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Portland Op-Ed: Bio-fueled hybrid cars a good bet
Sep 15, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Imagine if the 2,500 members of the CalCars-News list all started submitting opinion pieces like this to their local papers. (I'm told the editors deleted mentions of CalCars/Schultz, Obama--but still well worth it!)­viewpoints/­mvoice/­050825fuel.shtml

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Dan Abbott teaches mechanical design and computer-aided design at Southern
Maine Community College. In 1973, he modified a 1964 Ford Falcon to run on
either propane or gasoline.

Bio-fueled hybrid cars a good bet

The new federal energy bill, was signed into law this month, all 1,725 pages of it. Will this pork-stuffed behemoth drive down the cost of gas, improve national security, help our economy, reduce harmful emissions and reverse global warming?

No, despite its billions of dollars in tax breaks and loan guarantees to the energy industry, it will not.

What may really get us out of our energy mess, however, are two slivers of good sense that the law contains: increasing our energy supply with bio-fuels and reducing our energy demand with plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles.

On the supply side, home-grown fuels are encouraged. Ethanol has often been maligned as pork, so it would be easy to dismiss its appearance in the law as more of the same, but things have changed. What makes ethanol timely is that now it can be created from the cellulose in wood and plant fibers, and not just from kernels of corn.

Bio-diesel, a blend of petroleum and bio-fuel made primarily from soybeans, also gets modest support. L.L. Bean, the state of Maine and many Maine citizens are already using bio-diesel and its heating oil counterpart. With modest effort, we could be using bio-fuel to drive the excellent diesel passenger cars now sold in Europe.

The most pressing reason to grow our own fuel is national security. With worldwide demand for oil growing rapidly, we are alarmingly vulnerable to disruptions in our oil supply. A diversified supply of home-grown energy would reduce our vulnerability while boosting farmers and our economy.

On the demand side, plug-in hybrids have gotten a lot of recent press.

A plug-in hybrid is a bulked-up variation of cars like the Toyota Prius, a car with both gasoline and electric engines that in its stock form can run on electricity alone, but only for short periods.

The batteries are kept charged by the gas engine, the car's momentum and its regenerative brakes. Several Priuses have already been converted into plug-in hybrids - cars with larger-capacity batteries that can be run for long periods on electricity alone and then be recharged at night. They don't have to be plugged in, but when they are, mileage increases dramatically.

What kind of petroleum consumption could we expect from plug-in hybrid-electric passenger cars? There are already prototype plug-in hybrids getting well over 100 mpg. Some authorities argue convincingly that such a car burning 85 percent ethanol could go 500 miles on each gallon of gasoline in the fuel mix.

Make the car from lighter composite materials, they say, and the mileage might double. A bio-diesel version might use no petroleum and widespread use of bio-fuels would help alleviate the carbon imbalance that leads to global warming. Plants spend their lives turning CO2 into oxygen.

The potential of plug-in hybrids is so great that the city of Austin, Texas, recently launched "Plug-In Austin," a community-wide campaign to promote the mass production of plug-in hybrid vehicles that could be a template for other cities, including Portland.

Here's what Austin is doing:

  • The city council passed a resolution supporting the mass production of plug-in hybrid vehicles.
  • Austin Energy provided $1 million to help local governments, businesses and the public purchase an initial round of plug-ins.
  • The City of Austin, Travis County and other local governmental agencies and businesses made commitments for fleet orders when plug-in hybrids become available commercially.
  • Daimler-Chrysler is leasing prototype hybrid-electric diesel Sprinter vans to the city as part of a small pilot project.

The thin silver lining represented by bio-fuels and plug-in hybrids just might rescue the rest of the bloated dark cloud that is the new energy law, but Austin is not waiting and other cities are sure to join in.

With some effort and luck, a whole new breed of car could be coming soon to a showroom near you.
- Special to the Press Herald

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