Baby Steps and Big Leaps: Greener cars are here
Here is a look at some of the greener cars now available. Also included in this article are extensive links and references regarding various types of greener cars (not at all perfectly green), and various types of greener fuels. A short analysis and overview of some of the green car and green fuel technologies is also included. And, of course, some of the alternatives to private automobiles – the sacred cow of industrial society – are here as well . Have fun! This is a huge collection of resources. And let me know what I’ve forgotten. The subject is too vast to cover thoroughly in just one article, of course – but I tried. 😉
J. Todd Ring
Neighbourhood electric vehicles (NEV’s)
Most people drive within a radius of less than 30km. Most trips are in-town. If you only go out of town once or twice a month, you can save a lot of money and reduce your environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions by buying an NEV to use for 90% of your trips, and renting a car or taking the bus or train for out of town trips. There are a number of cute, quiet, fun and practical NEV’s available, and they’re pretty affordable: $10-16 USD. You just plug them in when you go home at night. Electricity costs far less than gas, so you save big time.
Ideally, you have converted your home to be off-grid, powered by wind and solar, so there are no greenhouse gas emissions and no smog created from dirty coal-fired power plants that recharge your batteries. To do this you’d need $15-20k or so, depending on your power consumption. You would then have a truly zero emission car, and no energy bills or gas costs. Think of that at your next $40 fill-up at the gas station. 5,000 to 15,000 lbs (2,000 to 7,000 kg) of carbon dioxide emitted per year by the average petro-dependent car. Another 10,000 to 15,000 lbs a year of CO2 emissions from your home heating and electricity needs. Or, a $40k investment to wipe out your home and car CO2 emissions, and free yourself from gas and energy bills forever. Hm. Smart investment – in your future, and the future of all life on earth.
If your average heat and electricity bills come to a total of $250 a month, and you spend an average of $150 a month on gas for your conventional car or truck, it would take 100 months, or 8.3 years to recoup your investment, after which time you would be saving $400 a month. Over the span of 20 years, you would therefore save yourself $56,000! And that’s if gas and energy prices don’t go up – which of course they will. Is this a no-brainer or what? Of course, you have to have the cash to do this, or else take out a loan. For those who can, it only makes sense: financially as well as ecologically. You can make a higher return on investment in other ways, but ethically, this is a true win-win situation, others likely are not.
Zero emission, no noise vehicle – from a new Canadian car company, based in Toronto.
The only electric car presently available in the U.S.
A great little electric car from India.
World’s best-selling electric car. Very cute 4-seater hatchback.
Where to buy them:
Soon to arrive:
Electric cars that can take to the highway
The Tesla Roadster
A car that will prove the compatibility of electric vehicles with style, performance and power. An expensive top-end sports car that will open the door for the company to produce more affordable cars in the future. Release date: expected 2008 or 2009.
Mechanical Resonance: The Tesla Motors Press Intro, Complete With Governator – Jalopnik
Video of the Tesla Roadster testing on ice! (ok, you have to really love cars to appreciate this)
The Chevy Volt
Hopefully an affordable highway-ready electric car. Release date unknown. Hopefully 2009.
Detroit Auto Show: It’s here. GM’s plug-in hybrid is the Chevy Volt Concept – AutoblogGreen
The Prius still takes the prize, but it’s good to see more choices available.
Compare Hybrid Cars
Hybrid SUV’s sound like a bad joke, but if you must haul your ass in nearly 4,000 Lbs of glass and steel, you might as well make that pig at least somewhat efficient.
Compare Hybrid SUVs
Can’t forget the Smart car!
Not the ultimate in green fuel cars, but arguably a step ahead at least
Ford Focus Flexi-Fuel
Saab 9-5 Turbo BioPower
And the coolest little cars I’ve ever seen: Obvio !
One concept car – production date unknown:
Lotus Exige 265E
Road Test: Lotus Exige 265E
The Bio-Fuel Option:
Bio-fuel is not a panacea, nor an ultimate answer, but it is a step, a step in the right direction, and for that reason, it is highly valuable as a technology. Bio-fuel from ethanol produces 70% less greenhouse gas emissions than gas or diesel, and cuts our dependence on oil. For these reasons, it should be pursued vigourously. It should be one facet of a multi-faceted strategy to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, to move in the direction of genuine sustainability, and to reduce and ultimately eliminate our dependence on oil.
Brazil has just announced an investment of USD $8.4 billion (that’s billion, not million) over the next four years in bio-fuels – 77 new ethanol mills and 46 new biodiesel plants. Canada?
