Goodbye gasoline?

China is opening itself up to commercial freedom, notes Robert Kosak, director of the Center of Alternative Energy Transportation in Rock Hill, S.C.

“So what happens first when someone gets commercial freedom?” he asks. “They want their first car. What happens when two billion Chinese buy a car? Oil production will be hitting its peak.”

Kosak is a silver-haired, in-your-face kind of guy. His message seems simple enough: While most air pollution comes from distant industry, 50 percent of it is still locally generated — mostly by gasoline-fueled cars. In an effort to offset that local pollution — and respond to the 1990 Clean Air Act — automakers are producing cars that use cleaner fuels and emit less pollution, says Kosak. But the challenge, he contends, is getting the public to buy and use them.

“Government is the people, and we need to set the example for ourselves,” says Asheville Public Works Director Mark Combs, who acts as the fleet manager for more than 420 highly visible city vehicles.

Combs, along with fleet managers and clean-air advocates from across the state, witnessed Kosak and automobile vendors in action at a workshop on alternative-fuel vehicles (AFVs), held at the North Carolina Arboretum on Aug. 10. At the same venue the week before, Gov. Jim Hunt criticized Western North Carolina’s poor air quality and recommended pursuing alternative forms of transportation. He also endorsed petroleum companies’ efforts to sell cleaner-burning gasoline in North Carolina.

What are AFVs? Basically, the term refers to any vehicle that runs on fuel made from anything other than petroleum products. Examples of alternative fuels include electricity, natural gas, propane, and alcohol-based methanol and ethanol. While municipalities will not be legally required under the Clean Air Act to start purchasing AFVs until 2002, Combs and Asheville Transit Director Bruce Black are eager to begin.

Combs hopes to acquire for the city a couple of hybrid vehicles that would use a combination of gasoline and alternative fuels. Eventually, however, he sees the city using vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG).

He thinks CNG-fueled vehicles are just the ticket for Asheville and its dirty air. “The emissions are almost zero, which really turns me on.”

Another benefit, he says, is that the fuel contributes to a longer engine life. CNG-fueled engines also produce more horsepower than their gasoline-powered brethren. And the extra $2,000 to $3,000 it takes to buy a CNG-equipped Ford Crown Victoria could be recouped from federal and state grants that are available for municipalities that purchase AFVs.

“[CNG-fueled vehicles] also take the same amount of time to refuel as … [with] gasoline, without all the fumes coming up in your face,” Combs reports.

The down side to compressed natural gas, says Combs, is the lack of public awareness of natural gas and the scarcity of refueling stations. “We have to overcome the public perception that [natural-gas powered vehicles] blow up when you get rear-ended.”

Al Ebron, director of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium at West Virginia University, points out that CNG vehicles are very safe. “Is the tank going to blow up? I’d rather be sitting on a compressed natural gas tank than a gasoline tank.”

A major obstacle to adding CNG-fueled vehicles to the city’s fleet is that WNC has no natural-gas refueling stations. The closest one is a Department of Transportation station in Winston-Salem. But, along with Asheville Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger, Combs envisions partnering with entities such as Buncombe County and Mission St. Joseph’s to build a natural-gas station. Much of the funding could come from grants from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. Participants at the AFV workshop even envisioned creating a natural-gas refueling corridor extending from Tennessee to the coast.

“The city of Asheville is poised to jump into the alternative-fuels arena,” declares Cloninger, who says he intends to aggressively lobby his fellow City Council members to consider approving the purchase of AFVs for the city.

“We need to be trendsetters,” says Combs. “It can work. We can make it happen. It’s a matter of putting our house in order and setting a good example. Pollution comes from states west of here, but there’s still a lot we can do locally.”

A recurring theme of the workshop was the notion that elected officials must take the lead if AFV-implementation programs are to succeed. Ebron pointed out the positive double effect such endorsements could have on politicians: Not only would they promote cleaner-running vehicles, but “you’re a hero in the public’s eye because you’re saving their air.”

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