The New Fuels

Green Machines

How About Electric Station Cars?

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This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the May 19, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

With Gas at $2 a Gallon, Hybrids Are Looking Great

In May of last year, a group of Central Trenton High School students unveiled and drove an automobile powered entirely by cooking oil salvaged from the school cafeteria. The lunch residue has two advantages over fossil fuel. It produces virtually no noxious emissions — and no one will ever fight a war over what fry cooks leave behind after cooking up a batch of French fries.

On Monday, May 24, at 10 a.m. you can go to the New Jersey State Library and Museum on State Street in Trenton and see the very latest — and strangest — of green vehicles, both one of a kind and mass produced, as they roll onto the parking lot. You can test drive them, poke under the hood (or trunk), and chat with the designer/owners. You can even buy one from one of the major auto manufacturers that will be displaying their newest green machines. Or, if you are a cyclist who wants to give his quadriceps a little boost, you can hop on the TidalForce M-313, one of the many green bicycles that blend human and electric energy.

It is all part of the 2004 Tour de Sol, the Great American Green Transportation Festival sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (www.NESEA.org.) Now in its 15th year, the Tour de Sol helps celebrate National Transportation Week with three such rallies from Saturday, May 22, through Tuesday, May 25. In addition to the Trenton event, the cars are featured in Burlington on Saturday, May 22, at 11 a.m. as part of Burlington Day; and on Tuesday, May 25, at 11 a.m. at South Street Seaport in New York City (www.TourdeSol.org).

“This is probably the most exciting time for the automobile in a century,” says Nancy Hazard, executive director of NESEA and head of the Tour de Sol. “The technology is totally revolutionizing, but it has not yet reached any consensus.” She likens 2004 to 1895, when the Stanley Steamer and several electric variations plied the roadways alongside cars with internal combustion engines. At that time America claimed over 2,000 automobile manufacturers, each boasting that its own power source was the best and the wave of the future. By 1910 things had pretty much shaken out and the gasoline powered engine has reigned supreme for a century.

But American innovation never idles in neutral. We have again returned to that 1895-1910 era, a time when fuels and engines were popping up in garages across the land. And while the vehicles powered in new ways may be revolutionary, do not for a moment envision these as strictly geek-driven, impracticably clean machines powered by the sun and humming bird dung. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, and Mercedes all have at least one hybrid or alternative fuel model.

Powered by such methods as hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol (made from high sugar content plants), compressed natural gas (CNG), or the popular hybrid involving a blend of battery and gasoline, these commercial autos are powering folks along the highways cleaner — and a lot cheaper. Princeton artist Ted Peck, for example, claims to have gotten 70 miles per gallon with his zippy little Toyota Prius, a gasoline and battery hybrid.

Every year your car puts out its own weight — yes, about two tons — of pollutants. In fact, 65 percent of the Northeast’s air pollution comes from land and air vehicles, even more in cities. From time to time, legislators put varying degrees of pressure on auto manufacturers to reduce pollution-producing emissions. The effort is getting increasingly serious, and at the same time, genuine consumer demand is growing. The result is a scramble to develop clean, efficient vehicles that are hassle free.

What will the new power sources be? Will there be just one, as was the case for most of the 20th century? What will your choices be in 2020? Speculation and examples abound at the Tour de Sol. Students from Trenton High School’s Tornado Fuel Masters promise to return with their latest version of the Vegginator car, along with full cans of cafeteria waste.

Other individual entries include a Chinese/Canadian neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), which is an ideal commutemobile for under 35 mph roads, and an entry from York that claims 202 miles per gallon by employing exide and lead acid batteries. Scooter commuters will enjoy the e-GO vehicles. They use a lithium-ion battery and can go 55 miles before they need a recharge.

Two Tour de Sol cars that offer a really clean drive are the Greased Lightning from Sterling College in Vermont and the Viking 32 from Western Washington University, both of which are powered by electricity combined with vegetable (biodiesel) fuels in an internal combustion engine. A car offering more variety is the “Al. C. O. Holic” from the University of Waterloo, which can run on propane, Ethanol 85, or gasoline. For pure, totally substance free, transportation, there are the photovoltaic autos. One of this year’s entries is designed by high school students from West Irondequoit (near Rochester), New York. It is powered solely by the sun.

