Weekly Heroes: Free fuel edition

Earlier, I scoffed at the man doing public service by advocating for cheaper gas.  Today, I praise a similar program.

My town, Normal, IL, has positioned itself as an EVTown (Electronic Vehicle Town).  The city has purchased electric cars for its fleet and encouraged others to do so as well.  They have created incentives for citizens to by EVs, and even arranged for them to be able to get cars from Mitsubishi earlier than anyone else.

The best plan – free vehicle charging around town for the foreseeable future.  That means, if one charged entirely at these stations, “one could expect to save $5,400 over eight years driving a total of 64,000 miles.”  That is an incentive that could get people on board – add this to the $7,500 tax credit and the $29,125 becomes suddenly affordable to own and operate.  This is a perfect second car (in a country where every family owns two cars): one car to drive distances and the other to go to work and the grocery store.

My applause to Chris Koos and all the others at City Hall who have worked to create the possibility for real change.

You can find any EV charging stations near you using this Dept. of Energy Map.


The price lies

This week in class, we are reading about energy policy and how, in a democracy, policy has to appeal to the majority of people.  This causes a big problem when the majority of people don’t see there being an energy crisis – when we are having one.  And people want cheap gas so much they cannot see the cost.

We trust that there is a market reflecting supply and demand working in the background of our gas purchases.  Our gas prices have remained somewhat steady (or at least only tripled over the last ten years), therefore we must not be facing any shortages.  In reality, there is less and less oil available every day – it is a finite commodity – a fossil fuel.  And, that oil is more and more expensive to get to.  So, why don’t the prices we pay reflect that?

Lopsided subsidies.

Companies get paid ridiculous amounts from the federal government to drill and mine fossil fuels.  They get paid much less to harness cleaner or renewable energies.  (There’s this pesky myth about large solar subsidies circulating that is just plain false.)  They get paid to drill or not drill from their reserves.  They get paid for not shipping oil overseas to refine it and back to the US for sales (an inefficient process), they get paid for every step of the process.  Good Magazine created this image to illustrate the situation.

This graph is only partial, because it doesn’t contain the costs of maintaining our highway and road infrastructure – and doesn’t contain the military costs of assuring international supply.

Confused values

Low gas prices are considered patriotic, a virtue.  This Valentine’s Day, one man was considered a hero for founding a nonprofit with the intent of getting gas stations to sell gas for less – for $2.14 this holiday.  Never mind the fact that station owner’s profit is only pennies on the gallon.  Or that the $.80 per gallon difference may have made more sense being given to someone who truly needed it.  All that matters is low gas prices so we can continue to drive our cars as much as we want.

Eco-modding: the car of tomorrow tomorrow (literally)

I remember when I first heard about car modification.  I was watching the movie Clerks, and heard the customer ask about Mini Trucker Magazine.  I was boggled, what was a mini-truck anyway?  It turns out, there is a wide world of people who love their cars, and people who can improve their cars one piece at a time.

Today, a group of men and women have updated the whole concept with a sustainability twist in Ecomodding.  Ecomodders tinker with and change their cars with an eye for fuel economy instead of speed.

Ecomodders are known for starting with small cars – think Toyota Camry or Geo Metro. The process normally starts with some improvements to aerodynamics, then perhaps a conversion to run on plug-in electricity along with gas.  From there, the sky is the limit.  Perhaps a home ethanol still.

The best thing about it is that anyone with a little bit of either experience or brains can start this hobby with a handful of tools, so owning a sustainable car is not limited to those who can afford the price tag on a new Prius.

I’ve got a 10 year old Ford Escort.  It does well on gas, but I’m certain I could do better.   And I don’t mind (at all) it looking like an art-car.  I wonder where is a good place to start?

1975 Honda Civic met the 1975 U.S. Clean Air Act standards without a catalytic converter and it got 40 mpg.

Driving on into the sunset

I have a car that gets about 30 mpg, which I thought was pretty good for a ten-year-old American car.  There are folks out there who put that number to shame, they are called hypermilers.

