Diesel Cars- Finally for Everyone in the US, or Too Late to the Party?
Diesel used to be cheaper than gas (petrol) in the U.S., but now it’s more expensive. Matthew L. Wald of the New York Times analyzes and explains why diesel’s price is rising in the article “So You Think Gas Costs A Lot?“. Basically, it comes down to demand, and the demand for diesel is rising fast, but there are many other complicating factors for diesel, and Wald reports several interesting aspects of this complexity, including
- the increased production of ethanol was also pushing up diesel prices by offsetting some of the need for gasoline, because as refiners make less gasoline they produce less diesel
- Terry Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, said the problem was that the oil industry, despite record profits, had not invested enough in refining capacity for diesel fuel. “There’s really no excuse why we’ve got this shortage of capacity, which in turn is driving prices far higher than for gasoline,” he said.
So, we learn of yet another way that ethanol production harms the US and global consumer. However, if you factor in the better gas mileage of modern diesel engines vs. gasoline engines, diesel is still a better deal according to Jim Henry of BusinessWeek Online. Furthermore, according to Wald,
Shifting to diesel engines had been promoted as one way to save oil and meet coming fuel economy standards; because diesel engines operate at higher cylinder pressures, they deliver more power for each B.T.U. of energy they use (and each gallon has more B.T.U.’s than gasoline).
Unfortunately, the advantages of diesel are shrinking as the cost of diesel fuel increases, making recent advances in diesel efficiency even more important. It is also relatively recent that high mpg diesel cars have been able to meet emissions standards in all 50 US states, though more such cars are on the way (see here for 60 mpg). In order to provide sufficient power, many modern diesel cars use a turbo engine design. Some diesel cars are reported to reach over 100 mpg, though these tend not to be production models and may not meet the toughest U.S. emission standards.
A comparison of the design and convenience of diesel and gas car engines is given by Simon Byholm in “Diesel Or Gas – Loud Smoking Dinosaur Or Fuel Gulping Monster“. In spite of the impressive efficiency of diesel engines and their improved emissions, a few environmental concerns remain. Diesel is still a carbon-based fuel, for one, so CO2 emissions still occur when diesel fuel is burned. There is another emission to be concerned about with diesel fuel, however: small particulates. You’ll recognize the particulates, and how real an issue they are, from the black smoke that is a familiar sight in the wake of diesel-powered cars and trucks.
So, we can be excited about the advent of high mpg, relatively low-priced turbodiesel cars for the US market like the upcoming JettaBlue from VW, but I wonder about the severity of health problems from diesel smoke and the relative cost of diesel and gas in the future. Certainly, improved fuel efficiency is something to celebrate while we wait for even greener options, like plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, to show up in US dealerships.
James K. Bashkin © 2008