A rapidly growing movement to clean up America’s air by weaning the nation’s transportation infrastructure from petroleum is launching a revolution as quiet but pervasive as an army of electric meter-maid carts. And the dozen or so alternative-fuel enthusiasts who attended a July 29 presentation sponsored by the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Clean Air Campaign ran the gamut from dedicated do-it-yourselfers to the managers of large public fleets.
Anne Tazewell of the North Carolina Solar Center described a package of “petroleum-displacement strategies” being promoted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Program: hybrid-electric vehicles, fuel-economy improvements, an anti-idling campaign for trucks, and low-pollution fuel blends. Tazewell, the Triangle-area Clean Cities coordinator, discussed a wide range of alternative fuels — propane, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, liquid natural gas and methanol — now in use across the country, either alone or in combination with conventional gasoline or diesel.
After that, Bill Eaker of the Clean Air Campaign surveyed the audience, a first step in compiling an inventory of folks in Western North Carolina who are using or are interested in using alternative-fuel vhicles. Judging by the responses, the two rising stars on the local alt-fuel scene seem to be biodiesel and compressed natural gas.
Biodiesel: All-American and vegetarian
“Fueled by freedom fries” could be the red-white-and-blue bumper sticker for America’s expanding fleets of big rigs that burn biodiesel. Oil from soybeans grown on Midwestern farms is increasingly being recycled or diverted from french-fry vats into the fuel tanks of diesel trucks and cars, where it’s helping displace the 64 percent of America’s petroleum that comes from the Middle East and other foreign countries, Tazewell reports. In addition, biodiesel produces far less of almost every major air pollutant than conventional diesel. The only exception is nitrogen oxide (the precursor of ground-level ozone), and a newly developed additive may address this concern, said Eaker.
The Metropolitan Sewerage District’s 60 trucks have been running exclusively on biodiesel for a year now, reports fleet manager Peter Weed, and the fuel — 110,000 gallons’ worth so far — has proven to be problem-free. It’s not straight vegetable oil (which vehicles must be retrofitted to burn) but B20: an industry-standard blend of 20 percent soy oil and 80 percent conventional diesel that can be used in any diesel engine. Until soybean prices shot up recently, MSD was paying less for biodiesel than it would have paid for ordinary diesel fuel, said Weed; currently, the costs are equivalent. The state Department of Transportation uses nearly 2 million gallons of B20 per year, according to Tazewell; Raleigh-Durham International Airport and cities such as Raleigh, Greensboro, Chapel Hill and Cary run their fleets on B20.
MSD gets its B20 from Potter Oil, a local outlet for World Energy (the largest American biodiesel distributor). But another biodiesel distributor, the Knoxville-based Clinch River Valley Energy Group, plans to open a branch in Waynesville, says Eaker.
By contrast, Rob Moody‘s converted Dodge pickup takes its biodiesel straight. The Asheville-area “green” contractor, who owns The EcoBuilders, fills his truck’s tank with 100 percent recycled vegetable oil that he gets for free from local restaurants.
“I emptied out a Long John Silver’s the other day,” he told Xpress. “All the employees came out to watch.”
Asheville racecar mechanic (and recent mayoral candidate) Dave Goree did the petro-to-veggie makeover on the truck for $3,300, and Moody says the vehicle runs “great.” Goree, owner of Energy Liberty, Inc., used stainless-steel pipes (instead of the usual plastic) to prevent the glycerine gumming-up that pure biodiesel can cause. The oil goes through four filters, Moody explains; and the cleaner the oil he gets, the longer the filters will last. The truck has two fuel tanks; the first time the vehicle is used after filling up with vegetable oil, the engine starts up and runs on conventional diesel or B20 for 10-15 minutes, while the exhaust system heats the oil to the “boil-out” point (to eliminate all the water). Then a thermostat switches the engine over to the pure biodiesel. Clear, dark-colored grease is best, says Moody; the more tan and opaque it is, the more water it contains.
The car with the “cleanest internal-combustion engine on Earth,” Tazewell proclaims, is the Honda Civic GX, which runs on compressed natural gas. When it comes to emissions, “the GX is like car-pooling with 64 people,” says Tazewell — and this Japanese import has a U.S.-made engine. To make it easier for consumers to use such vehicles for long-distance trips, Clean Cities is working to create “clean-fuel corridors” by encouraging cities spaced at drivable intervals along major highways to install stations dispensing one or more alternative fuels.
Leaf-peepers and snowbirds who migrate to our mountains along a clean-fuel corridor will soon be able to feed their CNG-powered cars, pickups and SUVs in Asheville. The city’s alt-fuel filling station has been in the works for several years, but its funding was stalled by North Carolina’s recent budget crisis. Now, according to city fleet manager Chris Dobbins, the state Division of Air Quality has come through with a grant enabling the city (in partnership with Buncombe County and the Mission St. Joseph’s Health System) to move ahead. When the station opens next spring at 45 McCormick Place (across from McCormick Field), it will be available 24/7 not just to official fleets but to anyone with a CNG vehicle and a credit card. And because it’s a “fast-fill” station, drivers will be able to fill their tank in 3-5 minutes, rather than the up to eight hours a “slow-fill” station could take.
The Clean Cities Web site includes an alt-fuel-station locator to help drivers plan long-distance trips (go to www.eere.energy.gov/cleancities/afdc/infrastructure/locator.html), and the Division of Air Quality’s Web site has a more detailed list of CNG stations in North Carolina (at daq.state.nc.us/motor/cng/refuel.shtml). As the DAQ reminds adventurous drivers, however, a CNG-powered vehicle that runs out of fuel between stations has to be towed to the next one.
At the moment, a cross-country trip in an alt-fuel vehicle may still be as adventurous as hunting for that “last chance” gas station was 50 years ago. And new AFVs generally cost several thousand dollars more than comparable conventional models. But to clean-air pioneers like Moody, those are only minor bumps in the road.
“The time investment is minimal compared to the environmental savings,” he declares, adding, “I’m ready to get off fossil fuels.”
To check out the ever-widening range of AFVs available, Eaker recommends a visit to www.GreenerCars.com. And a selection of the latest models will be on display at the upcoming Clean Air Car Fair, part of the Southern Energy & Environment Expo (Aug. 27 to 29 at the WNC Agricultural Center, opposite the Asheville Airport). For more information on the expo, see page 9.
Calling all fleet managers
• Got AFVs? If you manage a fleet in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison or Transylvania counties and you’re using or would like to use alternative-fuel vehicles, contact Bill Eaker at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council (828-251-6622, ext. 118). Eaker is compiling an inventory of fleet AFVs in the five-county region. If the count reaches 400, our region will qualify for Clean City designation, making us eligible for technical and financial assistance in developing an alt-fuel infrastructure.
• Biofuel and AFV Grants: Managers of public and private fleets, as well as other interested stakeholders, can apply for awards of up to $25,000 from the N.C. Solar Center’s new grant program for buying biofuels, refueling equipment and infrastructure, or an AFV. To qualify for the first grant cycle, applicants should submit a statement of interest by Wednesday, Aug. 25. For details, contact Ann Tazewell at (919) 513-7831 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), or go to www.ncsc.ncsu.edu.