Alternative Energy for Transportation

The world’s citizens and governments must accept that Earth’s resources are finite and commit themselves to the development of new power sources for automobiles.

Science and technology (S&T) has brought economic growth and contributed to enhancing living standards. In recent years, S&T has progressed very rapidly and brought tremendous benefits to our lives. For example, the development of transportation has dramatically extended the range of human activities, genome research makes personalized medicine possible, and the advancement of information and communications technology (ICT) has minimized time and distance in communications.

However, S&T brings not only these lights but also shadows. Advances in S&T have led to serious problems for humanity, such as climate change, ethical concerns in the biosciences, nuclear proliferation, and privacy and security issues in ICT. Therefore, it is essential to control the negative aspects on the one hand and develop the positive factors on the other.

In this context, we need appropriate midterm strategies to advance two aims: economic growth and sustainability for our planet. S&T must help make economic growth compatible with sustainability, and one current challenge is to develop sources of alternative energy for transportation.

The downside of fossil fuels

In the 20th century, many advanced countries relied on fossil fuels such as coal and oil for generating energy. These energy resources have brought great benefits for large-scale economic activities, mass production, and global transportation. However, fossil fuels have a downside for humankind. Consumption of oil is responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, climate change, and air pollution. And because oil is a limited resource, it is subject to great increases in price. Therefore, Japan and the world face a daunting array of energy-related challenges.

In view of the expected increase in global energy needs and of environmental concerns, we need to make rapid progress in energy efficiency and further develop a broad range of clean alternative energy sources to reduce emissions and solve climate change problems.

Many developed countries have been making concentrated efforts to develop alternative energy sources, such as nuclear energy and solar power. I strongly believe that nuclear energy should be the main alternative to fossil fuels. In Japan, power from nuclear generation is less expensive than power generated from oil. Furthermore, climate change and escalating oil prices have persuaded some countries that had adopted a cautious stance toward nuclear energy to change their minds and seriously consider it as an alternative. The importance of power generation using nuclear energy, premised on the “3S’s” of safeguards, safety, and security, is clear and indisputable. Although developing other alternative energy sources, including solar power, is also undoubtedly important, ever-increasing energy demands cannot be met unless we use atomic energy.

Where mobility for humankind is concerned, however, almost all types of transportation are still highly dependent on fossil fuels because gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles are predominant throughout the world. Even if various countries develop and use alternative energy generation systems, they cannot survive without petroleum-derived fuels, which power transport. In other words, right now there is no effective alternative. This leads to skyrocketing oil prices, and every country’s dependence on gasoline and other petroleum-based fuels has given oil-exporting countries tremendous economic and political clout since the middle of the 20th century. Oil is produced in only a handful of countries, and because it is indispensable for transportation, those countries exert crucial influence on the rest of the world. The oil-producing countries sometimes control production and export volume, leaving other countries to cope with higher oil prices. For harmonious development of the world’s economy, we must take major steps to overcome the problems arising from the uneven distribution of oil.

Some advanced countries have highly developed electric public transportation networks, such as trains or subways, but these have two main drawbacks. First, such largescale public transportation systems are applicable mainly in urban areas. In rural areas where the population is relatively sparse, such systems are not really practical. Second, automobiles offer people the freedom to move about at will. Economic development gives people the freedom to work and engage in leisure as they please, so personal mobility is important. Thus, it is sometimes difficult for people who are accustomed to personal mobility to shift to mass public transportation.

In the last decade of the 20th century, some farsighted automobile manufacturers developed hybrid vehicles. Toyota has been making and selling its petroleum electric hybrid vehicle since 1997. This system improves energy efficiency, but such vehicles still depend on gasoline for fuel. Transportation accounts for nearly 30% of all energy consumption worldwide, but because there are few sources of alternative energy in this sector, demand for oil sometimes causes prices to spike. There is no price elasticity, and the pricing mechanism is not working effectively.

This illustrates the fact that transportation is much more oil-dependent than electricity generation, and existing technologies offer few fundamental solutions for alternatives in the transportation sector.

Alternative energy for transportation

It seems clear that it is necessary to develop alternative energy sources for transportation to replace fossil fuel. Two promising technologies are electric vehicles (EVs) and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Developing these two key technologies in the next five years will have a decisive impact on our future and will help establish an economic mechanism with which oil prices can be contained within a reasonable range. If these two systems can be commercialized, they will help lower both oil prices and carbon dioxide emissions.