In addition to one-of-a-kind cars, the Tour de Sol showcases cars from the major automobile manufacturers. They know that green is just good business. Consumers world-wide are seeking cleaner, more fuel efficient cars — especially with the Middle East in chaos and oil prices soaring — and now is their chance to grab a competitive edge in what has become a rather flat market. One SUV is pretty much like another, but if one manufacturer’s offering gets 50 miles per gallon while the competition has to struggle to claim 20, that manufacturer’s market share will soar. Further, these manufacturers see the new technologies on the horizon, and they don’t want to miss out on what could become the new standard — or a very popular alternative.

There are now 43 different alternative fuel and hybrid models, from nine major manufacturers, on car lots, and several more will join them this fall, especially in the SUV and pickup class. Among them will be the Ford hybrid Escape, the Toyota hybrid Lexus RX 300, a new hybrid from Toyota, and the first hybrid from General Motors (see sidebar below). To be the next winner of the auto technology revolution, however, a car must be not only clean and cheap, but also easily produced in quantity and powered by an inexpensive, plentiful, easily refilled fuel.

NESEA director Hazard keeps reminding people that we are on the verge of something broader than breaking the oil cartel — paying less for transportation, or even enjoying cleaner air. “If we are going to shift from the oil age to, say, the hydrogen age, what will this mean in all our lives?” she asks. “We have to foresee the consequences and plan before we switch to a fuel system just because it is clean or less expensive.”

Yet whatever the consequences, Hazard, along with most automobile manufacturers, smells change in the air. If you go to Lawrenceville Toyota on Route 1 today and ask for Toyota’s hybrid Prius, general sales manager John Berish will put your name on a year-long waiting list. “We have 60 pre-sold,” he says. The dealership, trying to satisfy rabid customer demand, got several by bidding more than sale price at a dealers’ auction.

Over at Honda of Princeton at 987 State Road (Route 206) Chris Scofield is planning to attend the Tour de Sol, as he has for the past four years. He notes that the popularity of his hybrids, the smaller Honda Insight and the larger, four-door Honda Civic, continues to climb. He says that some months he sells from 10 to 15 hybrids.

“We are in an area where people are quite concerned not only about thrift, but with their environment,” says Scofield. “That makes these hybrids sell well.” He is hard pressed to describe a typical hybrid buyer and says the cars appeal to a broad range of customers.

The standard gasoline Honda Civic costs a little over $17,000, while its hybrid counterpart runs about $20,000. However, there are many government rebates available to green buyers (visit www.greencarclub.org), and with pump prices what they are now, a hybrid driver can easily save $400 to $500 a year in fuel costs.

Scofield has a new favorite fuel efficient car, the compressed natural gas powered Honda GX. He has become an absolute evangelist of this car and its fuel, roaming throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania to visit colleges — and even grammar schools — to spread the word about this new technology. The GX lists for $21,000, is remarkably clean, and has similar acceleration to a similar sized Honda.

Rich Bankowski, who is in charge of Rutgers University’s air compliance program, drives one of the 10 vehicles that Rutgers has purchased. “The experience is no better or worse than any other Honda,” he says. Bankowski’s office is at the Livingston campus in Piscataway, and most of his trips are in the New Brunswick area, but he has taken a Honda GX to Camden and Newark. “It runs about 200 miles on a full tank of gas,” says Bankowski. “You have to keep track of where you are going so you can make sure you get back here to be sure you can get gas.”

Getting the GX refill is still a bit of an issue. To help out, Honda has worked out a deal with a network of suppliers who will provide fill-up compressors for individuals for the home. These home refueling appliances, marketed as Phil by Toronto-based Fuelmaker, are about the size of a pay phone. Hook Phil’s hose up to your car, and it compresses gas from one to five pounds of pressure to 3,600 pounds per square inch. It takes about six hours to get enough compressed natural gas to go 200 miles.

The home refueling appliance costs about $2,000 plus installation, which can be as little as $150, says Brian Keelen, vice president of Air and Gas Technologies, in Cliffwood Beach (www.airgastech.com). His firm offers natural gas refueling infrastructure design and development, and it runs its on vans and its forklift on natural gas.

Gas prices vary, says Keelen, but you could expect to pay $1.20 to $1.30 for the compressed natural gas equivalent of a gallon of regular gas, and that includes the cost of the fueling appliance and its maintenance. “Most people are not doing this purely for economic reasons, but you are getting 130 octane fuel, domestically produced, that is good for the environment.”

