Monday, September 19, 2005

Alabama Looking at Alternative Fuel Resources

Alternative fuels may be South's best option

By Matthew Korade
The Anniston Star
Anniston Star

ANNISTON -- Living on a fixed income, Jean Hill and her husband used to clock double-digit mileage on their family car. Now, with gas prices high, they're thinking more about leaving the car garaged.

"My husband's retired, and I'm not working," said Hill, of Jacksonville. "And he takes care of his mom seven days a week. He drives there twice a day, he puts 10 miles a day round trip on her. That's a big chunk out of our retirement savings."

With the majority of Americans suffering from post-Katrina sticker shock, transportation experts are asking people to alter their driving habits. But considering that the U.S. economy is built on its mobility, some might wonder whether avoiding the gas pump is really an option.

In the South, where people drive longer and spend more on traveling than elsewhere in the country, rising gas prices are more of an issue, said Dan Turner of the University Transportation Center of Alabama.

"American travel is a matter of convenience," Turner said. "No other nation travels one person per vehicle like we do.

"Alabamians, without realizing it, have worked ourselves into a trap, because we commute 60 to 80 miles to work" in larger cities such as Atlanta and Birmingham, he said.

Local numbers mirror the nation: 91 percent of the U.S. population commutes to work by car, and U.S. vehicles consume 65 percent of the nation's oil, according to the U.S. departments of Transportation and Energy.

Changing the composition of petroleum-based fuels is one way to deal with the impending shortage, the Department of Energy reports. Fuel additives increase the oxygen content of gasoline, improving performance while reducing harmful emissions.

Researchers also are developing alternative fuels from electricity, hydrogen, ethanol, methanol, natural gas, propane, even biodiesel, which is distilled from the oils in vegetables. These fuels reduce or eliminate emissions and, except for natural gas and propane, are renewable, the Energy Department says. Ethanol, for example, can be made from corn, and electricity from wind energy.

Consider these facts: Alabama ranks among the top five states in the nation in the percentage of personal income spent on driving, Turner said; residents spend about a fifth of their incomes on cars and gasoline, more than any other region in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

The average Southern household contains about two cars, according to the U.S. Department of Energys Energy Information Administration; this is about the same as the national average; but with longer distances to travel on average, Southerners burn more fuel; Alabama ranks 23rd in the nation in population but 19th in gasoline consumption, the U.S. Department of Energy said; and while Alabama's population increased 11 percent between 1990 and 2003, travel on state highways increased by 38 percent.

Americans live in the most oil- and gasoline-dependent country in the world. With about 5 percent of the world population, the United States consumes about 40 percent of the world's available oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Fuel-efficiency standards have cut U.S. oil consumption by half over the last 25 years, the National Association of State Energy Officials reports. But oil remains the leading fuel, cornering 40 percent of the U.S. market and essentially all the transportation market.

America's dependency on oil is cause for concern, some economists say. At the present rate of oil consumption, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there's only enough petroleum in the world's reserves to last another 50 years. At mid-century, the extraction of petroleum from current reservoirs is expected to become increasingly difficult.

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