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Introducing Change to Transportation and Energy Systems: The Case of Alcohol Fuels

UCD-ITS-RP-82-05

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Suggested Citation:
Sperling, Daniel (1982) Introducing Change to Transportation and Energy Systems: The Case of Alcohol Fuels. Transportation Planning and Technology 7, 153 - 165

The most intractable energy problem may be transportation fuels. As petroleum becomes scarcer and more expensive, the search for alternative energy sources becomes more urgent. Sometime soon we must diverge onto new and different energy pathways. What are those alternative pathways? They are well known: battery power, electrified roadways, hydrogen, alcohol and petroleum-like liquids derived from coal and shale oil.

But of these options, only the liquid fuels are likely to play a major role in vehicle propulsion over the next 75 years or so. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the electric alternatives for motor vehicles – battery vehicles and electrified roadways – are falling short of the promises made for them in past years. Battery technology is developing very slowly; electrified roadways would incur tremendous up-front capital costs and be highly disruptive. Neither electric option is likely to play a major role. Hydrogen also is not likely to replace petroleum to any large extent. Hydrogen has serious safety problems and would require a completely new and unique fuel distribution system.

So we are left with the liquid fuel alternatives. Of these the most promising may be alcohol fuels – whether made from coal, natural gas, wood or any of a large number of other materials. Recent cost estimates in the United States suggest that alcohols may prove to be the least expensive alternative available. Although alcohol is similar to gasoline, its introduction would follow a difficult and tortuous path. This paper uses alcohol fuels as a case study to investigate how technology-based systems respond to change and innovation.
This paper is based upon the author's Ph.D. thesis (Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley). That document contains the analysis supporting the conclusions and assertions of this paper.