A city in Texas starts smart-energy driving

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While the technology for hydrogen is still being developed

No president has really been serious about conservation and renewable energy, but Jimmy Carter at least made a symbolic statement in the 1970s by having some solar panels installed on the White House roof. Shortly afterward, however, Ronald Reagan, backed by the oil boys, defeated Carter, and that was the end of that —one of Ronnie’s first acts in office was to order that those damned solar panels be taken down and junked. Since then, every president has made the obligatory Earth Day nod to solar, wind, and other alternatives as a means of breaking America’s self-destructive oil habit, but there’s been miserly commitment behind their rhetoric. Using its political and lobbying clout, King Oil has been able to maintain its hegemony over energy policy, its stranglehold on the economy, its preeminence over the environment, and its priority call on military action.

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In the quarter century since Carter tried to tell us something important with his solar gesture, every president has been in deliberate denial about where America is headed if we don’t get off oil. And now, we’re there:

• America’s oil consumption has increased 25% since 1980—we’re now chug-a-lugging 20 million barrels of oil every single day (up from 16 million in 1980).

• Global consumption is above 83 million barrels daily and rising rapidly.

• U.S. gasoline prices are approaching $3 a gallon.

• To keep the crude flowing, the U.S. is deploying its military all around the world at a staggering cost in money and lives.

• The chemical refuse of our gasoline addiction is fogging the globe with greenhouse gases that are altering our planet’s climate,

The world’s supply of recoverable oil is fast running out. An energy policy (or the lack of one) that leaves us with no alternative but swilling more oil is suicidally stupid. But where’s the leadership? Neither the White House nor the Congress, neither the Republican nor the Democratic party, has a plan for coping with what is clearly a looming disaster. They’re not even discussing it.

Instead, the Bushites’ babble on blithely about letting corporations move their drilling rigs into the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is akin to handing out umbrellas to people standing in the path of a tornado. Aside from the environmental and spiritual damage of drilling in ANWR, even the most optimistic assessment says that there would be only enough oil in the entire refuge to supply the U.S. for 800 days—so paltry that the companies themselves have shown little interest in making the investment to drill in such an unpromising field.

Cut the leash

If our leaders are too corrupted, too weak, and too unimaginative to cut America (and ultimately the world) free of our tether to Big Oil, then we must do it ourselves. A good place to begin is for us to start buying cars, trucks, and other vehicles that get 500 miles per gallon.

Whoa, Hightower, there you go again, breathing some sort of strange fumes and talking nonsense! 500 mpg? That’s science-fiction stuff.

No. It’s in the here and now, using two affordable, available technologies that are already achieving amazing fuel economy on America’s roads and cutting pollutants to little or zero. Combined, the two technologies create “plug-in, flexible-fuel hybrid vehicles,” for which a more manageable moniker would be “gasolineoptional,” or GO cars.

As you know, hybrids are already out there. The Toyota Prius and Honda Civic use electric batteries to supplement their gasoline motors. The battery-powered motor provides acceleration, and the gasoline engine kicks in at cruise speed, combining to give happy owners an average of about 50 miles per gallon of gasoline (60 in the city). Electric motors are more efficient, and these hybrids use other new technologies to improve gas mileage. For example, when you hit the brakes on conventional cars, all the forward motion energy is lost—turned into heat between brake pads and brake drums— while hybrids capture that energy to recharge their batteries. Three years ago, these hybrids were mere curiosities, but sales have taken off, with demand jumping by 88% a year. Toyota plans to offer a hybrid version of all of its models by 2012, and every American, Japanese, and German automaker will introduce at least one hybrid model within the next two years.

PLUG-IN. Hybrids are a step forward, but America needs to make a huge leap forward. We can do this by shifting from what’s now on the market to the new plug-in hybrids, which essentially are consumerfriendly electric cars. Rather than using batteries as backup to the gasoline motor, as the Prius and Civic do, plug-ins rely almost entirely on batteries, providing a small gasoline motor for use if and when you need a backup power source. In fact, you don’t have to put any gas in it at all. You can if you want, but it’s not necessary.

