Fuel for thought
Gas is fueling plenty of conversations these days.
From the price at the pump and its impact on consumer goods to international relations and environmental threats, fuel is a topic that extends to almost every area of life. It’s a factor in decisions about everything from family vacations to the infrastructure of communities. And it’s a concern known for generating far more questions than answers.
What if you could pose those questions to researchers and experts from a variety of areas impacted by the future of fuel? What if you could pick their brains about their concerns, their hopes, and their forecasts in a way that felt more like a conversation at a cookout than a classroom lecture?
Virginia Tech is home to an array of individuals with such expertise, so we connected with a handful of them to explore such casual conversations around this complex topic. They couldn’t provide all the answers, but they shared plenty of fuel for thought.
Ralph Buehler, program chair and professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning
The future of fuel will likely require us to rethink our relationships to automobiles, our communities, and what it really means to be free.
“The car is always presented as part of this idea of freedom,” Buehler said. “If you look at commercials, cars are never in congestion. They are always somewhere very free, and the car is giving you [the driver] options of where you can go. And of course, part of this is correct because if you have a car, you can go where you want. But we’ve created a landscape where most people don’t have a choice — they have to drive for almost every single trip.”
Buehler said the transportation sector historically has been stubborn compared with other industries in terms of reducing its dependency on fossil fuels. In the United States, this has been exacerbated by a history of comparatively affordable gas, subsidies for roadway construction, and the development of settlement structures adapted to cars—typically with a minimum supply of free parking required by local government. Buehler points to decades of building neighborhoods of single-family homes miles away from township centers and the decline in alternative transportation options as key contributors.
“So there’s huge potential in reducing the reliance on fossil fuels in the transportation sector. … It’s ripe for some changes,” he said.
Those changes will hinge on rethinking both automobiles and infrastructure.
Buehler said efforts related to rethinking automobiles can generally be divided into those seeking an alternative, affordable fuel to run in existing gas-powered engines or transitioning to an electric fleet. The latter effort is navigating many questions from driving range and charging station infrastructure to the recyclability of batteries and the possible hinderance of charging cords across sidewalks. The increased weight generally associated with the batteries of such vehicles also raises questions related to safety of pedestrians and cyclists, especially as their capacity for speed increases.
In terms of rethinking infrastructure, converting towns and communities to more of a mixed-use design, bringing residences and amenities together, can decrease the need for the day-to-day use of automobiles. Adding or enhancing elements that make other forms of transportation safer and more reliable, such as protected bike lanes or dedicated bus lanes, can also greatly decrease reliance on individual vehicles.
Buehler said such efforts may be on the horizon and may help shift the collective public mindset about transportation.
“The downside to the automobile is that it has created a dependence on itself. Once we spread things out and sped things up, we became dependent on the car. So while cars create freedom, if you’re not careful, they can also take it away,” Buehler said.
Andy Scerri, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Political Science
The effect of efforts to decrease fossil fuel dependence for average people often comes down to one thing — politics.
“It almost entirely depends on the degree to which average people make demands on their local, state, and national officials to not be left behind and how effective these demands are,” Scerri said. “A lot of provisions in the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] grew out of local, state, and national activists making demands on representatives.”
The IRA, which has been touted as an attempt to curb climate change, provides elements of hope and caution for middle- and low-income Americans, according to Scerri.
Among the positives are increased incentives to transition to more sustainable power, such as solar panels and batteries with the additional impetus to purchase American-made products and technologies. Scerri said this is beneficial from both a purchasing standpoint and an onshore job creation standpoint as well as possibly increasing alternative energy enough to help stabilize gas prices.
“If you’ve got enough solar and wind adding enough energy back into the grid, when the price of gas suddenly spikes, the solar and wind can dampen the spike. They help address volatility in the market and make utility requests to their states for rate increases less credible,” Scerri said.
Chief among Scerri’s concerns is the IRA’s lack of support for the expansion of public transportation and simultaneously, reining in what is most often called “low-density sprawl.”
“I feel it’s an Achilles heel,” Scerri said. “The lack of support for public transport infrastructure is not going to address average people’s needs to move around. All of these activities we take for granted because gasoline, heating oil, and gas for home appliances are heavily subsidized and so cheap. Those continue to benefit from massive direct and indirect subsidies, especially related to automobiles.”
