Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Challenge of Finding a New Vehicle

For most of my time at DR, I've been involved with our vehicle co-op, a three-car carsharing organization members of DR are required to use for auto transportation. It's interesting that so much of my time here has been spent on the DRVC since so much of my life has been devoted to the movement against cars. I have long believed and there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that the automobile is responsible for much of the ecological destruction being done to the planet. In everything from the extraction of resources to produce vehicles, fuel, and roads, to the destruction of the natural world to make way for roads, to the wars we fight over oil (which are by far the most effective way of destroying a planet), to their importance as a huge chunk of our unsustainable economy, to the way they dominate our lives and shape our landscape, our use of cars is a major contribution to our own destruction. But our lives and livelihood have become so dependent on the car that it is almost impossible to live in our society without using one. This being the case at least at this point, we at DR are trying to come up with the most sustainable option for meeting our vehicle needs and for demonstrating an alternative to the rest of the world.

The first thing we do to reduce the impact of cars is reduce our vehicle use. Over 50 people get by using only 3 cars. To reduce our use, we do what aside from not using one is the most significant thing one can do to reduce the impact of a car-- rideshare. Each week at our weekly meeting we plan out the week's vehicle use and coordinate rides. There are regularly scheduled weekly trips to the three most popular destinations of DR members and this allows us to plan our activities to fit into those regular trip time slots. Unfortunately, some people don't plan well or decide they need something at the last minute and take a trip without sharing the ride at all. There are also those who just prefer not to have to coordinate a bunch of errands with many other riders and avoid ridesharing. Both of these things greatly increase the impact of the car. Just having one rider who would otherwise have taken a separate trip effectively doubles the mileage of a vehicle.

While this is our first choice and clearly the most effective way to reduce the impact of our use of cars if we must use them, another way of making a difference is to find the vehicle technology with the least ecological impact. We want to set an example at DR by offering an alternative that is accessible to others. In the early days of DR, the vehicle co-op decided on biodiesel as their fuel of choice. DR members collected waste vegetable oil from local restaurants and through a chemical process converted it into diesel fuel. Because it was turning a non fossil fuel waste product into a fuel, it was a carbon neutral fuel option and clearly better than using gasoline. The problem was that making biodiesel from veggie oil takes time and careful monitoring, and if done incorrectly produces a product that is mostly useless as a fuel. Conversions were done on two of the vehicles to allow a second tank to be filled with straight vegetable oil, allowing for use of the unprocessed version of the waste oil as fuel. But there was some question about the efficiency of driving around regularly to collect the waste oil, which had to be gathered from many different places all over. Unfortunately, after a few years people with the energy and knowledge to produce biodiesel moved on and commercial biodiesel became a more viable option, so the vehicle co-op stopped producing its own fuel.

Since then, DR's population has increased and its vehicle use has gone up as well. Biodiesel has never been an ideal fuel because diesel vehicles have trouble starting in the cold winter temperatures and biodiesel gels to the point of clogging the fuel filter and preventing the car from running. When there were DRVC vehicles with two tanks, the car could be started on petrodiesel and switched over to biodiesel when the engine warmed up. Eventually one of the converted vehicles broke down and was replaced by a vehicle without a second tank, then the second tank on the remaining vehicle started leaking and was never fixed. Without the second tank we have had to run a mixture of as much as 80% petrodiesel in the coldest parts of winter, a practice that goes against one of our covenants that requires our fuel for vehicles be from sources other than fossil fuel.

Recently, with our backsliding becoming more obvious and the difficulties with running diesel vehicles in winter still an issue, we've come to realize that we need a new option, or we need to redesign our system to make biodiesel more viable. Many here have begun to question the merits of biodiesel as an eco-friendly option, particularly if we are purchasing it commercially. At this year's retreat an ad hoc committee was assigned the task of researching better options for vehicle transport at DR. We are looking at all kinds of options from electric vehicles to biodiesel, veggie oil, ethanol, and wood gasification. We are also exploring the option of two passenger or fewer vehicles.

I've been researching the possibilities of making our biodiesel system more sustainable. My idea is to have a farmer grow us canola that we would then press and use as fuel in diesel vehicles that have been converted with an Elsbett kit to run on straight veggie oil. The conversion modifies the engine so that it can run on biodiesel in the winter months without all the gelling problems, and can run on SVO during the warmer season. I've done calculations and found that it would take about 8-10 acres of land to grow the canola we'd need taking into account our projected fuel consumption.

Many people have issues with biodiesel because they think rainforests are destroyed to produce it from oil palm or land that could produce food is being used for fuel for cars. But biodiesel production, like many other products, can be made using destructive practices or using eco-friendly practices. If we made our own we would have organic, local fuel that is carbon neutral. Another criticism of biodiesel is that American fuel demand far exceeds the available land for growing fuel and food. But the way I see it, there is no one alternative that can fill all fuel demands in the way that oil has. It's going to take a number of different sources of fuel to keep the basics of our transportation system going. But without a doubt, as oil reserves dwindle consumption will have to go down, and when it does, biofuels will have some place in the mix. So I still see it as an option, and think everyone else should too. And in the comparison of biofuels, producing and burning straight veggie oil blows away ethanol in terms of the efficiency of production. We would need to purchase a press for about $3000, convert at least one of our vehicles for another $2500, and spend about 7 days a year to produce all our fuel. The press itself would be powered using renewable energy and the tractor and equipment used to grow the canola could be run on biodiesel we make from our veggie oil. This option would require some effort on our part, but less than was required when we were making our own biodiesel from waste oil.

Tony has already proposed a large wind turbine to power a power co-op that will provide electricity to residences here. The turbine would be tied to the grid and during windy parts of the season would produce excess power that would be sold back to the grid. With this excess power he says we could also charge the batteries of an electric vehicle. He is looking into the Nissan Leaf, an EV that is due to come out later this year. Its price will supposedly be comparable to a similar gasoline vehicle and it's claimed to have lower maintenance costs. I'm thinking another possible use for the excess wind power is to power the oil press that would make our biofuels. We could make all our fuel during times of the year when power is abundant and have it ready when we need it. We may also end up deciding to try a couple of different options for fueling our cars. We probably can't find a 4X4 pick-up that would run on electricity, and the range of E.V.s is only about 100 miles so ours might be limited to certain kinds of trips.

It's exciting to think about being on the cutting edge of this technology. We will hopefully be able to develop a system that meets our needs and demonstrates that our future is a diversity of technologies. Nor can we expect, as many opponents of biofuels do, that we will find a single technology to replace oil. The abundance of oil got us into this place we are in, with such a complex economy that demands more and more fuel each year, but we have to accept that we are not likely to come up with anything that can even replicate let alone surpass oil's abundance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The downside of electric or hybrid cars is battery life. In 3 to 5 years,a very expensive battery pack will need to be replaced ($3000-ish).In my opinion, for an electric car to become really viable, cheap and reliable batteries with a decade or so life need to be developed. The upside, in your case, is free charging. Personally, I think it would be fun to build an electric rat rod,using time tested and basic lead-acid(or nickel iron) batteries. Nickel iron batteries are old-school and not as "energy dense" as lead-acid, but they have a longer life,and are less toxic(two jobs ago, there was a nickel-iron battery pack that was 45 years old and still going). They're expensive, though.
It would be fun to build an electric car,and cheaper in the long run.