This is because a new generation of powerful lithium ion batteries (the technology that powers laptop computers) can take you up to 60 miles without recharging. That’s three times the daily commute and other driving done by the majority of Americans, so these vehicles break through the shortrange restrictions of the previous generation of electric cars. Better yet, recharging these babies is a breeze. Every night, you plug your car into one of the standard 110-volt wall sockets in your house, the same way you recharge your cell phone and laptop already. Call it “home fueling.” Also, call it a bargain, for the price of that electricity is the equivalent of 56-cent-a-gallon gasoline!

Speaking of gasoline, you only need it when you drive more than 60 miles a day. If the car’s battery power winds down on a longer day trip, the gasoline automatically kicks in, moving the car down the road and at the same time recharging the batteries so you can switch back to electric. Studies of GO cars show that most drivers never visit a gas station, and those who do average only six trips to the pump a year.

Yeah, you say, but aren’t these things the dorky, slow-poke electric cars that have all the zip and style of a golf cart? Nope. Plug-ins are standard cars and trucks. Daimler Chrysler, for example, is now producing a small run of its conventional Dodge Sprinter with the plugin technology—and these converted full-size vans, which are to be leased to several government agencies and corporations for a nationwide test, have better acceleration than conventional Sprinters. The University of California at Davis has done much of the R&D for plug-ins, and they’ve converted a Chevy Suburban, Ford Taurus, and Ford Explorer. The Explorer, with 325 horsepower, is more powerful than the standard version. Although it takes off like a shot, says UC engineering professor Andrew Frank, it gets double the fuel economy of a regular hybrid. Even with the heavier battery load, UC’s plug-in Explorer weighs no more than the conventional version, for the hybrid dispenses with the generator, fan belt, water pump, and other components. It has less than 20% the number of moving parts used in a standard Explorer, which makes the hybrid easier to assemble and more reliable.

“This isn’t rocket science,” notes one leading proponent of plug-ins. The technology is available, ready for widespread use, and steadily advancing. A small entrepreneurial firm in California has already produced a plug-in sports car it calls Tzero, which has batteries that zoom it from 0 to 60 mph in a remarkable 3.3 seconds. It cruises at 70 to 80 mph and has a battery range of up to 300 miles per charge.

FLEXIBLE-FUEL. These efficient, plug-in electric motors do most of the work of powering the vehicle, thus reducing gasoline consumption to 100 miles per gallon, twice as good as the Prius and Civic. That’s great, but to take us from great to 500 mpg of gasoline burned, we need to add a second technology: Flexible-fuel vehicles. FFVs can run on either alcohol fuels or gasoline or any combination of the two.

The most common of these alcohol fuels in America is gasohol‹ an ethanol made from corn or other grains, then mixed with a small amount of gasoline. The mixture is usually 85% ethanol, thus dramatically dropping the consumption of gasoline. But growing corn consumes a lot of energy, and alcohol fuel can be made more efficiently by distilling plant wastes (such as stalks left in the fields after harvest, sawdust and tree trimmings, and urban landscaping waste) to make “cellulosic ethanol.” This alcohol creates almost no greenhouse gases during its manufacture or when it’s burned as a fuel, which is why cellulosic ethanol is getting a green thumbs-up from enviro groups, and biorefineries in Canada and the U.S. are gearing up for mass production.

Existing gas stations can distribute all of these biofuels, and the FFVs that use them are conventional vehicles with minimal mechanical adjustments costing under $100 per vehicle. Again, no rocket science involved. An FFV simply has a different control chip and fittings in the fuel line. The technology is on the shelf, and it’s already being used—40% of Brazil’s new cars are FFVs.

Combine the two technologies, and you have a flexible-fuel plug-in hybrid that blends electric, alcohol, and (when necessary) gasoline fuels and can take you 500 miles per gallon of gasoline used.

