Alternative fuels aren't solving Phoenix's air-pollution problem, and it's doubtful that they will anytime soon
A few years ago, the city of Phoenix owned about 1,400 light trucks and cars that can run on compressed natural gas as part of its effort to reduce dependence on gasoline and help clean the air.
Now it has cut back to 1,073 such vehicles. And over the next several years, the city will shed most — if not all — of its remaining light-duty natural-gas vehicles.
For now, the replacements burn standard gasoline.
As the fleet shrinks, much of the decade-old $13 million in infrastructure for these vehicles will slowly be rendered useless. Burly compressors for the natural gas and maintenance equipment will be sold off.
The trend is affecting government fleets all over the Valley, as well as private vehicles. A look at the state Motor Vehicle Division's license plate statistics shows that the number of alternative-fuel vehicles in the state — in spite of the so-called green movement — is going down.
Alternative-fuel license plates for government vehicles dropped from a high of 5,616 two years ago to just 4,925 this year.
In 2002, the state issued 13,159 of the special clouds-and-blue-sky license plates for private automobiles. This year, it issued 11,799.
Most of these private vehicles are bi-fuel natural-gas vehicles, meaning they can also burn gasoline. And actually, they burn almost nothing but gasoline.
With few exceptions, the only time owners use alternative fuel is for a once-a-year emissions test that qualifies them to display the special plates.
But before you go thinking they do this out of the greenness of their hearts, note that the law allows these owners to use freeway HOV lanes — and, most importantly, it allows them to pay a fraction of the normal vehicle license tax.
The tax rate for most vehicles is based on 60 percent of the vehicles' value. It's a paltry 1 percent for vehicles with the special plate — a lingering perquisite from a scandalous 2000 state government giveaway program that funded the purchase of most of the state's personal alternative-fuel vehicles (more on that later in this story).
For a host of reasons, and despite heavy promotion, alternative fuels haven't worked for personal vehicles. The cost of buying and operating such vehicles never became worth the benefit. They're more expensive than regular gas-eaters, and they aren't necessarily better for the environment.
Experts say that older natural-gas-powered vehicles, which make up the bulk of the public and private alternative-fuel automobiles on the state's roads, spew at least as much pollution into the air as the latest gasoline burners.
Because of the lack of demand for natural-gas vehicles, Detroit all but stopped making them a few years ago. Valley cities that made a heavy commitment to such vehicles for their fleets are now forced to find different options.
Like Phoenix, Mesa has touted itself for its seemingly forward-thinking investment in alternative fuels. The city used to have about 400 bi-fuel cars and light trucks, capable of running on natural gas or gasoline.
That's dwindled to 185 — 150 of which are police cars. The cops, who have always hated the limp acceleration of the bi-fuel vehicles and the bulky second fuel tank in the trunk, can't wait to see the rest go.
The city will then shed the costly infrastructure needed to maintain the vehicles and fill them with natural gas.
Pete Scarafiotti, fleet director and automotive engineer for Mesa, predicts the city's natural-gas-compression equipment will be useful for only another two or three years.
Mesa's buses will continue to run on compressed natural gas, but the light-duty fleet will have converted back to gasoline.
The switch already has happened in Glendale, which has swapped out most of its older natural gas and propane vehicles for those that run on gasoline.
But, as in Phoenix and Mesa, some of Glendale's newest vehicles are at least capable of running on another type of alternative fuel: ethanol. Fleets for state agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality also have supplemented their ranks with so-called flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on gasoline or E85 (a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline).
In fact, Arizona law requires three-quarters of all new vehicles purchased by most state agencies since 2001 to be capable of running on an alternative fuel.
The law doesn't say the fleet vehicles have to burn the alternative fuel, though.
And because of the lack of filling stations stocking E85, the majority of government-owned flex-fuel vehicles in the Phoenix area (not to mention privately owned ones), are not burning the new fuel. They're using only gasoline.
Only a few gas stations that will have E85 pumps are under construction in the Valley. Now, there's one state-owned and one public E85 facility in the county, each in downtown Phoenix.
Phoenix has no current plans to install an E85 pump at any of its facilities. Nor does Glendale or Mesa.
The point to all this is that ethanol, like natural gas, may never be widely used in the Valley — and, even if it is, ethanol has its own baggage.
One problem, according to experts, is that increased use of ethanol could very well make the Valley's air pollution worse.
It wasn't so long ago that optimists claimed heavy government use of natural-gas-powered vehicles would spark a revolution for the rest of us. New filling stations were supposed to sprout all over the Valley as consumers bought these vehicles, spurring automakers to build even more.
That vision has dimmed.
Propane-powered vehicles, also highly promoted 10 years ago, never caught on with the masses.
The biggest thing in alternative fuels right now is ethanol.
But experts admit, reluctantly, that gasoline-burning engines are likely to be with us for decades to come, barring any unexpected major leaps forward in electric or hydrogen technology.
Gasoline and diesel engines are bad for the air on both a local and global basis. In the Phoenix area, they produce some of the particulate matter, carbon monoxide and ground-level ozone in our air.
