Widespread efforts to curtail the environmental impact of conventional gas and diesel have led many organizations and consumers to start investigating fossil fuel alternatives. But the motivation for these transitions extends beyond “going green;” many operators realize substantial cost reductions, reduced maintenance requirements, and other benefits after switching to an alternative fuel. So, what are alternative fuels and their benefits?
Alternative Fuels Examples
The following represent some of the most promising alternative fuels. Coming to a resolution to mitigate climate change and achieve sustainable energy use will likely require a different solution for different applications based on their currently viability and performance characteristics (e.g., hydrogen fuel cells for ocean shipping and long-haul trucking, electric drive for small to medium-sized nonroad mobile machinery).
Biodiesel is made from fats (e.g., vegetable oil, animal fat) and provides a much cleaner and more sustainable conventional diesel replacement. Although “pure” biodiesel is available (i.e., B100), it’s often blended with conventional diesel for certain applications (e.g., better cold weather performance).
One of biodiesel’s biggest advantages is that OEMs can continue using existing internal combustion engines (ICE) with minimal to no conversions required. The same advantage applies to operators managing older diesel vehicles and equipment fleets. Operators may even see some reduced maintenance requirements as biodiesel provides better lubricity for engines. Moreover, biodiesel maintains fairly close cost-parity with conventional diesel (see below).
However, biodiesel’s disadvantages include:
- Increased energy consumption and fertilizer use to produce feedstock (i.e., crops for manufacturing biodiesel)
- Rubber degradation over time, affecting hoses, seals, and other engine or attached components (i.e., increased maintenance and parts costs)
- Fueling infrastructure and access remains limited
Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies
Hydrogen (and the fuel cell technologies that use it) represents one of the most promising fossil fuel alternatives to ICEs across its applications, sustainability, and ease of refueling. To start, hydrogen is abundant on Earth, and the electrochemical process for powering vehicles and equipment with it only has one byproduct: water.
Surprising to many, hydrogen fuel actually facilitates battery-powered operations despite refueling resembling the same pump process as for ICEs. Instead, these vehicles and equipment rely on a “fuel cell” that maintains battery power via an electrochemical reaction performed with the hydrogen.
Compared to ICEs, there are no harmful emissions; operation output is equivalent to a battery-powered vehicle or machine. Compared to an electric motor, hydrogen may be better suited for large industrial and transportation purposes, given battery size and power output considerations, refueling can occur in a fraction of the time as recharging.
The primary drawbacks of hydrogen fuel cells are cost and availability. Although long-term hydrogen prices have dropped, they may not reach a level for widespread market adoption for a few more years. And while projects like the Angeles Link increase availability, access remains limited to nonexistent for many. Hydrogen production can also release significant emissions if renewable energy sources (e.g., solar-powered electrolysis) aren’t used.
Hybrids—Electric Drive and Gas- or Diesel-Powered Operation
Hybrid drive vehicles and machines leverage the advantages of both battery-powered vehicles and ICEs. There are two methods for hybrid operation:
- The system tends to provide the primary power, while the other remains available in an auxiliary capacity (e.g., range extension, better acceleration) as needed.
- Operators can switch between using ICE or electric drive exclusively.
In addition, hybrid (and all-electric drives) benefit from recharging when operators press the brake pedal during use—a process known as “regenerative braking” that converts kinetic energy into electricity.
The primary downside to hybrid vehicles and machines is that this solution represents a half-measure, with the disadvantages and environmental impacts of ICEs (albeit reduced). Operation still requires fossil fuel consumption and results in some harmful emissions. However, hybrid drive vehicles provide operators with greater flexibility and represent a crucial transition step as the construction of necessary infrastructure continues for other alternative fuel.
Semantics on whether electricity counts as a “fuel” aside, electric vehicles and equipment enable operators to achieve zero emissions (if the energy was generated from renewable sources). There are also significant long-term cost reductions compared to ICEs. Additional electrification benefits include eliminating emissions-related health risks and accessing more instantaneous power (i.e., electric drive’s flat torque curve).
Electrification’s primary drawback is requiring a more significant upfront investment than some other alternative fuels. However, government subsidies, increasing power and charging station availability, and a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) due to factors like decreased maintenance requirements have assisted many with this transition.
Benefits of Alternative Fuels
OEMs should consider the following benefits as selling points to highlight when conversing with their target audience about new products powered by alternative fuels.
More Sustainable and Environmentally Conscious
Albeit the obvious answer, transitioning to the above examples of alternative fuels achieves more sustainable and environmentally conscious operations. However, while these outcomes provide their own merit, organizations demonstrating their commitment to a green future also benefit from a business perspective.
