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Breaking the Oil Habit, One Car at a Time

Apr. 23, 2008
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“I WISH EVERY CAR COULD BE LIKE THIS!” Seven-year-old Annie Rhoads was mesmerized by a ZAP Xebra sedan at the recent Home and Garden Show at State Fair Park. The electric car comes with zebra-stripe decals, runs on three wheels and looks like a cross between a golf cart and a VW Beetle.

“She’s concerned about global warming,” said her mother, Julie Rhoads, of Racine. Annie isn’t alone. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll shows that 73% of Americans express concern about the long-term effects of global warming. Their concern—combined with anxiety over $4a-gallon gas—and dismay over imported oil’s pernicious effects on U.S. foreign policy are sparking interest in alternative fuels. Electric cars like the Xebra are one alternative.

Chris Allessi owns K-Man Auto and Scooter, which sells the Chinese-built ZAP electric cars. He says the vehicles are cheap to operate—about 2 cents per mile—and contain fewer parts than traditional cars. Still, Americans have not been quick to embrace the technology. The ZAP Xebra tops out at 40 mph and has a 40-mile range with standard lead-acid batteries. An optional lithium battery quadruples the range, but adds $8,000 to the normal price tag of $12,000.

“There’s still some resistance,” Allessi said. “We have an idea of what a car should be, and it’s a gas-guzzling SUV.”

General Motors flirted with high-speed electric cars in the ’90s, a story told in an infuriating documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car? about the rise and fall of the EV1. The car traveled at highway speeds with excellent acceleration, and its Panasonic lead-acid battery could be recharged off a standard 110-volt line overnight, giving the car a 160-mile range or better. GM built and leased 800 EV1s in California and Arizona, but eventually recalled and destroyed most of the cars, blaming “lack of consumer interest.”

Electric cars require far less maintenance and moving parts than their internal combustion cousins, and widespread adoption would threaten not only oil companies, but the lucrative aftermarket parts business. Industry resistance is still cited by electric car proponents.

“We were OK to set up a booth at the Journal Sentinel Sports Show in February,” Allessi said. “But one of the sponsors, Chevy, put up a fit that we were going to be there, and so we were forced out of the show. The newspaper won’t give us the time of day, and the TV and radio stations are ignoring us, too. It’s like we don’t exist.”

Earl Huebner, marketing specialist at Columbia ParCar of Reedsburg, Wis., which has been producing electric cars for 60 years, said manufacturers were once reluctant to commit to higher-speed electric cars due to uncertainty about how alternative fuel vehicles might evolve in the future.

“Companies didn’t want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in advanced battery technology in the ’90s, then have the rug pulled out from under them 15 years later with another power technology,” he said. Because electric cars such as the Xebra are low speed, and don’t meet passenger vehicle safety standards, they are classified as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs), and heavily regulated. Wisconsin is the only state that leaves it up to municipalities to allow NEVs on their streets. Milwaukee only recently permitted NEVs, joining 35 other Wisconsin cities and towns, including Glendale.

But it’s still illegal to drive from Milwaukee to a town that doesn’t allow NEVs, such as West Allis.


A subculture of tinkerers and amateur chemists who turn waste vegetable oil (WVO) into biodiesel fuel has materialized in the last decade or so. Locally, the Milwaukee Biodiesel Co-op attracts about 30 individuals to its meetings, where members share experiences, compare technical notes and help newcomers.

WVO can be used one of two ways—straight up, in a specially modified “grease car”; or chemically altered and used either straight or mixed with regular diesel fuel. “We don’t want to wait for Washington to get serious about weaning America off oil,” says Tom Brandstetter, a co-op member whose Volvo diesel wagon runs on straight waste vegetable oil.

WVO is free and plentiful, thanks to America’s love of deep-fried food. Home brewers collect grease from area restaurants and cafeterias, which are glad to be rid of the stuff. Once the scorched potato residue and congealed mozzarella is filtered out, the grease can be used as fuel, or further refined into biodiesel.

There are some challenges, though. First, biodiesel only works in diesel engines, and diesel passenger cars are not as easy to come by as traditional cars. Older model Volkswagen Rabbit diesels are much in demand for running straight grease. Only 3.5% of new car sales in the United States are diesel, compared to 50% in Europe.

Diesel engines deliver approximately 30% better mileage than gasoline engines. What’s more, filtered WVO is too viscous for most fuel systems. This problem can be overcome by adding a heated “grease tank” to a car, which is accessed with a manual, dash-mounted switch after the car’s engine reaches a set temperature. Mixing straight grease with diesel is not recommended.

After it’s filtered, WVO can be “cooked” (hot water heaters work fine) and then treated with methanol and a catalyst to create a methyl ester. This produces a less viscous biofuel that can be used straight-up or blended.
The good news is that, given appropriate safety precautions, tools and patience, anybody can make biodiesel. The discouraging news is that if drivers filtered and cooked every drop of WVO in the United States, about 11 billion gallons worth, it would only replace 1% of what Americans use every year for transportation. Clearly, the road to energy independence does not run through Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits.

“People turn to biodiesel for different reasons,” said Kyle Capizzi, a Milwaukee coop board member who brews large batches of biodiesel at a farm co-op in northern Illinois. “Some do it to save money. Some want to be personally energy independent.

Others see it as a way to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible.” Yet the call of biodiesel is heeded across the political spectrum, which only adds to its charm. “I once taught a Pentecostal minister to make it. He said he wanted to help his congregation be self-sufficient,” Capizzi said. “The more we talked, the more I realized how wildly different our views were, and that biodiesel was an opportunity to bridge that gap.”