In Japan, the cost of generating nuclear power is competitive with that of thermal power generation such as oilfired power plants. And in terms of energy for transportation, the energy source for both EVs and FCVs is electricity, which can be generated from nuclear power.

For example, EVs use electricity directly to charge their batteries, and FCVs are powered by hydrogen, which is produced using electricity. In this way, it is possible to inject nuclear energy into transportation. This structure would stabilize the price of oil and at the same time save fossil fuels and alleviate climate change, achieving sustainability for our planet.

R&D of alternative energy systems for EVs and FCVs is under way. If the technical challenges in these two convincing technologies can be overcome, the energy costs of these systems could be an important component for placing an upper limit on oil prices. In other words, it is essential to concentrate on cutting the cost of these new systems, in addition to solving the technical difficulties.

One of the key merits of FCVs is high power-generation efficiency, because unlike a normal generation system, the system does not depend on the Carnot efficiency peculiar to thermo motors. EVs also offer advantages. The first is that electric motors are mechanically very simple and release almost no air pollutants in operation. The second is that, whether at rest or in motion, electric vehicles typically produce less vibration and noise pollution than vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine.

However, there are challenges to overcome before these two technologies can be applied. One main technological hurdle for FCVs is the difficulty of maintaining the integrity of the pressure vessel and the separation membrane, which degenerates throughout the operating period. In the case of EVs, drawbacks are the relatively short travel distance on one charge of the battery, short battery life, and the large amount of electricity needed to charge an EV battery.

Researchers thus need to concentrate their efforts on solving these technological challenges. The sooner these new energy systems become competitive with conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, the further ahead we will be in achieving sustainability. I would like to see this new technology in viable form within the next five years, and that will require more government investment and creation of model projects in these areas.

Developing alternative energy for transportation, in sum, will stimulate competition among fuels, keep fossil fuel prices at reasonable levels, and slow climate change. Therefore, the technologies making this possible must be further developed.

Accepting limits

Up until the 20th century, Earth’s resources were effectively unlimited for our economic activity and our needs. But in the 21st century, we have come to recognize that these resources are finite. With progress in technology, automobiles are everywhere, almost everyone uses electricity, large quantities of energy are consumed, and the population has grown. Humankind has prospered up to now, but for the sake of our future survival, we must change our economic behavior and daily life to reflect the fact that Earth is finite.

A strategy for reducing transportation’s dependence on oil in the next five years is vital. However, this strategy will not become reality unless all of us, including policymakers, scientific experts, and the general public, recognize that we need to preserve our finite and priceless planet. Unless we all accept the finite capacity of Earth to sustain us, governments will not invest large amounts of money in initial R&D of new energy systems for transportation. Similarly, the public will not be motivated to shift completely from gasoline-powered vehicles to new systems if they lack awareness that natural resources are limited and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential for Earth’s survival. If new energy sources for transportation become competitive, public behavior will change and vehicles propelled by new energy will sell. Energy for transportation will become less expensive and carbon dioxide–free transportation will become a reality, thus contributing to sustainability.

At the Science and Technology in Society (STS) forum, which I founded in 2004, many of our discussions have been about the relationship between humankind and nature from the perspective of S&T. Today, some may believe that nature can be controlled as a consequence of the progress of S&T. But we must recognize that human activities are also part of the universe. What we can do to harmonize our lives with nature in the future is the most important issue for humankind today.

We must ensure that economic growth and environmental preservation can coexist. But whether this sustainability will work for 50 or 100 years or whether it will last for 500 or 1,000 years into the future depends on shared awareness that the planet is finite. Our discussions at the STS forum are based on the idea that humankind is part of the universe and on the philosophy of harmony with nature.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Copenhagen in December. At this conference, a post–Kyoto Protocol framework should be built up with the participation of all countries, including the United States, China, and India. Everyone must realize that taking this action is for the benefit of humankind.

This year’s STS forum, which will take place in Kyoto in early October, will discuss, among other themes, alternative energy for transportation, including electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicle technologies that will provide new energy sources to make transportation less oil-dependent within the next five years.

Humankind shares a common destiny. I hope that technological progress and policy action on alternative energy for transportation will benefit society and lead us on the road to sustainability, in harmony with nature for a long and bright future for humanity.

Koji Omi, a member of the Japanese House of Representatives and a former minister of finance and minister of state for science and technology policy, is the founder and chairman of the Science and Technology in Society forum.

Cite this Article

Omi, Koji. “Alternative Energy for Transportation.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 4 (Summer 2009).

Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer 2009