Feb. 23 2009 12:00 AM

The nation spent the first half of the year complaining about expensive oil. It’s now enjoying the cheapest gas in four years, at levels a third of those last July. But what will happen next? Energy analysts say the reprieve will be short, and predict a price hike once the global economy recovers.

According to a report by the International Energy Agency, current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable. The report, written for policymakers, warns that the rising cost of extraction coupled with the declining output of the world’s oil fields means that “the era of cheap oil is over.” What’s more, global demand driven by fast-growing India and China will spike. Supply shortages could become a reality as soon as 2015, highlighting the need for alternative fuel sources.

As it becomes more and more obvious that oil will not be fueling the future, some of the biggest companies in the world are beginning to move away from gasoline powered vehicles. Going green is no longer strictly a moral or political consideration. It is now just smart business.

The Coca-Cola Company recently integrated a collection of hybrid electric trucks into its fleet of delivery vehicles. FedEx has followed suit, and now, in addition to their gas-powered trucks, uses hybrid vehicles specially designed for commercial operations. Ryder System, a global provider of rentals and leasing services, has made available the RydeGreen, a medium-duty straight truck with a diesel engine and a hybrid electric system. It’s extremely important for those of us in the landscape industry to pay close attention to this trend. Contractors live in their trucks. Entire days are spent driving from one jobsite to the next, so naturally the mileage begins to add up. When gas prices were at their peak, you probably winced every time you went to refuel.

The alternative fuel industry is one in which change is the only constant. It is known to be a cutting edge industry, ripe with new ideas. Often it’s these ideas that receive the most attention. Ironically, one of the most promising and widely used alternative fuels is not new at all.

Propane has been used to power cars and trucks since the 1940s, and it is being used more today than ever before. The Alternative Fuels Data Center estimates that 59.7% of alternatively fueled vehicles being used today are powered by propane. The fuel’s popularity is partly due to its eco-friendly properties.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, propane vehicles can produce 30 to 90% less carbon monoxide than gasoline engines and roughly 50% fewer toxic and smog-producing emissions. Propane is not only environmentally friendly, it’s also engine friendly. Because it is such a clean burning fuel, propane engines experience less wear and last much longer.

The landscape contracting industry has been quick to notice propane’s many benefits. Several companies now offer propane-powered mowers. One of the first to do so was Dixie Chopper. “There are a lot of benefits to using propane,” said Eric Burnsee of Dixie Chopper. “Because the engines burn so clean, wear and tear is greatly reduced, which can increase the engine’s life span and the duration of maintenance intervals.” Burnsee continued, “There are also environmental considerations. Propane mowers produce far fewer emissions than traditional gas engines, and there is almost no spillage when you use propane, which is not the case with gasoline. And of course there is cost. Depending on what’s going on with gas prices, propane can be very cost-effective.”

Right now, propane is among the most common alternatives to gasoline. However, more and more research is being done on how to create liquid fuels using biomass as a feedstock. Because these fuels are created using crops that can be grown with relative ease, there is little danger of supply shortages. An abundant supply means cheap prices. Biomass-based fuels may guarantee that you never feel pain at the pump again.

The most popular biofuels so far are bioethanol, made from crops that have sugar or starch and biodiesel, which comes from crops containing oil. However, these fuels may cause more harm than good. There is always the danger that agricultural land will be diverted from food production, or that grains that would have been used for food will instead be used to make fuel. That in turn drives up food prices. There’s also the possibility that certain biofuels will produce more harmful greenhouse gasses than the old fossil fuels they seek to replace. Growing the right crops requires nitrous fertilizer, which puts out its own greenhouse gases. Harvesting and processing the crops also requires energy supplied by fossil fuels.

Efforts are also underway in Europe to reduce dependency on gasoline. However these projects also have significant pitfalls. The European Union has committed all its member states to blending fuels with 5.75% biofuels by 2010, sparking a big rush for palm oil. But environmentalists warn that Indonesia and Malaysia, the leading producers of palm oil, plan to burn large swathes of virgin rain forest to convert to oil plantations.

