January 10, 2009
Pickens Versus FedEx On Natural Gas Versus Electric Cars

T. Boone Pickens wants to transition cars to natural gas power. But his plan has elicited some opposition. The CEO of FedEx thinks electric cars are the way to go and FuturePundit is inclined to agree.

But Mr. Pickens has his opponents, including FedEx CEO Fred Smith, who favors electrification of the transporation fleet. Mr. Smith argues that hybrids are the way to go, and is putting his money where his mouth is. With 80,000 motorized vehicles, FedEx now boasts the largest fleet of commercial hybrid trucks in North America.

Without naming Mr. Pickens, the company’s director of sustainability, Mitch Jackson, upped the ante on Sunday with a blog item blasting natural gas as transport fuel of the future. After citing a list of reasons against using natural gas instead of diesel, Mr. Jackson concludes that “substituting one fossil fuel for another may mean we’re shifting our energy supply, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going anywhere.”

I see a few downsides to natural gas. First off, I do not want a car with a shorter travel range and less space for luggage due to the bigger storage tank. Second, burning natural gas doesn't increase vehicle fuel efficiency by much. Whereas hybrids do. Third, we need to move toward ways of powering cars that break our dependency not just on oil but on fossil fuels in general. When oil production starts declining the demand will rise for natural gas as a substitute for other purposes. Why put transportation on natural gas too?

Advances in lithium battery technology are going to enable us to use electricity for most of our miles traveled on the ground. That is good news because we have multiple ways to generate electricity including several ways that do not use fossil fuels as inputs. Nuclear, geothermal, wind, solar, and hydro will all compete. Their costs will go down, not up. They are far more sustainable than fossil fuels.

To be fair, Boone wants to cut the demand for natural gas to generate electricity by building more wind farms. This would free up natural gas for use in transportation. But current gasoline prices limit the potential demand for natural gas vehicles. Hybrids face a similar problem with hybrid sales down more than overall car sales. The technologies for hybrids, pluggable hybrids (which currently are far from compelling), and pure electric cars are going to improve and this will reduce the advantages of natural gas powered vehicles.

Update: The car companies mostly seem to be ignoring Pickens about natural gas - at least in their product planning announcements. Whereas the move toward electric vehicles is pretty clear. For example, Ford is going to bring out pure electric and pluggable hybrid electric vehicles as early as next year.

In addition to the new 2010 Fusion hybrid, Ford said the plans include a full battery electric van-type commercial vehicle in 2010, a full battery electric passenger car in 2011, and next-generation hybrid vehicles, including a plug-in version by 2012.

A fully electric passenger car in 2011. Anyone know details about the size of it?

Update II: In a nutshell here is why I prefer electric vehicles: Electric power can be generated from many energy sources. Therefore electric cars will uncouple our societies and economies from such a heavy (and need I say harmful?) dependence on oil. With great batteries suitable for use in cars we can use nukes, solar, geothermal, wind, waves, hydro, natural gas, coal, or other energy sources to generate electric power and therefore to move us down the road.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 January 10 11:10 PM  Energy Policy

Wolf-Dog said at January 11, 2009 1:45 AM:

This article says that 1 Google search generates 7 grams of carbon dioxide, while boiling a kettle generates about 15g. Apparently Google as a whole, is a significant source of CO2:


pond said at January 11, 2009 7:52 AM:

I agree that electric vehicles are the way to go. The most efficient form of transportation on a big scale is by rail. Electric rail doesn't even need batteries, so there is no cause to worry over Lithium supplies.

All the same: Is there any reason why a natural-gas-powered car could not also be a hybrid? All hybrids do is store some of the energy lost in braking. Natural gas cars would also have to brake.

SJ said at January 11, 2009 8:30 AM:

Pickens has backed off of telling us all to drive CNG (compressed natural gas) cars. He’s now saying that electric cars are ready for prime time, and that his CNG plan should be used for big trucks, for which electric is not yet practical.