The Chinese government is not stupid. The world is running out of cheap oil. They know this, and are taking steps to secure their energy resources for the coming years and decades. While they are busy signing contracts, making investments and forming economic and military alliances to secure their access to the world’s remaining oil reserves, they are also busy diversifying their energy resources. China recently invested $350 million to build two giant bio-fuel ethanol plants in Sweden, to make bio-fuel from forest waste. As the Swedish Environment Minister has said, in a country that is 60% forest-covered, bio-fuel from forestry waste makes obvious sense.
Canada should join the 21st century and stop subsidizing oil companies, and start heavily investing in bio-fuel ethanol from forest waste.
We have among the largest remaining forests in the world, and if we practice sustained yield forestry, we will have for decades and generations to come. With all this foretry activity however, comes a huge waste issue. Only 30% of the wood cut in a typical forestry operation is used; 70% is waste. 70% of the cut wood is either burned as slash – a ridiculous thing to do as it releases enormous quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, compounding our global warming problems – or is left to rot, which also compounds global warming as the rotting wood releases methane gas, another greenhouse gas. What makes sense is to turn that waste into ethanol. This is already being done, and bravo to those involved. But it needs to be accelerated and expanded many fold.
We have entire communities in Canada – many of them – that are almost entirely dependent upon the forestry industry. Many of these communities are struggling: job losses, economic decay, social decay, loss of hope, despair – not a pretty sight. The answer, along with value-added forestry industry development, is bio-fuel ethanol from forest waste. Jobs, prosperity, community economic recovery and strengthening, thriving, vibrant communities – and a cleaner, greener, renewable fuel system for our country. We should be dong this now. Take the $4 billion the former Liberal government was going to give away to big corporations as a measure of the money our federal government throws away. With just a quarter of this amount, we could quickly develop one of the world’s leading bio-fuel industries, with economic benefits to Canadians, jobs, and huge environmental benefits. Sweden is showing how an economy can be retooled to make it not just more environmentally sustainable, but also to shift its entire economic base toward environmental technologies. Here in Canada we can take the lead, or we can live in the last century.
Ultimately, we would want to shift the newly developed bio-fuel ethanol industry, based on forestry waste, to a full hydrogen system. By burning bio-fuel ethanol in vehicles we reduce emissions and oil dependency, but emissions are still there. By investing first in bio-fuel ethanol from forest waste, then later re-investing to shift to hydrogen production, we can make this a zero-emission fuel and energy system. The investment needed for this second phase would be large, but the economic as well as environmental benefits would be great. Solar, wind and tidal powered steam reformation is the technology that will take us from leading edge bio-fuel ethanol, to the ultimate: zero emission hydrogen from clean, renewable sources.
Cars are now being produced that can run on either gasoline or bio-fuel ethanol, depending on fuel availability. This is the transition technology. The ideal fuel source is described above. Add to this technology mix the dual-fuel hydrogen system demonstrated by BMW. BMW’s Hydrogen 7 can run on either hydrogen or gasoline, depending on fuel availability. Thus we now have the technology to have cars that will run on gasoline, bio-fuel ethanol, or hydrogen, depending on fuel availability. This technology will take us the rest of the way. We can then move seamlessly from oil-dependent smog-belching resource-depleting conventional gas and diesel automobiles, to bio-fuel, to hydrogen. From worst, to better to best.
Bio-diesel deserves mentioning, though it does not have the same benefits as bio-fuel ethanol. Bio-diesel is basically vegetable oil run through a conventional diesel engine. It burns cleaner, reducing engine wear as well as emissions. It is also a non-fossil fuel energy source that can help free us from oil dependency. But it does come from food crops, and this is its weakness. You can’t both feed the planet, and fuel your car with bio-diesel – there simply isn’t enough farmland. So bio-diesel makes sense, in that it will be a temporary measure, a stop-gap, a transition technology that helps us get from high carbon, high greenhouse gas emissions, and oil dependency, to a low carbon, low emission, oil-free society. It does not however, deserve to be our primary strategy, or anything close. It should be funded massively, to switch existing diesel engines to something that at least is a little better. But it will have to be a technology that exists along side electric vehicles, bio-fuel ethanol and hydrogen, all of which will be and should be more primary and far more predominant.
Bo-diesel from waste oil is highly praised in environmental circles, but it is a tiny niche only, not a mass-application: there simply isn’t enough waste oil to fuel even a small fraction of the automobiles on the planet. It’s great for a few people, but not an answer for a society.
“Using energy more efficiently and in particular reducing dependency on oil is critical…Sweden has used economic instruments for decades – and in particular a carbon dioxide tax since 1991. Biofuels are exempt. The effect has been significant….In a country where 60 per cent of the territory is covered by forests biofuels is an obvious choice. This will also generate more jobs, especially in the north and in the rural areas.
