By Terrah Baker
In our world of hilly city streets, winding country roads and rarely earning a living next to where we actually live, we need a way to get around. Last Wednesday, companies, individuals and organizations lined up on the Fayetteville square to show off their solution to issues facing our transportation system that stem from the oil and gas industry. They’re not all fool-proof, and some are more environmentally-friendly and economical than others, but one thing they all have in common is the potential to change the way our society sees transportation. Here’s some examples of what was at the National Alternative Fuel Vehicle event.
The GREEN Mobile Solar Energy Laboratory, a project of the GREEN Research Center for Nanoplasmonic Solar Cells with the U of A, showed off the large solar panels that line the side of their Winnebago. The strange thing about this bus is it was fueled by gasoline, while the equipment inside was powered by solar energy. When asked why, the attendant said Winnebago wouldn’t put in a diesel engine for conversion to biodiesel (we’ll get back to this). Turns out, vehicles powered solely on solar aren’t feasible with current technology, and don’t yet exist on the market. Some vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, have a solar option, but it only powers the ventilation system. Hey, options are options, and this is one that’s being explored more every year. And with the Mobile Laboratory working to create cheaper, more efficient solar panels, it may be sooner rather than later that a solar paneled car whizzes by.
This one’s complicated. If one can overlook the dangers of current methods used in the harvesting of natural gas, this option seems like one worth considering. The U. S. Department of Energy reports that more than 100,000 vehicles in the U.S. and 11.2 million vehicles worldwide are already powered by natural gas, and even more are using propane. Mostly, these are good options for high-mileage vehicles and fleets like buses or taxis. The benefits include that both are harvested (propane is a byproduct of other processes) domestically, its low cost and its clean burning characteristics. Brian Latham from Afuel in Rogers said the largest benefit to converting a vehicle is economical. After the upfront costs of $5,000 – $7,000 more than a gasoline powered vehicle or to convert an already purchased one, historically the price of natural gas and propane has remained lower and more stable than gas. Natural gas and propane can still get as low as $1/gallon, with vehicles getting the same miles per gallon as with gas, and can be filled at stations throughout the country. Find out where at www.afdc.energy.gov/stations.
Biodiesel is another domestically produced fuel that can be manufactured from new and used vegetable oils, animal fats and recycled restaurant grease. Biodiesel’s physical properties are similar to petroleum diesel, but it is a cleaner burning alternative. The cool thing about biodiesel is that most vehicles built after 1993 can use it like any other diesel fuel, just check with a dealer or manufacturer to determine which biodiesel won’t clog up your engine (there are multiple types such as B5, B20 and even B100). Although it’s available in all 50 states, and some people make it at home with grass clippings or oil they collect from restaurants, it’s a labor-intensive process that can leave behind waste. But it looks like the U.S. is ramping up to provide more of this fuel. Biodiesel production capacity in the U.S. totaled 2.69 billion gallons in 2009, and there are more than 600 B20 fueling sites across the country. The closest to Fayetteville being Bill’s Short Stop in Fort Smith.
Of course bicycles make the most economical, environmental and health sense, although it sometimes rains and riding in freezing weather could be considered…well…not so much fun. But having a bicycle/public transportation lifestyle can save the average family thousands each year. To calculate your true cost of driving, visit this website, http://commutesolutions.org/external/calc.html. But in the meantime, the Bicycle Coalition of the Ozarks provides information on how to commute safely, and can help you feel comfortable riding on the roads. There is another option that was presented by Phat Tire Bike Shop, called the Stromer — a bike with a battery-powered motor to boost you along and up those rough hills. The price can get high, from $2,800 to $8,000, but it’s meant to replace a car, not just for Sunday afternoon entertainment.
It’s not biodiesel. It’s just…vegetable oil. Local resident Zac Hill converted his diesel engine Volkswagen to a vegetable oil-powered machine, complete with a switch to open up the vegetable oil valves when the engine gets hot enough to burn it. Conversion kits can cost as little as $1,200, and with Hill’s method of filling up tanks from restaurants and local schools with spent oil, driving can get pretty cheap. And unlike biodiesel, you don’t have to process the oil, just install the conversion system and pour it in.
You got your plug-in, and you got your free flowing battery powered vehicles, all serving as great options for moving away from gas and using electricity as their primary fuel source. Combined with clean and renewable energy sources like solar and sun, the potential of these technologies is exciting. One example present last Wednesday is the Nissan Leaf. It claims zero emissions, and charges through an electrical outlet, and using on-the-go regenerative breaking charging.