As most people now know, the uncounted millions of combustion engines on Earth are also unlocking carbon that's been stored in the ground for millions of years and chucking it into the atmosphere, where it pretty much stays. Most scientists believe the extra level of greenhouse gas is warming the Earth at an unnaturally rapid pace — which is the global warming theory in a nutshell.
Petroleum-burning vehicles are becoming more efficient, but global-warming alarmists claim far more radical changes in fuel use are needed to avert disaster.
The finite supply of oil also must be considered. It's only becoming more expensive as it is used up, and someday it will all be gone.
In principle, then, alternative fuels make perfect sense.
In reality, they've been something of a boondoggle.
Their ability to control air pollution isn't proven, and they've been very expensive.
Government handouts for producers and users of alternative fuels, also known as subsidies, have used up billions of public dollars even as the fuels' environmental value is debated.
In 2006, producing one gallon of ethanol took about $1.45 in subsidies. Last month, the New York Times called for an end to ethanol subsidies and laid the blame for high food prices worldwide and the specter of future mass starvation on "environmentally dubious bio-fuels."
Eight years ago, Arizona showed the rest of the country just how ludicrous alternative-fuel subsidies could get. The state promised to pay residents about half of the cost of a new vehicle (most were SUVs loaded with options) if the buyer converted the vehicle to run partly on natural gas or propane. The vehicle didn't actually have to use the fuel, mind you. Many buyers installed only a token four-gallon natural-gas tank to get the subsidy, with no intention (or any practical way) of actually using the fuel.
People even got some vehicles for free.
A flat subsidy of $30,000 was paid for heavier pickup trucks, like Ford F-450s, even though, without options, the trucks retailed for less than $30,000. One loophole allowed buyers to collect the subsidy and immediately sell the vehicles out of state for profit. Another failed to effectively limit how many people could get a subsidy.
Accountants had mistakenly informed state lawmakers that the program would cost the state $10 million at most. But by the time Arizona lawmakers killed the program in late 2000, qualified state residents had applied for about $800 million in subsidies.
On the advice of Janet Napolitano, then the state's attorney general, lawmakers canceled the subsidies for everyone except those who had already purchased a vehicle. Ultimately, the state spent about $140 million on the program and the phrase "alternative fuels" became synonymous with government waste. New Times covered the fiasco as it erupted ("Fuel's Gold," September 28, 2000, and "What a Gas," October 12, 2000).
Experts agree that all this money spent did nothing to clean the air.
The momentum that had sparked the nightmare subsidy program, however, continued by mandate in the government fleets. Years later, several Valley public and private fleets pump alternative fuels daily into their heavy vehicles like buses and garbage trucks.
As far as the smaller vehicles driven by government workers — the kind the rest of us drive — gasoline has won the day.
"Phoenix has won awards for the largest alternative-fuel fleet in the state," says Gaye Knight, the city's environmental specialist. "We've invested very heavily in it, and it's not working out real well."
Most disturbing, says Knight, is that all the money poured into alternative fuels by the city in recent years possibly didn't benefit the air at all.
Though ethanol is expected to be used more frequently in coming years, it may not help reduce pollution, either.
Locally, we have to deal with the scientific fact that ethanol evaporates more quickly than gasoline, especially in our extreme summer heat. Fumes from automobiles rise into the air and combine with other chemicals to form ground-level ozone, a lung-damaging smog the Valley has battled for years. From November through March, 10 percent of the gasoline we use contains ethanol, but the state doesn't allow it to be used in the summer, like in other parts of the country.
As it is, the Valley has been on the verge of violating federal health standards for ozone, and it's clear that E85 produces at least as much ozone-forming chemicals as gasoline, says James Anderson, a scientist in Arizona State University's School of Engineering.
If widespread use of E85 turns out to contribute to the Valley's ozone levels more than the gasoline it replaces, Anderson says, "then you've got a disaster because you've put in all this infrastructure and investment."
Stanford University scientist Mark Jacobson rattled ethanol boosters last year with a study that claims heavy use of the fuel would cause more health problems than gasoline. A rebuttal paper by the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council shed doubt on some of Jacobson's findings, but didn't exactly end on a high note: "An accurate summary would be that [Jacobson's] study shows that use of high-blend ethanol is unlikely to significantly improve air quality compared to the use of gasoline."
Ethanol, like other alternative fuels, does reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. But, as Jacobson suggests, the use of corn-based ethanol has other ramifications that offset the good things it does.
On a national and global level, increased ethanol use has played havoc with the overall food market, particularly corn prices, which reached a record high in April. People around the world are paying more for food because of ethanol production. Scientists say the bio-fuel trend is leading countries like Brazil to destroy rainforests faster than ever.
A fiercely debated study in February's Science magazine estimates that changes in land use to make ethanol will result in twice as much greenhouse gas as the gasoline it replaces.
The potential danger is similar with bio-diesel, which also can be made from food stocks. Cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from switch grass and even yard waste, doesn't lead to such land-use changes, but nobody has figured out how to mass-produce it yet.
