The Pros and Cons of Alternative Fuel Cars

November 7, 2012

A comparison of the top 4 technologies powering alternative fuel cars: biodiesel, ethanol, hybrid, and hydrogen.

Alternative fuel cars are best described in terms of the particular fuels they use. Each different fuel requires a different type of car and involves a range of positives and negatives.

Pros of Alternative Fuel Cars

  • Biodiesel cars. Biodiesel vehicles use a blend of petroleum diesel and vegetable oils. They produce fewer carbon emissions and harmful particulates than standard diesel. In terms of fuel availability, while biodiesel outlets may still show short supply nationally, drivers retain the choice of filling up with standard diesel. Biodiesel is more energy efficient in its production than petroleum products and gives drivers better fuel costs than regular vehicles.
  • Ethanol cars. Ethanol-fueled vehicles run on a mixture of gasoline and a propellant derived from grain. There are an increasing number of alternative fuel cars now being supplied for this market. The most popular ethanol fuel blend is E85. The name reflects the proportions of 85 percent ethanol to 15 percent gasoline used in the fuel. This makes it an emissions-friendly fuel. It also provides another potentially large and profitable market for farmers.
  • Hybrid cars. Hybrid cars operate using a combination of gasoline power and electric power. In addition to the gas tank they have an electric battery that stores energy during the speeding and slowing parts of a typical journey. The pros of this type of vehicle include the substantial saving in fuel costs through the engine's efficiency.
  • Hydrogen cars. As a fuel, hydrogen appears to have enormous possibilities. Its pros begin with the fact it comes from water and is therefore a renewable fuel with inexhaustible supplies and benefits in fuel cost. The exhaust from a hydrogen-fueled car is totally environment-friendly. Hydrogen cars also give the driver excellent mileage compared to regular gasoline cars.

Cons of Alternative Fuel Cars

  • Biodiesel cars. One of the major cons of biodiesel fuel is its cost, being more expensive to produce than regular diesel. Another hazard is seen as the temptation for farmers to turn to growing biodiesel plants rather than food crops. In addition, large-scale farm production would use vast amounts of land.
  • Ethanol cars. The cons of ethanol-fueled cars include the fact that ethanol contains less energy than gasoline and so delivers less on a gas mileage comparison. Some people also suggest that the emissions from petrol-based fuels used in producing the grain exceed the ethanol's own emission benefits.
  • Hybrid cars. The downsides of choosing this vehicle include the considerably higher prices they cost to buy. There remains doubt about the longevity of the electricity-storing battery. As relatively new vehicles, few have experienced the 10-years plus life that could satisfactorily answer this open question either way.
  • Hydrogen cars. The negatives associated with using hydrogen as a vehicle fuel are rather troublesome. Considerable problems have arisen in the practical manufacture of these cars. There are no answers to these problems on the immediate horizon. In addition, hydrogen is a very explosive fuel. No complete solutions have yet been found to the safe transport of this fuel to the pump for distribution.

Alternate Fuels: A Cost Breakdown

In general, most alternative fuels cost less than gasoline. However, you need to be aware how each fuel is made, and other factors such as the cost of converting your vehicle to use the fuel. Another factor that many do not think about is the accessibility of filling stations. There is much more to alternative fuel costs than just the price per gallon of the fuel.

  • Biodiesel fuel. There are many factors that figure into the price of biodiesel. First look into the blend of biodiesel you are using, as there are not many stations that offer B100, or 100% biodiesel. Biodiesel is typically made from soybeans or corn. This means that there will be spikes due to availability. There are many agricultural factors that feed into the price of biodiesel as there are growing, processing and distribution issues to deal with. There is also an economy of scale to consider, as biodiesel is tied to the petroleum industry. Eventually, as more producers arise, the cost of biodiesel will fall.
  • Ethanol. Ethanol has the potential to be a very important fuel. It does not cost less than gasoline, and there are issues with its production that need to be addressed before it is very affordable and easy to use. Ethanol is about $3 per gallon and gasoline (before it gets to the pump) is $2.28 per gallon. Why is it expensive? Ethanol cannot be transported along pipelines because it picks up impurities and water. Instead transport is through trucks, barges and trains. This adds to the price. Ethanol is made from grain, and in order to transform the grain to ethanol, you use a large amount of fossil fuels. It is argued that you burn more fossil fuels making ethanol than you would by driving a gasoline car.
  • Hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen fueled vehicles are very expensive to produce as the entire system is very fragile. Hydrogen is not actually a fuel, but it carries energy. You break down water for the energy and then create water again in a cycle. Many car manufacturers are not pursuing this avenue because of the cost. A standard car would cost about $40,000, while its hydrogen counterpart would be about $400,000. So while the fuel itself is an excellent idea and the cost is minimal as you use water, the main issue is that the vehicle itself is not available.
  • Electricity. The most cost efficient type of alternative fuel is electricity. In particular, you can power up your vehicle during off hours when the price is lower. To be environmentally friendly, you need a power company that uses renewable energy, or have some sort of renewable energy available to provide electricity for your vehicle. Of all possible alternative fuels, this is the most economical.

Alternate Fuel Myths and Facts

There are many myths associated with using alternative fuel. However you need to be aware of the facts and what is true and what is not. Correct information is needed to make an informed decision when interested in purchasing alternate fuel cars. There are many different alternate fuel sources and you will need a specific type of engine for each type of fuel.

  • Alternative fuel is less expensive. In general, when looking at a per gallon price, alternative fuels are less expensive. However, what can change this is the availability of the fuel. If you have to drive 100 miles to fill up, then this is not economical. You will find that you may be paying even more than ever on fuel because you have to drive extra to fill up. Certain alternative fuels are convenient and economical. It depends on the fuel.
  • Alternative fuel eliminates dependence on oil. Many individuals think that by changing to alternative fuels, the country will have less of a dependency on oil. This is not true, as petroleum is one of the most used products in all industries. It is found in plastics and even lipstick. Anything that contains petroleum will still be influenced by the oil market.
  • Alternative fuel yields lower vehicle performance. You can still get excellent performance from a vehicle that uses alternative fuels. Many of the top sports car and high performance car manufacturers have developed or are in the process of developing models that do not compromise on the performance when using an alternative fuel. Currently the best performance vehicles are those with a gas and alternative engine, though with technology advances these high performance alternative fuel vehicles are just around the corner.
  • Electric cars eliminate chemical fuels. Electric cars are more environmentally friendly if you just look at car emissions. However, it completely depends on where you get your electricity. If your power comes from a plant that burns coal for power then it is not a green car. However if your car is hooked up to a system that uses solar or wind power, then the car is 100% environmentally friendly.
  • Alternative fuel eliminates air pollution. Actually alternative fuels do not necessarily fix air pollution. Alternative fuel cars still emit chemicals, they are just different from greenhouse gases. Additionally, many times the process of creating the alternative fuel creates many emissions itself. A good example being ethanol. A large amount of fossil fuels are burned to convert grain into ethanol, even though ethanol is considered a friendly and green fuel. The only true clean fuels are hydrogen and electricity. In this, we are talking about electricity from renewable sources. Hydrogen-fueled cars do not produce any pollution, but the hydrogen fuel cell is still in development. The hydrogen cell is actually considered the technology of the future and car manufacturers are still developing this technology for vehicles.