As a study conducted by McKinsey and NielsenIQ demonstrates, consumers care about an organizations’ environmental impact and factor it into their purchase decisions. Over 75% of surveyed consumers reported sustainable lifestyles as important. And 60% stated they were willing to pay more for products packaged sustainably.
Professional operators and dealers should similarly pay attention to consumers’ more eco-friendly buying behaviors. For example, some landscaping companies generated more revenue by adding a premium for using electric equipment. The lower environmental impact and substantial noise reduction outweigh the added cost for many of these consumers.
Carbon Taxes and Cap and Trade
Depending on where operators use vehicles and equipment, they may be subject to more costs beyond purchasing fuel—particularly for conventional gas and diesel. Carbon taxes, emissions trading systems (ETS), and similar regulations add operating expenses and a greater compliance burden in their purpose of reducing emissions:
- Carbon tax – A policy that requires organizations (or individuals) to pay a fixed amount per unit of CO2 emitted.
- ETS – Also known as “cap and trade,” these policies establish a permitted amount of total emissions for a group (e.g., industrial sector, nationwide) and allocate “shares” of that amount to each organization. For example, each share may permit emitting 10 metric tons of CO2. Organizations that do not use all their “shares” can sell them to those who exceed their allocation.
Per the World Bank, various governments have enacted 36 carbon tax programs and 32 ETS programs worldwide. Organizations currently or soon subject to these regulations can likely reduce their associated costs substantially by transitioning to an alternative fuel with less emissions output.
Fuel Cost Reductions
Cost remains a commonly cited barrier to the broader adoption of alternative fuels. For example, S&P Global projected in 2020 that hydrogen fuel production costs would need to halve to provide a viable alternative to conventional fuels.
However, alternative fuel costs are quickly falling as technologies improve, and production methods approach greater economies of scale. Additional cost reductions—such as a tax credit for hydrogen produced via renewable or nuclear sources in the US’ Inflation Reduction Act—make transitioning to alternative fuels even more feasible.
Furthermore, many people may not realize that conventional gas and diesel cost more than some alternative fuels commonly available. According to data collected by the Alternative Fuels Data Center, the most recent price comparisons of different fuels show:
- Gasoline – $4.13 (April 2022), $4.70 (July 2022), $4.05 (October 2022)
- Diesel – $5.06 (April 2022), $5.64 (July 2022), $5.17 (October 2022)
- Compressed natural gas (CNG) – $2.59 (April 2022), $2.76 (July 2022), $2.88 (October 2022)
- Liquified natural gas (LNG) – $3.16 (April 2022), $3.54 (July 2022), $3.63 (October 2022)
- Ethanol (E85) – $3.54 (April 2022), $3.93 (July 2022), $3.18 (October 2022)
- Propane – $3.53 (April 2022), $3.79 (July 2022), $3.55 (October 2022)
- Biodiesel (B20) – $4.62 (April 2022), $5.34 (July 2022), $4.89 (October 2022)
- Biodiesel (B99/B100) – $5.06 (April 2022), $5.60 (July 2022), $5.25 (October 2022)
Lower Operating Costs and Total Cost of Ownership
Transitioning to alternative fuels and energy can substantially reduce operational costs (e.g., maintenance) and enable new efficiencies.
However, the most significant cost reductions will require electrification. This is because electric drives rely on fewer components and consumables as well as eliminate bolted-on emissions systems. In contrast, an engine that burns an alternative fuel like biodiesel will require the same components and mechanical processes as a conventional diesel engine.
For example, an electric drive doesn’t require oil changes and comprises fewer parts that could break or require regular servicing. And some of the best alternative fuel vehicles and equipment provide CAN bus or similar telematics data support. Organizations can drastically reduce downtime caused by maintenance and repairs (e.g., regular battery and charger health monitoring).
How Delta-Q Can Help
OEMs looking to design products with alternative fuels in mind will need to establish new partnerships with experts in these unfamiliar spaces. Although these alternative fuels and their technologies (e.g., fuel cells) aren’t new, the market dominance of ICEs has generally prevented their broader adoption (and the completion of related infrastructure) until more recently.
As a result, many OEMs are just beginning research and development for alternative fuels and transitioning away from ICEs.
However, those that transition will achieve reduced environmental impacts and avoid increasingly complex ICE regulatory requirements. For OEMs and ICE manufacturers interested in electrification specifically, Delta-Q Technologies can provide its expertise on the capability of each electric drive component, such as batteries, battery chargers, or motors and controllers with its network of partners. Their expertise can help OEMs and ICE manufacturers build an electric solution with better flexibility and longevity than traditional gas or diesel options.