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Choosing a Fuel Efficient and Eco-Friendly Car

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Pat Finn: I drive a 1993 4-cylinder Toyota Camry wagon with almost 300,000 miles on it. In car years, that’s ancient. I drive about 20,000 miles a year, and I get 20 miles to the gallon, which I thought was ok. But using the fueleconomy.gov website, I calculated that my thousand gallons a year amounts to almost 22 barrels of oil, which means my car spews over 11 tons of CO2 into the air. Every year. 

Furthermore, it’s costing me $3,500 a year to do all this polluting. I’d  rather get a root canal than buy a new car, but I must. I want the best mileage and lowest emissions possible. I also want it to be cheap and gorgeous and last forever. But let’s get real.  

I read and searched the web for news about electric cars, hydrogen cars, diesel engines, gasoline hybrids and even solar. But it’s not easy to separate the realistic options from the optimistic hype. I decided to enlist the help of Mark Maynard, Wheels editor for the Union Tribune. I asked him about gasoline-electric hybrids.

Maynard: Well there are two types of hybrids. There’s a mild hybrid and a full hybrid. Sometimes they’re called one mode hybrids and two mode. Now the Toyota Prius is an example of a two-mode.  It can be driven under battery power alone up to about 30 miles an hour. The one mode which is primarily a general motors design is a simple electric assist. 

Maynard: I like the one-mode system because it’s simple. But you do not get the full impact of emissions. They’re not as clean as a two-mode that can run on battery power in the city. And in the city, there’s where hybrids do their best. 

Ok. A two-mode hybrid is cleaner than a one-mode. And both get better gas mileage than my Camry. A promising start. But what about electric cars? They didn’t seem to be as dead as popular culture would have it. 

You can work with someone and build your own for about $10,000. Tesla Motors is beginning their $98,000 sports car. Fisker Automotive, another coach-built, custom-built car company in California will offer an electric vehicle and a gasoline-hybrid vehicle. But on the lower end, for an affordable family EV, there really aren’t any more sold by manufacturers.,

So electric is a possibility if I build it myself or spend a hundred thousand dollars. I don’t think so. Next on my list: hydrogen fuel-cell cars like the great-looking Honda FCX Clarity.

A fuel-cell car is an electric car. It doesn’t have batteries. And it’s a matter of putting in your hydrogen and feeding oxygen in the front of the car. The two meet in the fuel stack and create electrons that end up becoming electricity to power the motor to drive the car. 

Maynard: The Honda FCX Clarity is in the test stage. It is actually in consumer hands now, two or three cars being tested by consumers. And those consumers all live within range of a hydrogen fueling station. 

No emissions, no gas. A hydrogen car would be perfect if it actually existed. I discovered, however, that unlike alternative automobiles, alternative fuels – such as biodiesel -- are really for sale in San Diego. Nicole Kennard and Dave Richards own and run New Leaf Biofuel in Barrio Logan and are expanding their plant to manufacture biodiesel commercially.

Maynard: Biodiesel is essentially vegetable oil, chemical reaction transforms it into something that can be used directly in diesel engines. It’s non-toxic, bio-degradable and much cleaner emissions than diesel. 

Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere. This could work. 

What we do is we have oil collection trucks and we go around to restaurants all around San Diego county collect their used fryer cooking oil with our trucks and bring it back to our facility,

Maynard: What we have to do is clean out all the food and water that’s usually in the cooking oil that we can’t use in our process. 

Finn: Where would I get biodiesel? If I wanted to get a car than ran on biodiesel, where would I buy it?

Kennard:  Actually, right now, the only station in San Diego is over on El Cajon Blvd at the regional transportation center. It sells B99

Diesel cars get great mileage,  But can I afford one? The only new diesel available in California is a Mercedes Benz.   

In much of the country you can buy diesel powered Volkswagens. You can get the diesel E Class outside of California. But in California, they’re not quite clean enough. 

Kennard: I used VW beetle diesel will get 50 miles to the gallon. People are buying those older diesels and converting them so they will run on diesel fuel or filtered fryer fat. 

Ok. Diesel is a bit iffy this year.  But then I met Jim Robinelli.   

Kennard: I’m currently paying about $2.50 a gallon to fill the car. 

Finn:  Oh, my goodness. 

Jim is the enthusiastic owner of a car that runs on compressed natural gas. 

Finn:  Why did you want to buy a car that runs on natural gas?

Robinelli:  There are a couple of reasons: First I wanted the cleanest car I could find. And this car the Honda Civic GX is the cleanest car that’s currently available today. Second, there are a number of benefits: lower fuel costs, lower operating costs in general and significant tax benefits available.

Robinelli: First you have a $5,000 tax credit available through the IRS just for purchasing the car. Second, there’s a grant program available through the California Center for Sustainable Energy. 

Robinelli: What we do is give rebates for certain vehicles that are qualified by the air resources board and we write the rebate checks and they vary from a thousand dollars up to as much as $5,000. 

Robinelli: There are compressed natural gas vehicles like the Honda Civic GX. And that’s been the one category that we’ve seen the most interest in. In fact, there was so much interest, that the natural gas rebate well ran dry in two weeks. I wondered if the fuel supply would dry up also.

Finn:  Where can you get it filled up with natural gas?

Robinelli: That’s part’s easy. Fortunately, there are half a dozen stations here in the San Diego metropolitan area: here at Pearson Fuels, at the Shell station by the airport, and, more conveniently, at a number of the SDG&E service yards stationed around San Diego.

Mary Venables: Pearson Fuels sells nine kinds of fuel, some of them quite exotic. I started building this station in 2000. That’s a long time ago. Not too many people were talking about alternative fuels back then. And it‘s  interesting. We’ve seen the industry expand and contract and begin to expand again during that time.

Finn: So ultimately, the price of oil is going up and the world’s running out of it. 

Robinelli: We can argue about when, but ultimately, that’s happening. So there have to be some kind of alternative forms of energy. And so often you get into the chicken and egg argument, so we just decided to build the chicken.

Commercially viable Electric cars are at least two years away, as are plug-in hybrids. Hydrogen is just around the corner – as always. Diesel may be coming back to California, but not just yet. But I have found an electric vehicle that answers most of my concerns: no emissions, great mileage, cost efficient. It’ll do until something better comes along.

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