry has lined up under the ULSD banner. Significant players include the who’s who of industry include:

American Automobile Association
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
American Petroleum Institute
American Trucking Associations
Association of International Automobile Manufacturers
Association of Oil Pipe Lines
National Automobile Dealers Association
National Association of Fleet Administrators
National Petrochemical and Refiners Association
Petroleum Marketers Association of America
Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Department of Energy
Western States Petroleum Association

New U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards require a major reduction in the sulfur content of diesel fuels and emission levels from diesel engines and vehicles. To meet the EPA standards, the petroleum industry is producing ULSD. As of now, 80 percent of the highway diesel fuel produced or imported will be ULSD fuel replacing most Low Sulfur Diesel (LSD) fuel, which contains a maximum of 500 ppm sulfur. Used in combination with cleaner-burning diesel engines and vehicles, ULSD fuel will enable the use of cleaner-technology diesel engines and vehicles, resulting in significantly improved air quality.

The EPA, California Air Resources Board, engine manufacturers and others have completed tests and demonstration programs showing that using the advanced emissions-control devices enabled by the use of ULSD fuel reduces emissions of hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen (precursors of ozone), as well as particulate matter to near-zero levels. ULSD fuel will enable diesel-powered passenger cars and light trucks to meet the same stringent emissions standards as gasoline vehicles. Diesel-powered vehicles tend to be more fuel-efficient than gasoline-powered vehicles.

The armories are buzzing with activity. A promising arsenal of weaponry is being forged in our war for sustainability. The line has been drawn; the generals have made plans. The automotive industry is about to take its best shot. Owners of 2007 and later-model-year diesel-powered highway vehicles must refuel only with ULSD fuel. Diesel-powered highway engines and vehicles for 2007 and later-model years are designed to operate only with ULSD fuel. Improper fuel use will reduce the efficiency and durability of engines, permanently damage many advanced emissions-control systems, reduce fuel economy, and possibly prevent the vehicles from running at all.

Engine and vehicle manufacturers expect ULSD fuel to be fully compatible with the existing fleet, including 2006 and earlier-model-year vehicles. Four years from now, only ULSD fuel will be available for highway use. There should be no operational problem if consumers switch from a biodiesel-ULSD fuel blend to ULSD fuel without biodiesel. Although no one has made claims as such, is ULSD the “silver bullet” solution we have all been hoping for? Only time will tell.

Dennis Walsh is a communications specialist focusing on renewable energy, social entrepreneurship and green philanthropy. He is the editor of America’s GreenHouse, a renewable energy newsletter, and the increasingly popular Green Philanthropy blog.

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