You drive a car with gasoline or a truck with diesel. It’s been that way since you were born, and this single-fuel mentality is our default way of thinking when it comes to moving people and things around the USA. But with increasing precariousness of oil prices and availability, and a scientific consensus about a global climate crisis happening in slow motion before our very eyes, we need cleaner, more affordable and more dependable options for our transportation present and future.
In the past 25 years, Clean Cities Coalitions around the country have worked hard with partners in fleets, industry, policy-making, and advocacy groups to hasten the adoption of alternative fuels like natural gas, renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, propane autogas, as well as electric transportation technology. Billions of gallons of gasoline and diesel have been prevented from consumption because of their collective efforts!
Unfortunately, though, while we are seeing adoption of these cleaner and greener fuels and technologies, one idea in particular has been difficult to overcome: the single-fuel mentality.
What is the single-fuel mentality?
In a nutshell, the single-fuel mentality is the idea that we should only ever depend on one fuel or transportation technology for our needs. In the past, passenger vehicles used gasoline and freight vehicles used diesel. Those were the options, and the only things you could get when you visited a fuel station.
This mentality is still at work in the majority of Americans’ minds — even those who are advocates for alternative fuels! With the astronomical rise in popularity of electric cars, this mentality is rearing its head in the alternative fuels landscape as well. You’ve probably heard it before, lurking under the surface in comments like “we all know where transportation is headed” and “the future is electric.”
Just look at this recently-reopened fuel station that ripped out its gasoline and diesel pumps and replaced them all with electric charging units. I love the idea, of course, but why are we falling into this single-fuel mentality again?
Please don’t misunderstand me: I love electric vehicles and am deeply excited to see growing adoption of electric vehicle technologies. I sit on the steering committee of my state’s burgeoning Drive Electric Tennessee program, and I drive an electric car myself, charged often using solar energy. I am all in for electric vehicles.
But in many sectors of transportation, and for many use-cases, electric technology just isn’t there. There are currently no good options for electric heavy duty transportation over the road — and I mean ready to hit the road. There are also serious concerns, not yet addressed, about the raw materials required to create billions of batteries necessary to produce a worldwide population of electric vehicles.
Let’s not forget, too, that when climate emergencies such as hurricanes strike, it’s often a varied selection of alternative fuel vehicles — propane and natural gas, for example — that can provide support to ailing populations in need of help.
This is why, to put it simply, we need to get rid of the single-fuel mentality: we have the alternative fuel options to dramatically reduce our emissions, increase our resiliency to an increasing rate of climate disasters, and reduce transportation costs right now. There’s no time to lose, and our very future existence may depend on taking immediate action.
We can’t let the old idea of putting all our transportation eggs in one fuel basket get in the way. We can’t wait for electric technology to innovate its way into every transportation space. We need to use all of the options on the table to immediately reduce our transportation emissions, and that means we need a multi-fuel mentality across the board.
If not electric, then what?
Did you know that certain sources of renewable natural gas (RNG) are not only emissions-neutral, but emissions-negative? RNG collected from dairy farms and food waste facilities actually sequesters more greenhouse gases through its collection and use than would be emitted into the atmosphere were the sources left to their own open-air decomposition.
Even if it is not carbon negative, landfill gas and wastewater sludge-based RNG reduces an average diesel vehicle’s GHG footprint by 60%. Imagine if we replaced 25% of diesel vehicles in the US with CNG that ran RNG in the next three years. The emissions reductions we’d see there would be enormous.
Biodiesel blends (20-80% mixture with petroleum diesel) and renewable diesel can improve the performance of diesel engines and also dramatically reduce the emissions profiles of diesel trucks compared to regular diesel. The same is true of ethanol (85% blend with petroleum gasoline, E85) in smaller vehicles. Both are renewable fuels that avoid the costly, wasteful, and environmentally disastrous process of drilling for oil. Not only that, but ethanol, biodiesel and renewable diesel are “drop-in” fuels that usually require no modifications to a vehicle to be able to use.
So, what’s stopping us from using these options right now? Part of it is a complacency in the present because we are depending on the science of the future to bring us our answers. It’s the old “we’ll technology our way out of this problem” truism; we know that electric technology is developing quickly, and so hopefully it’ll be ready in time for us to really get serious about reducing transportation emissions.
But this is a dangerous hope, and it distracts us from what we can be doing right now to ensure a future for ourselves and our planet. Of course, electric vehicle technology may one day become a reliable source of transportation for all of our varied needs. It could be in the next five years… or it could be sometime in the next fifty years. Why wait? Why take the chance when we know — when we’ve been told that the climate crisis is a scientific consensus — that options exist right now to mitigate what our dependence on fossil fuels has done to us?
Our transportation future is multiple
Many cities, states and countries around the world have released ambitious goals for overall emissions reductions in the coming 30 years. These goals are admirable, and I urge entities that have not set such goals for themselves to do so immediately. But when I look at or hear about the plans for transforming transportation over the course of those ~30 years, they invariably fall into that same single-fuel trap: “we’ll go electric, once the technology is there.”
But these local, provincial and national entities are giving themselves time that we don’t have. Of course, embrace electric vehicles where you can, but if a transit bus fleet can run on compressed natural gas (CNG) now? Do it. If a fleet of over-the-road trucks can start using biodiesel in a week? Drop that fuel in! If a city can convert their lawnmowers from gasoline to propane autogas (LPG), and save money and maintenance headaches in the process? Convert those hogs!
Clean Cities Coordinators know from experience that clean fuels and emissions reductions progress is always incremental. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no magic bullet that will solve all of our problems. By the same logic, we also know that there is no one fuel solution that is going to work for us across all types of transportation to immediately solve our emissions crisis.
If you’ve been around the alternative fuels world long enough, you’ve heard folks rejecting the idea of a “magic bullet” and referring instead to “magic BBs.” Our climate crisis won’t be solved by a single shot, but will instead be overcome by a thousand tiny acts against it, each one by itself statistically insignificant while adding up to real change on the whole. Our victory over climate change will be an emergent phenomenon — the effect of all our collective actions, alternative fuel projects, policy shifts, individual and organizational efforts will be greater than the sum of its parts.
The billions of gallons of gasoline that haven’t been burnt thanks to Clean Cities Coalitions and their partners have come from a slow and dedicated process of one-by-one projects. Every tiny success, every local fleet that switches their sedans to ethanol, every municipal waste team that starts using CNG, every city that signs a no-idle pledge, every Uber driver that buys a plug-in hybrid electric car contributes to that bigger number.
Our gains in emissions reduction have come from an enormous number of one-off projects such as these. That’s what it takes. We can dramatically reduce our emissions now, and we can do it with technology that’s already available. Get rid of your single-fuel mentality and embrace the multitude of transportation options that already exist that can prevent the climate crisis from doing further damages to ourselves and our planet.