There’s no shortage of predictions out there about the future of fuel—when (or if) electric vehicles will take off, if biofuels have a chance of competing, and whether T. Boone Pickens’s dream of a country filled with natural gas-powered cars will come true. But this one, a report on the future of fuel from the National Petroleum Council, caught our eye. What does this advisory agency, filled with oil and gas companies, drilling and oilfield support companies, and electric companies think about the future of fuel?
The report, created in response to the U.S. Energy Department’s solicitation for advice on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bringing in new fuel and transport technologies by 2050, should be incredibly optimistic. The reason for this, according to the report: "In order to examine acceleration, this study assumes that aggressive improvements in alternative fuels and vehicles can be achieved and substantial transition hurdles can be overcome. This optimistic approach provides insights about the transportation possibilities associated with the potential for significant advances. The study does not provide perspective as to the likelihood, cost, or timing for this transition."
Even with this optimism taken into account, the findings are sobering. Without some sort of disruptive innovation (i.e. ultra-efficient electric vehicle batteries), the NPC thinks that internal combustion engines will remain dominant through 2050. It’s true that many of the NPC’s study group members have ties to the oil and natural gas industry. But they’re not wrong: we need a disruptive innovation to rise out of our reliance on gasoline. Otherwise, as the study predicts, we will simply continue to make relatively cheap cars with combustion engines—including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and compressed natural gas vehicles—more efficient over time.
The report, to its credit, does list some of the disruptive innovations that could throw this prediction off-course: advanced natural gas and hydrogen storage technologies that cut down on costs; genetic engineering to increase yields and decrease biofuel prices; new battery chemistry for electric vehicles, and the ability to create lightweight vehicles that are more fuel efficient.
Then there’s this cheery prediction: "If technology hurdles and infrastructure challenges can be overcome, economically competitive low-carbon fuels and improvements in fuel economy will result in substantial reductions in GHG emissions." That’s a lot of ifs, and even if the challenges are met, the report maintains that the U.S. will have to take a lot of action outside of the transportation industry—for example, by reducing overall transportation demand through pay-per mile driving programs and cutting down on emissions from power generation.
It would be easy to dismiss the report’s predictions out of hand; after all, so many NPC members have a vested interest in keeping combustion engines dominant. But that would be too easy. This is one possible, potentially even probable future. We need to confront it—and think about ways to make sure it doesn’t happen.