Your Smartphone Could Run for 3,000 Days on a Gallon of ExxonMobil Gasoline

ExxonMobil's (NYSE: XOM  ) new 'Energy Lives Here' marketing campaign serves to inform the general public about energy use with a natural bias toward fossil fuels. While the claims made throughout the marketing initiative are true, they can also be misleading and are worth investigating further.

3,000 days of smartphone per gallon
Last night while watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory, I saw an ExxonMobil commercial asking viewers how many days they could power their smartphone on one gallon of gasoline. The answer, over 3,000 days, brought two things immediately to my mind: First was that cell phones have become wonderfully efficient, and second was that the majority of electricity generated in the U.S. is not from gasoline.

In any case, and much to ExxonMobil's satisfaction, my curiosity was piqued and I went to their website to take the Using Energy Quiz. ExxonMobil's primary argument following the 3,000 smartphone claim was that the high energy density of gasoline makes it an ideal fuel for transportation.

Natural-gas-powered smartphones
One gallon of gasoline provides the same energy that would be generated from 1.5 gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Using ExxonMobil's assumptions, 1 gallon of natural gas could power your smartphone for about 2,000 days. The reasoning follows that CNG or LNG vehicles would need more frequent refueling, and that is an inconvenience that consumers should want to avoid. The argument is valid, but slightly flawed in its overarching reach. The convenience of fueling CNG vehicles is one of the biggest obstacles to the widespread use of the technology. Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ: CLNE  ) is expanding the CNG infrastructure by building fueling stations across the country. For consumers living in areas with higher population densities, the fueling stations are generally available, and in many cases provide fuel at extremely low prices relative to the cost of gasoline.

Honda Motor (NYSE: HMC  ) manufactures the only non-fleet CNG-powered vehicle available in the U.S.: the Honda Civic GX. The GX touts a range of over 200 miles when fully fueled. While significantly less than the 300-400 mile range of a gasoline-powered vehicle, the glaring issue that should be on consumers' minds is the cost. The current price of gasoline is relatively low, averaging $3.22/gallon. The current price of CNG is lower, averaging $2.08/gallon equivalent. Though more refueling is currently an unavoidable consequence in commercially available CNG vehicles, the overall fuel cost is lower. As gas prices inevitably rise, the cost disparity between gasoline and CNG will continue to spread.

Good old-fashioned electricity
ExxonMobil is feeling the pressure from alternative fuels, and natural gas may not be their biggest competition. Unfortunately for Exxon, it apparently doesn't understand thecompetition. On the ExxonMobil Policy Blog "Perspectives" the convenience argument is again made, this time in comparison with electric vehicles:

"Electric vehicle batteries have just a fraction of the energy density of gasoline, meaning they would have to be charged multiple times during a 400-mile trip. There's currently no major infrastructure for charging electric vehicles on the road, and it can take hours for an electric vehicle battery to charge."

The argument fails in several regards. Tesla Motors' (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) Model S has an EPA-certified range of up to 265 miles, making the claim of multiple chargings during a 400-mile trip a fallacy. Equally flawed is the statement on infrastructure, as there are nearly 7,000 public electric charging stations. Lastly, a Tesla Supercharger can charge half of the Model S battery in 20 minutes, making 400-mile road trips a reality for EV drivers in terms of both convenience and fuel affordability, so long as the driver doesn't mind a 20-minute coffee break along the way.

The takeaway
Exxon's marketing is effective, and is sure to fuel a few more arguments over the feasibility of alternative fuel vehicles. Some of the arguments on fueling convenience are indisputable as gasoline has had over a century to establish infrastructure, but infrastructure advances for CNG-powered and electric vehicles will cut into gasoline's foothold on transportation. While Exxon can argue that "Energy Lives Here," as an investor I am more interested in knowing where energy will live in the not-too-distant future.

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  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 11:46 AM, SirDuude wrote:

    Tesla's supercharger's 1/2 charge will only provide 1/2 the range making that 20 minute fast charge more than inconvenient being it will happen every 132 miles. That's an extra 60 minutes onto the ride assuming you can actually achieve that 132 miles on a 1/2 charge which isn't anywhere near as probable as a gasoline-powered engine is to reach its anticipated range. What's more is only a fraction of Tesla's 7000 charging stations offer a supercharger and finding 3 on a 400M trip would more likely turn that trip into a 2 or 3 day trip.

  • Report this Comment On December 26, 2013, at 9:32 AM, EmmyKaye wrote:

    According to your article, it takes 1.5 gallons of natural gas to equal the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. Does that mean a natural gas vehicle would use 1.5 gallons of natural gas to cover the same distance of a gasoline vehicle? If that's true, the cost of fuel would be $3.12 for natural gas vs $3.22 for gasoline. Seems hardly worth it.

  • Report this Comment On December 26, 2013, at 11:53 AM, ProfessorFunk wrote:

    EmmyKaye, that is correct. The energy density of gasoline is roughly 1.5x that of natural gas. Given the currently greater up-front cost of natural gas vehicles, the return-on-investment is questionable. Long-term, the other major considerations that might influence a consumer's choice would be the greater volatility in gasoline prices ($4.00/gallon for gasoline may make a switch to natural gas more intriguing) and reduced greenhouse emissions for natural gas vehicles, if one is environmentally-swayed.

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