Scerri said the current situation is going to encounter two big issues in the near future.
“Driving your personal vehicle the vast distances we all need to in the NRV [New River Valley] is going to become prohibitively expensive if that vehicle is powered by gasoline. And it will be very difficult to convert the entire automobile fleet into electric vehicles without even bigger subsidies and massive environmental destruction,” he said. “Shifting subsidies from one energy source to another without substantive changes in how we live merely puts off solving the problems associated with ‘sprawl.’ Living so far apart in what would otherwise be compact towns and cities just wastes huge amounts of energy in an increasingly energy-constrained world.”
Regarding both the concerns and benefits of the IRA, Scerri advises people to first and foremost stay informed.
“If people really want to get something out of this bill, and if fairness is a goal, everyday people need to read over the IRA and media reporting on it. They need to know what’s coming down the pipeline, and they need to petition their federal, state, and local representatives to ensure they and their fellow community members can benefit from implementation of the concrete policies which are now being designed and rolled out,” Scerri said.
Hesham Rakha, the Samuel Reynolds Pritchard Professor of Engineering and director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
If you’re considering the purchase of a new automobile, $4 might be worth your consideration.
“What we found is once the gasoline price reaches $4 and above, it’s cheaper to buy an electric vehicle in the long run, which is about 10 years,” Rakha said.
Rakha’s research focuses on how the electrification of an area’s vehicle fleet might impact the carbon footprint. It’s recently resulted in a public-facing tool for comparing the costs between electric and fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
"One thing we’ve noticed is that electric vehicles are more efficient at low speeds and stop-and-go conditions, which means they thrive in congestion,” Rakha said.
According to Rakha, the optimum speed for efficiency in a gas-powered automobile is 55 mph. That number drops to 15 mph in an electric car, which creates the challenge of balancing efficiency with increased travel time for passengers.
Other challenges include those related to the potential for increased stress on electrical grids from a large electrical fleet and the availability of charging stations. The latter can make longer trips a challenge for drivers with older or more affordable electric vehicles, and it often leads Rakha to offer some practical advice for car shoppers.
"What I say to people now, you might be better off getting a plug-in hybrid,” Rakha said. “You could then be using the car most of the time as an electric vehicle, but then you could go on a long trip without having to worry.”
Ralph Hall, associate professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Public and International Affairs.
Generating solar power alongside growing vegetables and grazing cattle may soon help provide a more sustainable future in Virginia.
The concept of dual-use solar, also known as agrophotovoltaics or agrivoltaics, relates to using the same area of farmland for both solar energy production and agricultural activities. The approach focuses on adjusting the height under and distance between solar panels to allow spaces for growing produce or keeping livestock. These adjustments allow light to reach crops and animals at different times of the day, while providing needed shade at other times, but its full impact on crops and herds is now the subject of a growing body of research.
"At Virginia Tech, we are beginning to develop a network of faculty and researchers who can study this carefully and work with external partners who are looking to deploy solar or dualuse solar projects,” Hall said. “We are approaching this effort as a research-driven and engagement project because it’s relatively new in Virginia. Put simply, we need the research and data to identify what types of agrivoltaic configurations might work in what locations to provide farmers and communities with the data they need to make informed decisions about the approach.”
The topic of argivoltaics was the focus of an Environmental Policy and Planning studio that ran during the fall 2022 and was led by John Ignosh, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and Ron Meyers, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, with support from Hall. The studio allowed students to not only seek answers to these pressing real-world questions, but also give them access to agrivoltaic experts in academia, government, and industry. During the studio, students formed teams and focused on a broad range of planning, permitting, financing, implementation, environmental impact, and management issues that might accompany an agrivoltaic project.
"Learning how to rapidly study an emerging field of research and sector of the economy is a really important skill to learn,” Hall said.
Rethinking the use of farmland is a part of a more widescale reimagining of our communities, which is needed if more sustainable and environmentally friendly energy is a goal. Designing infrastructures to be more accommodating to walking, cycling, and public transportation all play a role, as does the possibility of alternative energy sources. The lifecycle of the hardware needed for such transitions, as well as the feasibility for average people to take part in such movements, open many topics for future research.