Electrifying transportation

A major barrier to freeing our country from its gasoline addiction has been that it is prohibitively expensive to replace gas stations with a new refueling infrastructure. That’s not a problem with GO cars, however, since the existing electric grid is everywhere, meaning you’re only a socket away from getting the juice you need. Moreover, plug-in hybrids make efficient use of the grid, since most of the refueling will be done at night, when there is the least demand for electricity.

In Austin, Texas, for example, the publicly owned power plant, Austin Energy, has calculated that having cars plugged into thousands of the city’s sockets at night would allow greater use of wind power. This is because the West Texas wind that already generates 6% of Austin’s electricity blows most productively at night, dropping off to near nothing during hot summer afternoons, the peak time of power use. All those car batteries would become storage units for nighttime wind energy, and plug-in cars literally would be wind powered. Likewise, solar energy could be stored in automobile batteries, providing solar-powered cars even on days the sun isn’t shining.

Another possibility is to put simple meters in parking garages, allowing employees to hitch their plug-ins to the meters while at work. Not only could they recharge their batteries, but they could even have the option of selling some of the energy stored in their batteries back to the grid. Austin Energy’s Roger Duncan says, “We are having to build power plants to meet peak energy demands on hot summer days. If we could draw just a little from these vehicles during peak times, the savings would be tremendous.”

The rub on the electrification of transportation comes from the environmental front. Obviously, it’s a huge positive to move away from oil’s deadly contamination of our atmosphere, water, soil, and ecosystems (not to mention our bodies). But electricity generated by coal-fired utilities comes with its own nasties—particularly carbon, sulfur dioxide, and mercury contamination, causing everything from acid rain to birth defects. On balance, such environmental groups as Natural Resources Defense Council have determined that the gasoline tailpipe does more damage than the coal-fired smokestack, so they’ve signed on to the push for plug-ins.

But no one is giving electric utilities a green pass, certainly not for power plants fueled by coal. What plug-ins do is to focus our fight. Instead of battling both the oil giants and the coal industry, our concentration can be on coal. The big environmental bang from plugin hybrids will only come if the electricity is generated by clean, renewable fuels, which makes our push for wind, solar, and other such sources even more crucial.

The oddest bedfellows

Displacing oil as America’s car fuel might seem to be the ultimate in tilting at windmills, but an electric- car future has become a realistic political possibility because of an uncommon confluence of forces. For economic, environmental, and national security reasons, a wide array of interests, ranging from local governments to the neocons, are backing the push for plug-ins.

Yes, such notable national security hawks as Robert McFarlane, Frank Gaffney, and James Woolsey have launched a drive they call “Set America Free” to get our country off oil. Citing shrinking supplies, rising demand, and higher costs of oil that mostly comes from regions of the world hostile to the U.S., the neocons are hot behind a four-year crash program to slash oil consumption drastically. The centerpiece of their plan is to provide governmental incentives and mandates for the mass marketing of flexiblefuel plug-in vehicles.

Both private utilities and public power plants are enthusiastic plugin hybrid backers (for the obvious reason that transportation would be a massive new market for their product). Add in NRDC and other environmental groups, state and local governments, renewable energy advocates, urban planners, entrepreneurs, health groups, and others—and the impossible becomes possible.

The City of Austin has been in the forefront of this burgeoning grassroots movement. Last September, the council okayed a “Gas Optional Vehicle Incentive Program.” It will offer $1,000 rebates to the first 1,000 Austin buyers of plug-ins, promote such vehicles to local businesses, commit the city to purchasing plug-ins for its fleet, work with other cities with municipally owned utilities, and encourage America’s 50 largest cities to adopt a similar incentive program.

Woodrow Wilson said “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Shifting from petroleum to electric power would be a political sea change, and it certainly would generate a horde of powerful corporate enemies. Yet the shift from oil MUST come–and plug-in electric cars should jumpstart the debate.


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