While a national energy industry study due out this summer hopes to paint a futuristic picture of alternative fuels and vehicles in 2050 and vehicle manufacturers are zeroing in on specific fuels for specific types of transportation, a panel representing various alternative transportation fuels presented a diverse, complex view of the current market choices at Tuesday’s opening day of the ACT Expo 2012 conference in Long Beach, CA.

Panelists reinforced the varied approaches to developing more alternatives to traditional gasoline and diesel-powered transportation, representing the petroleum, airline, propane, natural gas and major vehicle manufacturing sectors.

Michael Allman, CEO at Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), talked about stepped up initiatives by the nation’s largest natural gas-only distribution utility company to develop programs that will make it easier for its customers to switch to natural gas vehicles (NGV). Steve Center, vice president for environmental business development at American Honda, said his company will increase sales efforts aimed at the mass consumer car-buying market with an NGV version of its Civic model.

At the same time that natural gas, because of its price and supply advantages, is gaining increased attention, Roy Willis, CEO of the Propane Education and Research Council, emphasized that the third leading vehicle transportation fuel in the nation is propane.

“There are more dedicated propane gas vehicles in the United States than any other dedicated alternative fuels, and the number of vehicles is rapidly expanding, along natural gas-acquired propane,” Willis said.

Domestic propane supplies are expanding so rapidly that for the first time in history the United States last year became a net exporter, Willis said.

Allman said market forces are beginning to move to capture natural gas supply and price advantages, citing his utility’s recent moves to offer a high-pressure gas service rate to transportation fueling stations, and make it easier for individual vehicle owners to install home fueling capability. He sees potential for natural gas-gasoline bifuel vehicles, along with an increase in fueling options.

“I think we are going to see some tremendous movement here in the near future,” said Allman, adding that no new NGV technologies need to be developed. “We know how bifuel vehicles run; there are millions of them in Europe. I think we have a bright future ahead of us.”

Toyota Motor Sales product planning manager Scott Haddad, who is a 10-year veteran of the company’s Prius hybrid vehicles, said it is a real challenge “finding the right balance” in alternative fuel vehicles. “Americans are not particularly good at paying more upfront in return for future benefits,” Haddad said.

In looking at the future for alternative fuels, “everything is going in the right direction; we can’t lose — the question is how much can we gain,” said Linda Capuano, vice president for emerging technology at Marathon Oil Corp. and chair of the coordinating subcommittee for the National Petroleum Council’s “Future Transportation Fuels Study,” which is due out in August.

In the public transport sector, Robert Sturtz, United Airlines’ managing director for strategic sourcing – fuel, said he’s chairing an industry effort to identify synthetic jet fuel sources and in that regard has a keen interest in various natural gas to liquids (GTL) technologies. He said there are various technologies being developed to convert natural gas to jet fuel, and plants are being developed in various natural gas-rich nations, such as Qatar and Nigeria.

While they have differences on what policymakers need to do to spur the alternative transportation fuel market, panelists did agree that an “all-of-the-above” approach is the answer in the alternative fuels sector.

“One fuel doesn’t work everywhere,” Willis said. “There is some 70% of the United States that currently doesn’t have access to a natural gas distribution system. That includes most of the nation’s farms and national parks.”

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