"The big question is the impact of all this transition over a lifetime,” Hall said. “Is it a wash or will it be transformative? That’s the question we need to put front and center of our research.”
Bo Boylan, affiliated faculty member of Pamplin College of Business
Developing more sustainable practices is very much a part of the bottom line for most businesses these days, according to Boylan, who has with more than 30 years of various industry experience, including serving as the chief commercial officer of Solidia Technologies, a global sustainable building materials startup.
"From a business perspective, there’s no more of this choosing between the environment or the bottom line — those days are gone,” said Boylan. “It’s not either/or. It’s doing good while doing well.”
Boylan said the business world is currently abuzz with environmental and social governance (ESG), which is a framework for considering risks and opportunities outside of most traditional financial models. More than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies publish some form of ESG report.
Boylan said that no matter if the motivation stems from environmental concern or is driven by the cost-benefit of waste reduction, becoming more sustainable is top of mind for almost everyone.
"The good news is, if you reduce waste, companies make more money and we’re better stewards of our raw materials and we’re polluting less,” Boylan said. “Oil and gas are very much trying to do that now.”
Boylan compared the shift in focus to the move most companies made to get online during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"It’s mainstream now. It’s not a fringe thing or a liberal versus conservative thing. It’s grown way beyond that from a business perspective,” Boylan said.
Mike Gordon, assistant professor of business information technology, Pamplin College of Business
Fuel affects the price of consumer goods in more ways than one, especially considering the global nature of the current marketplace.
"Most products we buy are taking very long routes to get to us,” Gordon said. “T-shirts, for example. They’ve traveled the world before they’ve gotten to us. Typically, cotton is harvested in America, often in Texas, then shipped to places such as China or the Dominican Republic to be turned into textile. And then it might go somewhere else where it’s stitched and then back to America where it’s sold.”
Obviously, a higher cost for the transport of goods will most likely be passed on to consumers, but volatile markets also can impact that bottom line. Market factors can lead to changes in the decisions producers make on everything from the type of products they create to the types of shipping containers they use. This can not only affect the price of goods, but also availability to consumers.
"The risk and uncertainty make decision-making much more difficult,” Gordon said. “On one end, inventory may not get to you when you need it, and on the other, there’s the price of holding too much inventory. The increased risk changes the inputs into how a company makes or weighs decisions.”
In the United States, one change Gordon believes people might notice in the coming decades is how items are shipped across the country. He said it’s possible that fleets of tractor-trailers using GPS to run bumper to bumper to reduce wind resistance and fuel costs might very well become the norm.
Becoming more sustainable as a culture, however, will take more time and will require individuals to prioritize it in their day-to-day purchasing.
“I think it really just comes down to, in this global environment, understanding the global situation versus just looking at how it’s affecting you,” Gordon said. “Just thinking about the thing we consume and recognizing that little changes can make a big difference whether it’s to your own bottom line or helping in an environmental sense. Moving toward a better version of you and what you’re doing, that really does make a difference.”
Feng Lin, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, researcher of renewable energy storage, and the Leo and Melva Harris Fellow for the College of Science
Powering a collective shift to electric vehicles greatly depends on the source of the power itself.
“The concept of electric vehicles works 100 percent,” Lin said.
"The issue right now is how to get every household an electric vehicle, and that’s very tough.”
Lin said finding ways to make batteries more affordable, longer- lasting, reliable, and faster-charging would be critical to a mass transition. He is currently working with a team of students and postdoctoral researchers at Virginia Tech to explore different materials and battery constructions to meet those needs.
“Right now, electric vehicles are quite expensive for most people, including me. It’s largely due to the high cost of the battery,” Lin said.
Some of the elements currently used to make batteries, such as cobalt and nickel, are costly and difficult to obtain because of the locations of their deposits, Lin said. Cobalt can be especially troubling because deposits are mostly available in a very few countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has questionable working conditions at best. The battery community is seeing problems with nickel as well.
Lin said finding ways to extend battery life is critical to motivating the average person to invest in an electric vehicle.
