Alternative Fuels for Thought

Skeptics have long said it would take some kind of magic to wean Americans off gasoline. What better place to invent that magic than right here?



LEAF: COURTESY OF NISSAN NORTH AMERICA

Three hundred trees—enough to cover two to three acres of scrub forest. That’s how many trees it takes to remove the carbon dioxide you put into the air every year by driving 15,000 miles in a car that gets 21 miles per gallon of gas. Drive an SUV or a pickup and your personal carbon sponge would have to grow to more than five acres.

Whether you believe in global warming or not, you can believe this: Air pollution is undeniable, and the cars we drive are primarily to blame. Moreover, Orlando stands a strong chance of being found in violation of federal air quality standards.

“I just came from a . . . meeting and there was a serious discussion about the possibility of Orlando reaching non-attainment [of air quality standards],” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said during a recent interview.

So we may cross some mythical line in the sand drawn by bureaucrats in Washington. So what?

Falling below federal minimums for air quality brings a raft of mandates that would cost you time and money. Operators of big fleets of vehicles—utilities, school districts, governments—would be forced to reduce emissions. That could mean cutbacks in service. Power plants might have to change fuels or install expensive scrubbers. Speed limits on I-4 might be reduced. Future transportation projects would have to go through an expensive process to prove they wouldn’t result in increased emissions.

That could mean more of your time spent sitting in traffic and more tax dollars spent pushing papers instead of policing the streets and educating kids.

We need alternatives—ways to keep driving while cutting carbon emissions.  Some of those alternatives are being developed in Central Florida: Orlando has been at the forefront of alternative fuel development time and again over the past decade, and several significant projects—both experiments and real solutions—are kicking off here this year.

Money for these trials comes from federal and state grants or from funds that would have gone toward buying conventional vehicles for local governments. The administrations of Dyer and Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty have used such grants over the years to give Orlando a leg up in an effort to make Central Florida a center for alternative energy research and technology. The mayors’ vision of Orlando becoming a center for clean energy companies is not far-fetched. The end of the space shuttle program could unleash NASA scientists and engineers to work in renewable energy industries that could locate here to take advantage of the know-how that’s in place.

“Folks like the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency see Orlando as a place that gets a lot of tourists, so a demonstration project here gets high visibility,” said John Ippel, sustainability project manager for the city of Orlando.

The University of Central Florida also has jumped into the race to develop alternative fuels. Recently UCF scientist Dr. Henry Daniell announced he was working on a cheaper way to make ethanol (see story, facing page). And the university is involved in a project that’s looking into algae as a fuel source for the U.S. Air Force.

Biodiesel Hits the Streets

As you read this, Lynx, Orlando’s public transit authority, will be in the final phase of switching its fleet of buses to a biodiesel blend. Lynx is the first public transit authority in the nation to have its own biofuel blending facility. Tankers bring petro-diesel and biodiesel to the Lynx maintenance facility where a blending system creates a custom mixture of the two. This gives Lynx the flexibility to use B20 (20 percent biodiesel) as its standard, but if an emergency disrupted petro-diesel supplies —as happened during the hurricanes of 2004—Lynx could switch to 100 percent biodiesel to keep buses and county emergency vehicles running.

So how does all of this affect your daily drive? Well, if you use diesel, you’re already using biofuel: Most diesel sold at the pump today has 2 to 5 percent biodiesel blended in to replace the lubrication once provided by sulfur.

According to Joe Cheney, deputy chief of operations for Lynx, and Ricky Sonny, project specialist, switching to B20 will cut the agency’s annual petro-diesel use and carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent, or 800,000 gallons and 2.6 million pounds of CO2, respectively.   Improving ridership (Lynx saw a decline over the last year) also would lead to less gas use and lower emissions.

The agency is working on an agreement to supply the blend to diesel vehicles in Orange County’s fleet, a move that could cut another 400,000 gallons of petro-diesel and an additional 1.3 million pounds of CO2 annually.

The cost of biodiesel is about the same as petro-diesel. But most biodiesel is made from soybeans, corn and other agricultural stocks, so its production competes with the use of those products for food, driving up grocery prices. And the most common feedstocks aren’t widely grown in Florida.

However, biodiesel also can be made from algae—something Florida has in abundance. A U.S. Department of Energy project found that algae yields 30 times more energy per acre than corn and soybeans.

Algae’s potential as a fuel source has gotten the Air Force’s attention. The Air Force has given a grant to UCF to develop, in conjunction with New Mexico State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, an ethanol-based fuel from algae that can be used in a high-speed aircraft turbine engine.
 

High-Voltage Driving

The most widely available alternative fuel is electricity, and Orlando is on the front edge of that wave, too.

There are already many gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion and Honda Insight on Central Florida roads. In fact, last year about 4,000 new hybrids were sold here. That put us at number 14—just behind Atlanta—for most new hybrids purchased. Los Angeles was No. 1.

The next step, some contend, is to get rid of the “gas” in
gas-electric.
 