From a Valley perspective, alternative fuels have been irrelevant when it comes to pollution, says Lindy Bauer, environmental director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Gasoline engines have become so much cleaner, when it comes to emissions, in the past few years that alternative fuels just aren't much better, she says.
"In the old days, when they were dirtier, then you saw alternative fuels having an impact," Bauer says. "Now they're more on a level playing field."
Vehicle exhaust is only part of the air-pollution problem. Even if alternative fuels were much cleaner than gasoline, which they apparently aren't, the effect on our air would still be modest.
Take the case of particulate matter, which has become the Valley's most dangerous air-quality problem. Sure, that black cloud coming from a diesel-powered semi-truck's exhaust pipe is full of PM-10, (that's shorthand for particulate matter up to 10 millionths of a meter in size). And although you can't see it, PM-10 lurks in the exhaust of gasoline-powered vehicles, too.
Yet a 2007 report from the Maricopa County Air Quality Department shows that about 99 percent of the Valley's PM-10 comes from sources other than vehicle exhaust.
Dust from construction sites is the single-largest contributor to PM-10 in the Phoenix area, accounting for 38 percent.
Then there's the dust kicked up by vehicles. Even if every vehicle in the Valley had run on electricity in 2007, the dust produced by these vehicles on paved and unpaved roads would still have produced more than a quarter of the particulate pollution, the report shows. (And, of course, the pollution coming from the power plants needed to juice up electric cars also would have to be taken into account).
The bottom line is that alternative fuels, given so few hard facts and considering their other problems, appear no better than gasoline. They simply aren't providing the kind of obvious results for the air that, for example, was seen with changing to unleaded fuel, which dramatically reduced lead in the air.
Electric-gasoline hybrids (mainly the 48-miles-per-gallon Toyota Prius) have fared much better in the marketplace than alternative-fuel vehicles. But hybrids aren't the answer to the world's air-pollution problems, either, because they burn petroleum.
In the big picture, hybrids are gas-thrifty vehicles that appeal to people who want other people to know they care about the environment.
They do save gas, but at a price — an immediate cost to the carbuyer. The potential customer base of hybrids is bound to stay relatively small because they are more expensive than regular cars. The savings in gas costs, compared with similar non-hybrid vehicles, may cancel out the higher up-front cost at some point. But it will take a few years to see the savings, whereas the higher monthly payments start immediately.
When New Times asked government officials why they weren't replacing their alternative fuel cars with hybrids, the answer was always the same: Money.
Nobody knows whether the Valley's use of natural gas, propane or bio-diesel vehicles in cars, SUVs, or city buses has reduced air pollution even a little bit.
The state Department of Environmental Quality, which runs the vehicle-emissions-testing program, has never taken the simple step of measuring the difference in pollution between a flex-fuel vehicle with a tank of E85 and the same vehicle with a tank of gasoline, says spokesman Tom Marcinko.
Phoenix poured 9.7 million gallons of alternative fuels into its vehicles last year — the bulk of it liquid natural gas in the city's buses — which amounted to more than half of all the fuel it used in vehicles. Ron Serio, Phoenix's deputy public works director, believes that must account for some improvement to our air.
However, the city doesn't test its buses for emissions.
Nor can anybody say whether Phoenix buses run as clean as they would if powered by the latest diesel engines. More advanced diesels are in the works, meaning natural-gas buses soon could be as obsolete as natural-gas pickups.
Another consideration regarding liquid natural gas: No one makes any in Arizona. So the natural gas used in Phoenix buses is trucked here from Colorado, presumably in diesel-powered tractor-trailers. This offsets some of the presumed pollution savings of the natural-gas buses.
Much hope is staked on bio-diesel these days, which can be made from fryer grease, among other things. Whether straight up or blended with normal diesel, bio-diesel fuel runs cleaner as far as some pollutants go, but adds more ozone-forming chemicals to the air. Unmodified diesel engines can run on B20, a mixture of 20 percent bio-diesel and 80 percent diesel, though extra maintenance problems crop up.
When Rudolf Diesel first fired up the engine that bears his name, it ran on a bio-fuel — peanut oil. That was more than 100 years ago. So why isn't bio-diesel everywhere? Because it costs more than petroleum products, it reduces fuel mileage, it's relatively scarce, and environmental benefits are uncertain.
In other words, it has the same problems as other alternative fuels.
"There are tradeoffs with using alternative fuels over gasoline," says Carol Weisner, an environmental protection specialist with the EPA in San Francisco. "You have to look at the whole life cycle to measure emissions impacts. It's complicated."
Clearly, reducing air pollution locally and worldwide will be a challenge.
One 2006 study shows that even bicycles, the ultimate in alternative-energy transportation, may be worse for the atmosphere than automobiles.
The problem, according to the study's author, Karl Ulrich of the University of Pennsylvania, is that switching from an SUV to a bicycle might make you healthier, thus increasing your lifespan and your total contribution to greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
Apparently, then, the most effective cure for air pollution is to die young.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.