On the institutional side, compressed natural gas is a fuel that is growing in favor with municipalities and companies that use fleets of cars and want to fuel the vehicles themselves. For instance, Princeton University powers some of its shuttles with CNG, as does Bryn Mawr and Ramapo College. Keelen points out that municipalities and schools can get state rebates, $4,000 for each vehicle, and up to $50,000 for the infrastructure and equipment. For these institutions, through the Clean Cities Coalition, Keelen’s company offers a demo program that includes a loaner Honda GX complete with Fuelmaker station.

There are so many options to gas-powered cars, as there have been for decades, but this year’s Tour de Sol is more than a fanciful look at wacky alternatives. Fuel efficiency has moved into the mainstream, and the entire event bristles not only with innovation and energy, but also with a sense that the time for clean cars is now.

Honda of Princeton (HMC), 987 State Road, Route 206, Princeton 08540. Rob Burt, owner. 609-683-0722; fax, 609-683-7517. Home page: www.princetoncars.com

Lawrence Toyota (TM), 2871 Route 1, Lawrenceville 08648. John Berish, general sales manager. 609-883-4200; fax, 609-883-7399.

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The New Fuels

Not every alternative fuel is practical or necessarily even lower in greenhouse gasses. But here are several that make driving cheaper and more earth-friendly.

Hybrids: This is basically gasoline in an internal combustion engine, but it is given double or triple the gas efficiency with the aid of electricity.

Ethanol (E-85): Made from any sugar-rich vegetable matter, ethanol has become very popular in nations like Brazil, which has an excess of sugar cane. It is very clean and since it is made from plant material, its life cycle actually pulls carbon monoxide from the air and releases oxygen.

Biodiesel: Any of a variety of fuels made from vegetable oil. Clean and almost no noxious emissions, but does even Burger King waste enough for our needs?

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): Clean, and relatively cost competitive, natural gas is also very safe — CNG vehicles are allowed in New York’s tunnels. However, with the supply infrastructure not in place, supply can be a problem. The current solution is to sell home pump kits.

Fuel Cells: Typically made with hydrogen, fuel cells are safe and clean, until you consider that the hydrogen has to be made somewhere. If you are using a coal-burning plant to produce hydrogen, how does it serve our environment? However, if extracted from natural gas, greenhouse gases are cut 53 percent or if produced from wind or solar sources, gases are almost irradiated. Hydrogen is seen as further in the future than most alternative fuels.

Fuel-Flex: Since alternative fuels are seldom as available as gasoline, many vehicle engines provide the capability to switch from the alternative to the more conventional gasoline.

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Green Machines

Commercial manufacturers are constantly changing and presenting new green car offerings. This partial list below may spark some interest. For a complete listing and individual ratings, visit www.greencarclub.org.

Electric/Gasoline Hybrids: Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Honda Civic. Also to be rolled out late this year, is the Ford Escape.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): In addition to the Honda GX, the Dodge Ram van & Maxi van; Ford E-250 van, E-350 van, E-350 wagon and F-150.

Compressed Natural Gas/Flex: Chevrolet Cavalier & Express; GMC Sierra & Savannah; Ford F-150 pickup.

Fuel Cell: Daimler Chrysler Mercedes Class-A-Car; GMC’s Hy-wire.

Ethanol: Chrysler Sebring & Voyager; Mazda 83000; GMC Tahoe, Suburban, Yukon; Dodge Caravan & Cargo van; Ford Taurus, Sedan, and Mercury Sable.

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How About Electric Station Cars?

In 1998 the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association touted its Project Power program, which hooked up Solectria-made electric cars to charging stations at the Princeton Junction train station. GMTMA leased them for about $100 per month to forward-looking companies, such as Sarnoff and Parsons Brinckerhoff, to be used by employees who commuted by train. The safe range of this car was 35 to 40 miles.

When the Project Power demo program ended in 2001, the Department of Transportation assigned most of these cars to a new program called Capitol Connector. Now four of the electric cars are parked in the New Jersey Transit employee lot in Trenton, adjacent to track three. As part of the state fleet, they are used for carpooling workers to the departments of education, human services, and justice. A fifth car remains at the Junction train station. Peter Bilton sometimes uses it to commute to his job at GMTMA.

“DOT set up the Capitol Connector program and we administer it for them,” says Bilton. “But the focus for DOT is changing along with the technology. These cars were produced around 1997, and the parts are very expensive.”


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