Chrysler will unveil their new electric car at the North American Auto Show at noon today, EST. There is a link on this page to watch it. https://www.chryslerllc.com/en/innovation/envi/overview/

The high cost of fuel this past year did serious damage to our economy and society. After a brief reprieve gas prices are inching back up again. Our nation should not allow other nations to have such power over us and our economy . We have so much available to us in the way of technology and free sources of energy. We are using oil globally at the rate of 2X faster than new oil is being discovered. Added to the strain on supplies developing countries populations are bursting as they add more vehicles to their roads furthering the depletion of this finite source of energy. WE seriously need to get on with becoming an energy independent nation. We are spending billions upon billions in bail out dollars. Why not spend some of those billions in getting alternative energy projects set up. We could create clean cheap energy, millions of badly needed new green jobs and lessen our dependence on foreign oil all in one fell swoop. I just read an eye opening book by Jeff Wilson called The Manhattan Project of 2009. It would cost the equivalent of 60 cents per gallon to drive and charge an electric car.If all gasoline cars, trucks, and SUV's instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. Why don't we use some of the billions in bail out money to bail us out of our dependence on foreign oil? This past year the high cost of fuel so seriously damaged our economy and society that the ripple effects will be felt for years to come. www.themanhattanprojectof2009.com

Randall Parker said at January 11, 2009 9:12 AM:


The problem with natural gas hybrid is that both the natural gas and the hybrid components take up extra room and add extra cost. Sure, it can be done. For commuter cars where luggage space isn't a concern it might make sense at some point. The price gap between gasoline and natural gas has to be big enough to justify it.


I agree we ought to be trying harder to shift to electric power.

James Bowery said at January 11, 2009 11:46 AM:

In Pickens' defense, I've been following his actual argument for sometime and they aren't being adequately reported by the WSJ, nor represented in FedEx's objections.

While he has touted the near-term potential for conversion of existing small vehicles to natural gas, Pickens has always placed his greatest emphasis on large vehicles in his public policy recommendations (except for centrally refueled government fleets which even FedEx admits are appropriately fueled with CH4) -- and there are _no_ adequate domestic fuel substitutes for trucks. FedEx is not going to be running its large trucks (nor jets) on batteries.

Secondly, the tankage problem for CH4 is inverse squared of vehicle scale which makes it more favorable for large trucks (and jets if you can convert them).

Thirdly, the specific energy of CH4, its effective "specific impulse" in terms of mileage, _is_ higher than other fossil fuels, hence it does make more sense for long haul trucks (and jets if you can convert them).

Fourth, Pickens has never advocated CH4 as anything but a short term stop-gap in converting small vehicles to electricity or some other alternative.

The only real argument that FedEx has is that when central refueling is not available, the problem of reliable refueling infrastructure for CH4 may be prohibitive. True. This is an area where it makes sense to immediately plow some of that "infrastructure economic stimulus".

Wolf-Dog said at January 11, 2009 3:08 PM:

Sorry I have already mentioned this statistical information in the other blog about the bankrupt Detroit companies, but it is so relevant that I must say it again. Here is the long term chart of the oil component of the trade deficit from Federal Reserve:


In the chart above, for the year 2006, the oil component of the trade deficit of the United States, was approximately $26 billion per month, which means 12 x $26 billion = $312 billion per year. Thus even though the price of oil did decline below $40 per barrel due to the economic depression, in the long run the price of oil will almost certainly stay above $50 per barrel, which guarantees that the pure oil component of the trade deficit of the United States will be $400 billion per year for a long time. Already the total trade deficit of the US is nearly $700 billion per year, which is nearly 6 % of the GDP. This kind of trade deficit cannot be sustained forever, and in a few years nobody will accept the US currency in exchange for the trade deficit. For this reason, we have to find a way to switch from imported fossil fuel. The deadline for the end of the United States is much sooner than 2020.

cancer_man said at January 11, 2009 7:34 PM:

"The high cost of fuel this past year did serious damage to our economy and society."

Where is the evidence for this?

"in the long run the price of oil will almost certainly stay above $50 per barrel, which guarantees that the pure oil component of the trade deficit of the United States will be $400 billion per year for a long time."

