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Diesel cars’ lower ownership costs will drive sales

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In the ranks of perfidy there are "lies, damned lies and statistics." I will quote the following stats, not because I can guarantee their complete accuracy, but because they reflect my own experience as a long-term diesel car owner.

A reputable U.S. research institution has determined that diesels generally save owners $2,000 to $6,000 over three to five years of ownership. There's a lot of wiggle room in that statement, but it supports my view that diesels have lower total cost of ownership than gasoline-powered vehicles. And depending on how much highway driving you do, the diesel advantage could be ever greater.

The study was done by the University of Michigan and paid for by Robert Bosch LLC, the giant German technology company that manufactures diesel injection systems among many other automotive components.

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Researchers analyzed the total cost of ownership (TCO) for diesel vehicles compared to the TCO of their gas vehicle counterparts. The study developed three- and five-year cost estimates of depreciation, fuel costs, repairs, fees and taxes and insurance.

Fuel efficiency is the major advantage of diesel vehicles because they are about 30 per cent more fuel efficient than gasoline cars. Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a lobby group in the United States, was quoted as follows: "The significant savings diesel owners experience compared to gas car owners highlights another major reason why clean diesel vehicles sales will increase significantly throughout the U.S. in the coming years."

Schaeffer expects 22 new "clean" diesel vehicles to be introduced in the United States this year and more than 50 new diesels to reach the U.S. market by 2017. A similar number should be available in Canada. Auto makers know they need plenty of diesels in their lineups as the United States moves to the increased fleet fuel economy standards of 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) by 2025.

Diesel-powered passenger cars are now almost 50 per cent of new-car sales in Europe, but less than 3 per cent in North America. Many analysts see diesel cars going to 10 per cent of sales here in the next few years. These would be "clean" diesels – with engines that meet the same emissions regulations as gasoline-powered vehicles, often with the addition of expensive exhaust treatment systems and particulate filters.

There is another aspect to the growing popularity of diesel cars that was not addressed in the report, which I believe might become the most significant point of all, and that's the potential for biodiesel fuel.

Biodiesel fuel is a renewable energy source, unlike petroleum-based diesel. It is sulphur-free and less polluting than petroleum diesel. Although the biodiesel fuel can be used full strength, it is more commonly blended with petroleum fuel. The most common mix or biodiesel fuel blends is referred to as "B20" containing 20 per cent biodiesel by volume and 80 per cent petroleum.

Soybean oil is easily converted to biodiesel, but animal renderings, used cooking oil and other waste streams can also serve as feedstock. In Canada, the Canadian Renewable Fuel Content Regulations require 5 per cent renewable content in gasoline and 2 per cent renewable content in diesel.

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There are a number of Waste-to-Biofuels facilities in operation around the world and a new one is under construction in Edmonton. The Edmonton facility is designed to convert 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste into 38 million litres of biofuels annually. Its proponents claim waste-based biofuels, in this case ethanol, can reduce GHG emissions by more than 60 per cent compared to gasoline.

I have seen another Canadian process at laboratory scale that converts municipal solid waste or sewage sludge into a synthetic gas that can be converted to either biodiesel or jet fuel.

The greater fuel efficiency and resulting lower total cost of ownership should drive demand for diesel cars. Having a sizable fleet on the road opens the door to greater production and use of bio-based fuels. It's the combination of the two that can get us closer to The Green Highway.

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