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Alternative Fuels at a Crossroads

willis, roy, propane education & research councilEverywhere you turn today, there is a new commercial or news story giving the impression that alternative-fuel cars, trucks, and buses are taking over the roads and sending their gas-guzzling predecessors the way of the dinosaur. That could not be further from the truth.

The truth is that globally, of the more than 1 billion vehicles on the road, those running on alternative energy – bio-fuel, electric, hydrogen, natural gas, propane autogas, and so on – make up less than 2 percent of the total automotive fleet. Of the estimated 60 million vehicles being built worldwide this year, the overwhelming majority will be fueled by oil. That means that most cars are fueled the same way as the Model T’s that rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly lines.

Diving even deeper into those statistics, when you analyze the number of alternative fuels competing for sales, what’s left is a volatile alternative-fuel marketplace where the good guys often fight each other to gain market share among early adopters or favored status among policy makers.

Rather than putting more alternative-fuel vehicles on the road, we’re spinning our wheels, with alternative fuels getting too little traction beyond their small share of the world’s vehicles.

Like other representatives of major alternative fuels, I do my part to tell decision makers about propane autogas’ affordable infrastructure, American-made fuel supply, and new technology that cuts emissions compared with gasoline and diesel vehicles. Other alternative–fuel advocates make the case for CNG, electric, or bio-diesel. But we are all coming from the same side. We want to find ways to make the U.S. more energy independent and greener while also helping consumers who have had to struggle with fluctuations in oil prices for decades.

There is no silver bullet that can free our country from dependence on foreign oil. What alternative fuel providers need to do is move beyond intramural jockeying and embrace the reality that there is no one-size-fits-all fuel or vehicle that can meet the nation’s diverse transportation needs and reduce the use of gasoline and diesel.

The road we’re on has its share of potholes. High-profile bankruptcies of electric car companies, such as Fisker and Coda and battery maker A123, left taxpayers holding the bag on big loans that will never be repaid and damaged public perception of alternative-fuel vehicles as a whole. Government programs that attempt to pick winners are not on the highway to success.

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