“People complain about their cellphone batteries not being able to hold a charge after a while. For cellphones that’s mostly fine because we might change our phones every few years, but with vehicles, we’re talking at least 10, 15 years, and we also want to have the ability to sell them as second-hand cars,” Lin said.
A battery’s ability to electrify transportation also will need to be complemented by technologies that allow for fast recharging and an infrastructure that makes it widely accessible.
“Ideally, we should have something that can charge in minutes and cars that can drive 300, 400 miles per charge,” Lin said. “And people who don’t have single-family homes would have to charge in public or shared charging stations, which would probably need to operate kind of like gas stations. I mean, fast-charging capability is key.”
Finding solutions to these issues, among others, is the driving force behind Lin’s research.
Lin said he’s seen some promise in elements such as manganese and iron, but a breakthrough discovery would take support from a variety of sectors to create an alternative widely accessible for the battery industry.
Bill Hopkins, professor of fish and wildlife conservation, director of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, and associate executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute
According to Hopkins, a crystal ball is unnecessary when it comes to recognizing the relationship between the natural environment and fossil fuel consumption.
“People don’t need to look to the horizon for changes. They are happening in real time, right now,” Hopkins said. “Climate change caused by our emissions of carbon is altering ecosystems in frightening ways that affect both biodiversity and our access to critical resources like clean water.”
One clear example: Warmer temperatures have combined with land-use changes that increase nutrient runoff to create ideal conditions for harmful algal blooms. The overgrowth of microscopic algae can be lethal to fish and make water unsafe for humans.
Another area of critical concern related to the loss of biodiversity exists within our food systems, specifically the intersection of animals and our dependence on agriculture.
“If we lose pollinators, natural competitors and predators of invasive pest species, and organisms that influence the health of soils and nutrient cycling, our agricultural systems — and thus our food security — are in extreme jeopardy,” Hopkins said.
While Hopkins believes decisions made now to transition to lower- to no-carbon emitting energy sources will help alleviate some pressures on biodiversity, he said they won’t be a cure-all because one of the underlying problems is our collective appetite for energy. And this is especially true for developed, wealthy nations such as the United States.
“The energy transition is critical, but it’s important to remember that windfarms can kill birds and bats. Solar farms require lots of land, which can be important wildlife habitat. Hydroelectric dams disrupt fish migrations and reproduction. Our electronics and batteries use elements that require mining. Science can continue to innovate and develop more sustainable energy solutions, but there’s no free lunch if our energy consumption continues unabated,” Hopkins said.
And while the loss of biodiversity is tragic, he is hopeful that its tangible nature serves as a powerful motivation for energy transitions and other strategies to slow climate change.
“Much like increased intensity and frequency of fires, droughts, storms, and floods have served as tangible wake-up calls about climate change and the importance of sustainable energy solutions, losing unique wildlife can capture the attention of people of all ages,” Hopkins said. “If we can connect over these impending losses, it can be one more tool to better communicate about the future of energy and its implications for the natural world that we rely on.”
In recent years, efforts to develop effective alternatives to fossil fuels have also put a spotlight on the electrical infrastructure across the United States.
Christina DiMarino, assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading a team that received $2.9 million from the U.S.Department of Energy (DOE) to tackle power grid sustainability, innovative approaches to power conversion, and related technologies.
“The power grid technology in the United States is more than 100 years old. Because of this outdated grid technology, it’s more susceptible to power outages — especially as we experience more and more extreme weather,” said DiMarino.
The DOE recognizes improvements are necessary to create a more efficient and advanced system in the future.
DiMarino’s team is working to combine the functionality of power electronics and the power density benefits of high-voltage cables. SCALED, or Substation in a Cable for Adaptable, Low-cost Electrical Distribution, could put the
U.S.back on track for leading the way in energy-efficient grid technology. The enhanced grid technology will apply to all forms of energy—wind, solar, and “whatever else may come,” she said. Virginia Tech electrical and computer engineering faculty Khai Ngo, Guo-Quan "G.Q." Lu, and Yuhao Zhang are serving as co-principal investigators on the project, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Connecticut are also partners.