In addition to the small-scale brewers, biodiesel is also produced on a much larger scale from soybeans, the oil of which is blended with diesel fuel for farmers and fleet operations. The Milwaukee Department of Public Works (DPW) dispenses a biodiesel blend at seven DPW fuel terminals for its 1,200-plus vehicles, including garbage trucks, snow plows, salt trucks and construction equipment. Crop biodiesel is controversial, however, as it competes with food crops for land and agricultural inputs. One recent study showed that converting fallow fields to biodiesel crops may contribute to global warming.

For now, carmakers are focused on fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid vehicles, a few of which are rated more than 40 miles per gallon. American carmakers have been late to the hybrid game, as Toyota and Honda cornered the lucrative American market while GM and Ford pushed SUVs and gas-gulping pickup trucks.

Brad Fons, of the Milwaukee Hybrid Group, said 16 hybrid vehicle models are currently available for sale in the United States, but that number could nearly double in the next few years. “Hybrids are on the upswing,” he said. “They’re finally catching on.”

Consumers haven’t been as quick to embrace the technology as might be expected. Fons blames misconceptions about battery life and cost savings. “There is a mistaken belief that the batteries have a finite life span, and cost thousands of dollars to replace, but we know that isn’t true,” Fons said. “The nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries used in today’s hybrids will last as long as the car, or even longer.”

He said that the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, has been running 64 hybrids since 2001, all on their original batteries. “In that whole time, the average cost for maintenance and repairs for those 64 cars was only 4 cents per mile.” Fons said some are skeptical that the premium that car buyers pay for a hybrid—about $3,000 to $6,000 more than the price of the non-hybrid model—can be recovered through fuel savings. “The most common argument against hybrids is that they take too long to justify their higher purchase price,” Fons said. “But when you add in fuel and other factors, such as maintenance, repairs and resale value, hybrids provide great value.”

The automotive consumer group IntelliChoice recently examined a range of costs of ownership for 2007 hybrid and non-hybrid versions of the same vehicles, and published those findings. The Toyota Prius comes in first on a cost-payback list at $10,288 over five years or 70,000 miles. The Ford Escape Hybrid 2WD model is fourth at $5,975.

Not all models fared so well. The GMC Classic Sierra 2WD hybrid saves its owner $409 over five years, or roughly the price of five fill-ups. For now, gas-electric hybrid technology seems to have the upper hand, as oil edges closer to $120 a barrel, and Al Qaeda is re-branded as a rogue union of petroleum engineers in order to justify war without end. Greater efficiencies will be had as automakers design plug-in hybrids that can run for 100 miles or more on electricity before switching to gas. Diesel-electric plug-in hybrids could extend the miles-per-gallon ratio even further.

Absent political leadership and widespread commitment to cultural change, it’s unlikely that the answer to our oil addiction lies in a single, technological fix. Advocates of greener transportation technologies like to talk about reducing our “carbon footprint” and relying more on local sources for their needs. “A tomato you grow in your garden has a smaller footprint than one that is trucked halfway across the country,” one advocate said.

This drive for self-sufficiency, long part of our national DNA, seems at odds with the freedom and independence of our automobile culture. Until recently, self-sufficiency has taken the back seat. That has to change. Solving our energy crisis, reducing carbon emissions and rescuing U.S. foreign policy from the lure of petroleum means giving self-sufficiency a seat in the front.

Why can’t all cars be like that? What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Even if you don’t have an alt-fuel car, you can try “EcoDriving,” a term coined by gas-strapped Europeans that means “to drive a vehicle in the most fuel-efficient manner possible, to save fuel and to lower emissions.” In some EU countries, EcoDriving proficiency is required for a driver’s license, and applies to any vehicle—automatic or manual, gas or diesel, old or new, hybrid or conventional.

Besides reducing oil consumption and exhaust, EcoDriving can also reduce your gas bill by up to 30%, turning $3.40-a-gallon gas into the equivalent of $2.38 per gallon. The Milwaukee Hybrid Group, which promotes EcoDriving on its Web site and at its meetings, offers these tips: Maintain momentum by anticipating red lights and stop signs and avoiding unnecessary braking and sudden increases in speed. Avoid speeds above 55 mph and maintain steady speed at all times. Each 5 mph above 55 mph is like paying 15 cents per gallon more for gas.

Aggressive driving wastes gas, particularly at highway speeds, but also around town. It can add an extra 22 cents to $1.50 more per gallon. Remove extra weight from the vehicle. Remove roof racks, flags or other exterior objects when not in use.

The worst mileage and greatest emissions will occur in the first five minutes to 5 miles of driving on a cold engine. Instead of idling your vehicle after startup, just drive off slowly. Avoid idling for more than one minute. Restarting your car adds only $10 per year in operating costs while reducing emissions and engine wear.

Inflate and constantly maintain tire pressure to the maximum sidewall PSI on the tire. This can save you as much as 15 cents per gallon at today’s gas prices. Invest in regular tuneups to maintain engine efficiency for gas savings of 15 cents to $1.30 per gallon.

Plan your trips to avoid congestion and minimize unnecessary driving. Combine trips, going to the farthest destination first and then coming back home; short trips from a cold start use twice as much fuel. Leave space between you and other vehicles so that you have more options in variable driving conditions.

Avoid complete stops when possible. Anticipate intersection traffic to avoid coming to a complete stop. Look for face-out parking to avoid using reverse gear. Face toward the sun in winter to take advantage of solar heating. Use air conditioning only when necessary and do not open the car windows completely.

Use cruise control only at highway speeds and on level roads; avoid use in hilly terrain. Source: www.milwaukeehybridgroup.com —K.R.



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