The Methanol Institute hosted a delegation of officials from Shanxi province last week, one of the major regions in China that is implementing the use of methanol as a transportation fuel. This is not the first visit to the United States by the delegation, which was led by former vice governor of Shanxi province, Mr. Zhigui Peng, who now serves as the Chairman of the Shanxi Federation of Industrial Economics.
The delegation and the Methanol Institute met with officials from the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as automotive and engine technology companies like Lotus and Navistar. These meetings were in both Washington, D.C. and at testing facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
What was different about these meetings from past trips by the delegation is that the roles of those involved have shifted dramatically. Shanxi and its leaders used to visit the United States to learn about our innovative methanol technology and programs, but it seems now they are playing the role of the teacher.
In the 1980′s and 90′s, the U.S. had thriving methanol fueling programs going on in California and New York, with just short of 20,000 vehicles on the road. These programs led to the development of flex fuel vehicle technology which has since been adopted by almost every major automaker in the country, and led to the wider use of alcohol fuels in vehicles around the world.
The methanol fueling program in the United States declined at the end of the century as a result of dramatic reductions in the price of oil. This of course proved to be shortsighted, because shortly thereafter the price of oil began its meteoric rise and once again the country was left scrambling for solutions.
With the adoption of the Renewable Fuel Standard, the U.S. began to strongly promote the use of alcohol fuel, this time ethanol, in large part because of the benefits to farmers in the Midwest.
The Chinese on the other hand saw a different way forward. The Chinese recognized that the cost for producing and distributing ethanol did not make economic sense, especially in a country that has greater struggles with feeding a burgeoning population. In China, the cost for corn feedstock and production into ethanol results in a fuel that costs more than gasoline. China has since banned the use of grains of all types for the production of ethanol fuel, and has sought to tap into the more diverse and flexible feedstocks that can be used to make methanol.
As Gov. Peng reported in his presentations to U.S. officials, 26 provinces and municipalities in China are currently using methanol or have testing programs in place (there are 30 total on mainland China). There are over 58,000 vehicles on the road today, both taxis and private cars, and thousands of buses as well. Most of these vehicles are running on high level blends of methanol (M85 and M100), but Shanxi province alone has over 1,000 fueling stations that are providing low-level blends from M15 up to M50 for consumers as well. Where the United States struggles to utilize higher blends of alcohol, China is accelerating.
China has truly taken the lead in methanol fueling, and as more countries seek pragmatic solutions to their dependence on oil eyes are now turning to the Chinese, their technology and their programs for guidance and inspiration. Two decades ago, the U.S. had the most innovative fueling program in the world using high-level alcohol blends to create a cleaner environment and reduce its dependence on oil. But instead the U.S. now has a fueling program that is designed to support its farming economy instead of focusing on economics and widespread reductions in oil consumption.
China on the other hand replaced almost 8% of their fuel with clean burning methanol, driven primarily by the reduced costs that Chinese consumers pay at the pump for the fuel. China promotes methanol as a strategic resource to fight their growing oil addiction, and they are making methanol from their massive coal reserves and exploring the use of biomass and other technologies that do not rely on grains and food as a feedstock for production.
In the end, the visit from the delegation of officials proved to be very productive for everyone involved. The Chinese were able to learn more about the use of methanol in heavy-duty vehicle applications, and U.S. officials were reminded that their country once served as the leader in technology innovation in the methanol economy, spurring on renewed interest in reinvesting in practical energy solutions that can lower costs for consumers and reduce the stranglehold that oil has on the domestic economy.