The drive for cleaner air

Henry Ford would never have believed it.

And anyone paying today’s gas prices might consider it wishful thinking: cars powered by something other than gasoline.

But there they were, sitting in a parking lot in downtown Hendersonville on a recent, sunny afternoon: shiny new alternative-fuel vehicles from Volvo, Nissan, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, Saturn, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Volkswagen.

They look like standard makes until you get under the hood, and even then, you’d have to know something about car engines to notice the differences.

For most of us, the crucial issues are cost, fuel efficiency and — if you care about the environment — emissions. All these cars cost more than their conventional counterparts; fuel efficiency varies, but none pollutes as much as a gasoline-powered vehicle.

More than 100 folks gathered to see the hope for a gasoline-free future at the Clean Air Car Fair, held April 26 in downtown Hendersonville. The First United Methodist Church and the Environmental & Conservation Organization of Henderson County co-sponsored the event, which was pulled together by Mary K. Jones, a member of both groups. “I think that churches and environmental organizations should work together for responsible, sensible stewardship of the earth,” she declared.

The state of the market

About a dozen exhibitors were on hand, showing both electric- and natural-gas-powered vehicles. Honda and Toyota make hybrid vehicles equipped with both an electric motor and a gasoline engine, and Jones was disappointed that she couldn’t get a hybrid to the show — especially since she’s thinking about buying one herself.

“That’s the most interesting one to look at,” she said. “You don’t have to recharge the batteries for the electric motor, because the gasoline-engine part does that.”

Nancy Thompson, community-relations manager for CP&L, displayed an electric car — a converted 1994 GEO Prism.

Powered by 50 12-volt batteries, it can go about 60 miles before it needs recharging (which takes about five hours). She said another model has been developed that can go 140 miles before recharging; still, it’s obviously not meant for cross-country trips.

The good news is that it costs only 1.5 cents a mile to operate, compared to about 6 cents a mile for gasoline, noted Thompson. “We’re trying to be on the forefront of new technologies,” she said, adding, “I believe that we’ll be looking at introducing more into our fleet.”

John Ellenburg, 41, a Hendersonville insurance agent, was impressed by the electric car, though he really wanted to see a hybrid. In fact, he said he may be in the market for one soon.

“That would be the next step, because my ’87 Mercury Sable is about ready to kick the bucket.”

Retired chemical engineer Reagan Houston, 77, said it’s good that we’re developing vehicles that reduce toxic emissions, but he doesn’t think car buyers are willing to pay more for them.

“I’m very glad to see it, but … it’s not going to make a noticeable difference in our oil imports or our gasoline consumption,” said Houston. “We’re increasing our need for energy faster than we’re increasing our savings.”

Pete Peterson, Ford’s national account manager for alternative-fuel vehicles, exhibited a Crown Victoria that runs on natural gas. He admitted, however, that this car isn’t ready for the mass market: Where would you go to refuel when the tank empties?

Ford, he explained, makes these cars mainly for commercial fleets, such as taxicabs and law-enforcement vehicles. They account for only a tiny percentage of the company’s sales.

The natural-gas Crown Victoria costs several thousand dollars more than the gasoline-powered version, and it can go about 100 miles less on a full tank. The advantage, said Peterson, is cleaner emissions.

Does he envision a day when we no longer need gasoline?

“This would be pure personal opinion,” cautioned Peterson, “but I don’t see how we’ll ever be completely nongasoline. There are too many vehicles out there that have to have gasoline to run on. But I would think, in a four- to five-year time period, we’re going to see a real dramatic increase in alternative-fuel vehicles.” And that, he said, would have to affect air quality.

J.C. Hattman, sales manager for the Hunter Volvo dealership in Hendersonville, didn’t bring a car to the show, but he did have a booth stocked with literature. The new Volvo V70 is designed to help reduce ground-level ozone as you drive, he explained. A coating on the radiator turns ground-level ozone into oxygen as air flows through it. At high temperatures, almost 75 percent of the ozone is converted into oxygen.

Saluda resident Alan Duke didn’t have a product to sell — just an idea. He and his father, John, have been experimenting with naphtha as a fuel; when they mix it half-and-half with water, it works as well as gasoline in a car engine, he said. There’s no cost savings buying naphtha by the gallon at a store, he explained, but it could be cheaper if it were sold in volume as vehicle fuel.

Naphtha, says Duke, burns cleaner than gasoline, and it’s already being used in some law-enforcement vehicles in Nevada and California. “It’s just in the pioneering stages. We’re hoping that people will see the potential in it.”

New state rules

Paul Mueller, regional supervisor of the N.C. Division of Air Quality, attended the car fair and reported on the state’s efforts to address air pollution. New rules and regulations, he said, target cars — one of the chief sources of toxic air pollutants.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring cleaner gasoline by 2005, unless the Environmental Protection Agency passes regulations that kick in sooner. Fuel producers will have to reduce the amount of sulfur in the gas they sell in North Carolina.

In addition, new vehicle-inspection and maintenance programs will ensure that every vehicle’s emissions-control system is working properly. These programs will come to Buncombe County in July 2004 and to Henderson County in July 2005.

No currently available vehicle is pollution-free, noted Mueller. Even electric cars must be recharged with energy from coal-burning power plants — another major source of air pollution.

The hope for the future, said Mueller, is cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells, whose only emission is water vapor.

“Ideally, we hope to get to the point where we have the technology for fuel cells and truly have a clean car,” he said. “But it’s a ways away. In the meantime, our challenge is to try to operate as cleanly as possible the vehicles we have, and try to encourage as many people as possible to buy cleaner vehicles during this interim period, until we can eventually get to where we have fuel-cell cars.”

Meanwhile, however, we have one key problem: Even as we reduce toxic emissions, people are driving more, which offsets any gain in air quality.

“People drive more and more and more,” said Mueller. “And we’re growing, as well — adding more and more people. We keep building more roads and driving more miles.”

A big challenge in the future, he observed, will be to figure out ways to limit how much we drive.

“Part of the solution for [reducing] emissions from mobile sources is going to be transportation planning,” predicted Mueller. “If we keep increasing the number of miles we drive, even as our cars get cleaner, we’re going to still have air-quality problems, because we have not gained an overall reduction.”

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