What sets them aside of the rest of us, the merely thrifty?  I do the basics – keep my tires inflated right, keep my engine tuned up and running well, I don’t drive aggressively, etc.  These folks take driving much more seriously and engage in a set of behaviors aimed at boosting mileage as high as possible – doubling it or possibly reaching the Holy Grail of 100 mpg.  Warning: some of these driving behaviors are extreme, and I would certainly not attempt them.

Hypermiling ideas.

Don’t speed – really, drive far below the speed limit

Drive a stick

Draft behind trucks (I really don’t recommend this one)

Don’t ever break unless its an emergency (same as the one above)

Weight loss: Don’t carry extra loads, possibly even rip out your back seat

Aerodynamics: Rip the luggage rack off your car and rip off anything else that is getting in the way of the wind, add aerodynamic doo-dads (below) if necessary

Aerodynamic tail from Wired Magazine’s Hypermiling page makes me want some sheet metal and duct tape – the paint is optional.

Stopping: turn your engine off at a traffic light

Accelerate slowly after stops

Purchase high performance after-market car parts

Avoid braking: coast and glide, slow naturally if possible

Ridge riding with a wheel along the white line to the right of the road to reduce friction

Pulse-and-glide:  Accelerate into turns and coast out

Always know your mpg

For lots more ideas and resources, visit Ecotrekker’s Ultimate Guide to Hypermiling

This all looks like a fun and interesting hobby, and we can learn a lot from the hypermilers.  Still, we shouldn’t have to engage in life-threatening behavior in order to get a decent mpg.  The auto industry has known how to increase mileage for years – adopting many of the innovations the hypermilers do: less weight, more aerodynamics, certain types of parts.  The Automotive X Prize is offering large-money prizes for production ready high mpg vehicles.  Real change – for everyone.

Weekly heroes: Four on the floor edition

The Pontiac GTO, also known as the Goat, rules in the annals of the American Muscle Car.  Well, not the current one, but this one:

This very car was modified by a crew of green gearheads from Bad Ass Gas to run on compressed natural gas (CNG).  CNG is the cleanest running of the current alternative fuels for cars.  They then drove the car the full distance of Route 66.

Why do I love this?  This shows again that being green doesn’t mean giving things up, and it does mean you can have a lot of fun figuring out new ideas as you tinker with them.  What’s next?  How about a Bad Ass Gas Trans Am?

It may not be the perfect solution, but as for now, it’s one bad-ass idea!

Mitsubishi: Welcome to the New Normal

An ad, featuring Normal, Illinois (where I teach and where my students live) has appeared on the web.  This ad features both the Mitsubishi I-car and the town’s plan to become EV Town USA.  Here are some reactions:

Me: Hey!  I know some of the people in that video.  They sure are trying hard to keep the Mitsubishi plant from moving south.

My colleagues:  They portray the town as a ghost town empty of all save I-Cars, not a fair representation of Normal.

My students:  Hey!  This is just shunting us from oil to coal to make all that electricity.  That’s not legitimately sustainable.  Green wash!!!

(Image courtesy of Greenpeace).

As usual, a bunch of professors has been pulled into line by a room full of undergraduates.

How can we tell if we are making the best energy choices?  Certainly, we know we can’t trust the media.  The corporations will tell us what they want us to hear – as will the big environmental groups.

Pull out two pieces of paper (really).

Fold them in half vertically.

At the top of each write the two options (electric cars or no electric cars).

On each column write pro and con for each.

Now get three of your best buddies together and start brainstorming.  Coffee (and coffee shops) help with this one.  Think broadly on the no electric cars category – include both regular cars and something different (mass transportation, bikes, other fuels).

Let me know what you come up with.  I don’t know the answer to the problem, but I do know how to start creating room for a solution – and that is to get different ideas onto the plate.