While these projects show some promise, it is clear that they are not without their flaws. So scientists and researchers are continuing the search for the perfect alternative fuel. In the long term, biofuel derived from algae may just be the solution they’re looking for.

Many of the world’s fossil fuels— gas, coal and oil—come from prehistoric algae. However, the natural process that turns algae into fuel takes millions of years. So scientists are working feverishly to speed up this process by mass-producing algal cells and stimulating them to produce fuel.

Despite their lack of roots, shoots, and leaves, algae are able to transform carbon dioxide and sunlight very efficiently. Due to this skill, they are some of the fastestgrowing plants in the world—some species can double in volume overnight. What’s more, algae generate more yields, pound for pound, than other sources of biofuel: around half its weight may be oil.

More importantly, an acre of algae is estimated to produce between 5,000 to 20,000 gallons of fuel a year, depending on who you talk to. An acre of soybeans, on the other hand, produces just 750 gallons.

In the 1970s, the government began to explore algae’s potential as an alternative fuel. The Department of Energy’s Aquatic Species Program (ASP) built huge algal ponds in California, Hawaii and New Mexico. The government put an end to its experiments in 1996, when oil prices plummeted.

After a 12-year hiatus, the government is back promoting the use of algae for biofuel. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged $15 billion or more a year in renewable energy, including algae biofuels. This investment “will also help us transform our industries and steer our economy out of this economic crisis by generating five million new green jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced,” the President- elect says.

The advantages of algae as a biofuel feedstock are numerous. It can grow in saltwater, freshwater or even contaminated water, at sea or in ponds, and on land not suitable for food production. On top of that, algae sucks up carbon dioxide and untreated sewage—helping to shield the planet from the harsh effects of climate change.

If gas prices do take off again, algae will become big business. Former Microsoft boss Bill Gates is backing Sapphire Energy in San Diego, California, which hopes to make auto fuel from algae before expanding into diesel and jet fuel. Elsewhere, Airbus and Honeywell have teamed up to develop jet fuel using vegetation and algae-based oils. They aim to power one-third of commercial aircraft this way by 2030. A raft of other oil-dependent companies, such as Boeing, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell, are also examining algae.

The main obstacle to the commercialization of algae biofuel has always been finding the best way to grow it, both on a large scale and in a lab. While new technologies, such as closed bioreactors, have made it easier to grow algae in large quantities, the problem is that it’s so finicky. It requires just the right amount of light, favorable temperatures, and the correct amount of nutrients.

Furthermore, extracting oil from algae by using organic solvents or simply squeezing it can be tedious and expensive. Scientists now get more bang for their buck as they better understand algae’s fat-producing cycle: starving it actually produces more fat. Will Thurmond, head of R&D at NAA, says, “Three years ago, it cost $10,000 to produce one gallon of algae gas. This year it costs $20.”

Several companies are working on methods to grow algae that would make it more viable for the commercial market. San Francisco, California-based Solazyme grows algae in dark fermentation tanks, feeding it sugar. OriginOil in Los Angeles, California, has patented a system with a vertical shaft that rotates very low-energy lights in a helix pattern. Valcent of El Paso, Texas, utilizes water-filled vertical panels that rotate slowly, giving the plants the precise amount of lights and nutrients they need.

Despite these advances, algal technology is still some way from becoming fully commercial. When the technology develops to the point of mass production, which could be before 2020, the potential for this alternative fuel will be unlimited. We’re often reminded that oil is a finite resource that won’t be cheap in the long term. As a result, some firms share the vision of an “algae economy” to take the place of the existing oil economy. Such an event could be a blessing, as it would remove what is a complicated pricing and supply system.

In January 2007, President George W. Bush declared that “a way has to be found to break America’s addiction to oil.” Exploring alternative fuels and developing them for widespread commercial use will help ensure that we achieve that goal. This goal is one that’s very important to landscape contractors because a reduction in energy dependence can lead to a drastic reduction in the price of fuel, and therefore, operating costs.

They say an army runs on its stomach; in the landscape industry we run on our trucks.