Called “plug-in hybrids,” these are fully electric cars with no fossil fuel-burning engine. They run on energy stored in batteries. Until recently, those batteries have been the limiting factor, but the use of lithium ion batteries similar to the one in your laptop has changed that. After years of false starts and unfulfilled promises, viable electric cars are rolling onto the roadways of Central Florida.
 

In February, the city and county announced a deal with Nissan for Orlando to be one of 24 cities that will participate in the national launch of the Leaf, the Japanese carmaker’s all-electric car. The local governments promised to buy a few Leafs and to find partners willing to buy 300 more when the vehicle is released later this year.
 

Electric cars come with some nice perks. For one thing, the distribution system for the fuel—power lines—is already in place. And with the modern batteries, that will keep you moving all day.
 

“Seventy percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day and 90 percent drive less than 100 miles per day,” says Tracy Woodard, director of government relations for Nissan North America. “With a range of 100 miles,” the Leaf “will take care of most of your commuting needs.”
 

The Leaf is a five-passenger sedan with, according to Dyer, who drove one, “pretty snappy” acceleration.
 

These new electric cars are not golf carts: Top speed for the Leaf is 90 mph. An electric car with an appropriately sized engine will accelerate much faster than a gasoline-powered car.
 

Want to be amazed? Go to YouTube.com and type in “white zombie electric car” and see a 1972 Datsun, Nissan’s former name, retrofitted with an electric motor drag racing against—and smoking—a Corvette. And a Maserati. And a Ferrari.
 

These cars are also very quiet and, with fewer moving parts, cheaper to maintain than a gasoline or gas-electric car.
 

Here’s the drill: You charge your car from a 220-volt line (like the one for your clothes dryer) for eight hours, drive it to work and back, then recharge. The Leaf also has a quick-charge option, meaning you can get it up to 80 percent charged in a half-hour. Stop at the store on your way home, plug in to one of the charging stations put there by the retailer to lure customers, and when you return to your car, you’ve got another 80 miles of driving range.
 

The Orlando Utilities Commission has committed to building charging stations downtown, and Dyer says the city is talking to retailers and employers about putting chargers in their parking lots.
 

Of course electricity isn’t free, but it is cheaper per mile than gasoline in most cars, and the efficiency of centralized power plants versus burning gas in a car means there’s a 75 percent reduction in carbon emissions per mile driven. Estimated annual fuel cost for an EV like the Leaf driving 12,000 miles per year with electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt hour is $440. At 21 miles per gallon in an average crossover or sedan and gas at $2.70 per gallon, the tab comes to $1,542.
 

Pricing for the Leaf wasn’t set at press time, but Woodard said to look for its base price to be about as much as an Altima, which retails for around $20,000. But not included in that price is the battery, which could add as much as $10,000 to the sticker. Partially offsetting that extra charge, however, is a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for buying a plug-in car.
 

And Leaf likely won’t be the only zero-emissions car in town. There are some very cool electric sports cars we could soon see on Orlando roads.
 

The Tesla Roadster, which has a following among some Hollywood celebrities, and Audi e-tron (due out in 2012) are two luxury rides that could change consumers’ perception of battery-powered cars as wind-up toys.
 

Orlandoans will soon see two high-end, plug-in hybrid sedans in showrooms and on roads: Chevrolet’s 2011 Volt (due out later this year) and the Fisker Karma. These vehicles run on electric motors for 40 and 50 miles, respectively, before switching to gas-electric power.
 

John Mantione, general manager of Fields BMW in Winter Park, said his company has signed on to be a Fisker dealer. Fields plans to open the dealership in the company’s former MINI Cooper location in downtown Orlando.
 

When asked if Orlando is ready for an $80,000 electric car, Mantione says, “We’re already getting calls about it. We get people in the showroom every week asking about the car and when it’s going to be available.”
 

GM hasn’t released a price tag for its Volt, but initial reports put the car’s sticker at $40,000.
 

Lynx is joining the electrical parade as well, with two 60-foot articulated diesel-electric buses and nine smaller hybrids serving riders by late summer.
 

The ultimate electric car, however, may have been created by David Norvell, an engineer in charge of sustainability efforts at UCF, which owns a few all-
electric “neighborhood” vehicles. Norvell figured he could save the university a few bucks on its power bill if he strapped solar panels to one of the cars’ roofs.
 

“I was hoping to extend the range between charges,” Norvell explains. “But in the month since I converted it, I haven’t plugged it into the grid to recharge once. And that was about 400 miles ago.”
 

Many commuters in the area log that many miles in a week, clogging our roads with traffic and our skies with smog. It’s a certainty that we will be forever griping about the former, as there is no end in sight to Orlando’s sprawling growth. But we can do something about the latter.
 

The Orlando area has proved itself to be a vital testing ground for greener transportation, public and private. Once the advances become widely available at costs average consumers can afford, then we’ll all be able to breathe a little easier around here.

Steve Blount is a Winter Springs freelance writer. He has been writing on environmental issues for more than 30 years.

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