Trade deficits have almost no influence on a country's growth. Japan has been running large surpluses for years and still didn't grow more than 1% a year for a decade. We also have no idea what the price of oil will be in 2015 or 2020 and have no idea how much the input costs as a percentage of the GDP in those years.

Aren't the peak oilers supposed to simmer down for a while after the recent collapse in oil prices?

Wolf-Dog said at January 11, 2009 8:33 PM:

As long as trade deficit is sustainable, I am all in favor it. The only problem is that the trade deficit at this level of 6 % of the GDP, will not be sustainable forever, and at that time there will be a sudden, nonlinear collapse similar to the financial crash that happened very fast and surprised even top experts who were not hedge fund managers in 2008.

Let me clarify further, the current financial collapse that started in America, was due to the fact that a lot of Americans were in fact doing personal deficit spending, by using assets as collateral (first stocks, but more importantly their real estate), and when their ability to borrow and spend cash against the perceived value of their assets, then at that precise moment, there was a nonlinear collapse. To be more exact, the American consumer had been FINANCING the trade deficit by means of extracting cash from their personal assets, because while the trade deficit was 6 % of the GDP, the government deficit spending per year was only 3 % per year in average, and so the consumer made up for the difference by extracting cash from their personal assets. When this ability to borrow cash against their assets stopped, the ability to live beyond their means also stopped, and hence this collapse occurred now. We were warned of judgment against the deadly sins of greed, gluttony etc, and here it is, in the form of Depression, now. I believe that it was Louis XV (not Louis XVI) who said "Apres moi la deluge" ("After my death, come there be floods"). But it was ultimately his successor Louis XVI that paid for it with his life, due to the existing bad policy of squandering the wealth of the country that was firmly in place for a long time:


Dwight Nager said at February 19, 2009 12:47 PM:

Friends, the fact that a company is doing something doesn't mean that it makes sense to do it.

Think for a moment about electricity in lightening. Or in a high voltage line going from a big dam to a far off city. Then think about the fact that you can't rely on your cell phone or laptop battery for much.

It is absurd that people think that the fact automakers are making battery cars means they will sell. The GM Volt? Friends, GM is asking us to pay $10,000 for a glorified gas tank with a 40 mile range.

If GM is going to Congress and the media to argue that it was undone by $2,000 per car of legacy costs compared to the new Asian owned plants built in the US South, how could anyone possibly think that the consumer market can digest a $10,000 battery cost.

The world was created for electrons to move, fast. Not to sit still. That's what a glance a lightening, and a glance at your lame old cell phone battery tell you.

Boone is saying he believes in car batteries becuase it would be impolitic to criticize others ideas. And it wouldn't help clever Boone win support. Batteries won't do the trick. Likely in our children's lifetime. And no amount of you wanting it to work, or Shai Agassi's silly idea that we'll trade out batteries all the time (what, now we have to go the gas station every day, and for what? 40 mile range? But if we drive 40 miles a day, a give Shai our empty battery for a full one, we still (net net) have one battery per car. We still have the $10,000 cost.

Have you bought a battery for your camera or remote? Has the price dropped in the past 10 years? Batteries aren't computer chips. They have other, much more intractable problems.

This is just a bunch of liberal wishing, with no basis in reality. Rush Limbaugh is licking his lips. He will use the car battery to deride liberals into a foolish caricature, which may be enough for him to take back the congress.
And, much as I don't like Rush's views, credit to him. Liberals are way off in fantasy land on batteries. And there's just no talking 90% of them out of it.

Randy Jackson said at April 3, 2009 8:39 PM:

The internal combustion engine is inefficient with about 80%[1] of the energy being wasted on heat and all the moving parts between the pistons and the wheels. The internal combustion engine is water cooled with the pistons and piston rods moving up and down, which turn the crankshaft, which is connected to the drive shaft and the transmission, which is connected to the differential, which finally converts the energy into the direction the wheels need to move. In contrast, the electric motor has only one moving part, which is moving in the same direction the wheels need to move, at a stop light, the motor is off (using no energy) and when going down hills or breaking, the motor is generating electricity to be used later. When was the last time your internal combustion engine gave back the gasoline it just burned up by accelerating or going up a hill?

But, you may ask, how much more efficient is an electric vehicle (EV) than an ICE vehicle (ICE-V)? EVs can go 4.8 times more miles, on the same amount of energy, than ICE-Vs as shown in Figure 1. The ICE Mini Cooper hardtop gets a combined 32 MPG[2] city and highway and each gallon of gasoline has 33.7 kWh[3] of energy in it. The Mini E can go 152 miles on 33.7 kWh of energy because it gets 4.5 miles per kWh[4] (City driving kWh/mls 0.22). This means that EVs are 4.8 times more efficient than ICE-Vs.

It is 65% less expensive to operate an EV versus an ICE-V. It costs $16.73 for the ICE Mini Cooper to go 152 miles with gasoline at $3.50 a gallon and it costs $5.74 for the Mini E to go 152 miles with electricity at 17 cents a kWh. So, using expensive gasoline, diesel or even natural gas in inefficient ICE-Vs is far more expensive than using electricity in EVs. Also, once peak oil[5] is reached and demand for oil outstrips supply, the price of gasoline will go much higher.

Why are 100% electric vehicles so much better than hybrids and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles? Hybrid vehicles are only marginally better than ICE-Vs because they still use inefficient internal combustion engines for higher speed driving and they are dependent on gasoline. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles require hydrogen to run and it takes electric energy to produce the hydrogen. This electric energy could be used directly to power a 100% electric vehicle. Also, the distribution system for hydrogen is nonexistent and would be costly to implement. In contrast the 100% electric vehicle uses zero gasoline and the distribution system for electricity is in place directly to our homes and this would support most of the driving we do.

It actually takes less energy to dive an EV 32 miles (ICE Mini gets 32 MPG) than it takes to produce one gallon of gasoline. The energy required to produce oil and refine one gallon of gasoline is about 12 kWh. The Mini E takes 7.1 kWh to go 32 miles (Mini E gets 4.5 miles per kWh). This means we save 4.9 kWh for every 32 miles driven in an EV. So we will use less electricity, not more, if we all drive EVs because of all the energy we save by not having to produce gasoline.

The energy required to produce oil is 1440 MJ per barrel and each barrel contains 6164 MJ[6] (23.4% of the energy in 1 barrel of oil is required to produce one barrel of oil) and 6164 MJ is 1712 kWh, so 1712 x .234 / 42 equals 7.9 kWh of energy per gallon to produce the oil. The efficiency of the refining process is 87.7%[7] (12.3% of the energy in 1 gallon of gasoline is required to produce one gallon of gasoline), which equates to 4.1 kWh of energy to refine one gallon of gasoline since 1 gallon of gasoline has 33.7 kWh of energy in it. So, it takes a total of 12 kWh (7.9 + 4.1) to produce one gallon of gasoline.

One other very important fact is that electric cars do not have to be small. Electric motors are used in locomotives, which pull trains, because they are efficient. Therefore, there are electric motors with more than enough power to drive SUVs and trucks. Why have electric motors been use for decades in trains and not in cars and trucks? The oil companies over the past century have worked hard to keep us addicted to oil by lobbing to law makers to pass laws such as a 54 cents a gallon import tax on ethanol, by buying battery patents from GM and suing other auto manufacturers to prevent them from producing EVs. Also, by GM buying mass transit systems and closing them. Much this and more is documented in the movie Who Killed the Electric Car?[8].

1. http://www.fueleconomy.gov/FEG/atv.shtml
2. http://www.miniusa.com/#/learn/mpgCompare-m
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MPGe
4. http://www.miniusa.com/pv_obj_cache/pv_obj_id_13382CB3DE5965A128742ED5AF950647FC510200/filename/MINI-E-spec-sheet.pdf
5. http://www.chrismartenson.com/crashcourse/chapter-17a-peak-oil
6. http://netenergy.theoildrum.com/node/4762
7. http://www.transportation.anl.gov/modeling_simulation/GREET/pdfs/energy_eff_petroleum_refineries-03-08.pdf
8. http://www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com/

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