[Swedish] Parliament has passed a Government Bill to increase public access to renewable fuels. Under the new legislation, all large petrol stations in Sweden must offer renewable motor fuels, such as biogas or ethanol.
Sweden’s national policy on the promotion of biofuels also include tax relief on environment-friendly fuels and cars along with subsidies for the production of biofuels. Subsidies are also available for local incentives such as reduced parking fees and car parks dedicated exclusively to biofuel vehicles.
However, today’s challenges represent tomorrow’s opportunities – if we use them!
The Swedish government sees environmental technologies as an important sector for economic development and growth. According to Statistics Sweden, the environment sector in our country has annual sales of approximately 35.3 billion US dollars and employs some 90 000 people. The Swedish Environmental Technology Council has a database comprising more than 1 600 companies that are working in the sector. Bear in mind that Sweden only has 9 million inhabitants. So it is reasonable to say that environmental technology is currently one of most important sectors in Sweden.
Today we are focusing our attention on biogas and its potential.”
– Minister for the Environment, Sweden
Most Honourable Mention:
BMW’s Hydrogen 7
Had we a hydrogen fuel distribution system in place to utilize it, BMW’s Hydrogen 7 would be the cream of the crop. As we are still waiting for such a fuel delivery system, the H7 is honourable, but not yet practical – at least outside of a few places like LA and Silicon Valley.
BMW officially announces the BMW Hydrogen 7 – AutoblogGreen
First hydrogen fuel cell car to be released in 2008.
Hydrogen Wonder – AOL Autos
Dream of the future, now.
The nay-sayers can stop the sniping now. Hydrogen is here. It’s safe, it’s proven, and it works. Yes, there are two big remaining questions, but with a modest amount of creative intelligence and the necessary determination, these can be quickly overcome. What hydrogen means, is an alternative to oil addiction, a fuel (an energy carrier to be precise) that, when made from either water or waste using solar, wind or tidal power, is truly clean, green, renewable and sustainable. A hydrogen vehicle emits only water vapour out the tailpipe. And the hydrogen can be made from the two things we have in great abundance on earth: water and waste. (The water is returned to the atmosphere as the car burns the hydrogen, cleanly completing the cycle. And sewage, compost and landfill waste we are not likely to run out of.) Combined with solar, wind and tidal power, hydrogen is, as the president of Ford has recently said, the fuel of the 21st century.
The two big remaining questions for hydrogen are: distribution and source. There is only one place on earth that I know of where a hydrogen distribution system is being built – California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has committed $100 million to build the world’s first hydrogen highway, with 200 fueling stations down the length of the state. He has also recently announced plans to extend the hydrogen highway to Vancouver, B.C. in Canada, and south into Mexico.
This, of course, is what Canada should be doing as well. When the former Liberal government was willing to give away $4 billion in additional tax breaks to big, profitable corporations, clearly we can afford to build a trans-Canada hydrogen highway. As a start, we would need a hydrogen fueling station every 100 miles across the 4,000 mile stretch coast to coast. At half a million dollars each (USD) that would be 40 stations costing USD $20 million, or $24 million CDN. Throw in another half million per station and we could make the hydrogen on-site, with solar and wind powered electrolysis hydrogen generation systems, or where water is scarce, with steam reformation of biogas – gas produced naturally from sewage, compost or landfills.
$50 million for a clean, green, sustainable trans-Canada hydrogen highway. With the equivalent of the Liberals’ $4 billion corporate give-away we could build such a hydrogen infrastructure 20 times over. What the hell are we waiting for? Obviously, no political party has yet to come to power in Canada with sufficient balls or brains, or such a vision would by now be a reality. Let’s put the pressure on to make it happen. This should be a project we get behind and get excited about – something on the scale of the historic trans-Canada rail line, but arguably far more important.
The second big question regarding hydrogen is the source of the fuel. If we let the oil companies control the coming hydrogen economy, they’re going to want to make hydrogen from natural gas – of course, since it would mean they stay in the game, and get high profits from polluting methods of hydrogen fuel generation. What would be infinitely smarter, would be to generate the hydrogen from solar, wind and/or tidal power, either from water, by electrolysis, or where water supplies are limited, from sewage, compost or landfill gas. Every city, town and county can thereby be energy self-sufficient, assuming some serious efforts are made at energy conservation and efficiency. We would then tell the big oil companies to take a hike.
Yes, generating hydrogen from electrolysis, from water, is energy inefficient, but with abundant solar, wind and tidal power, that is not a problem. Slaughter in the Middle East for oil is not a very feasible alternative, if we are at all still alive to our humanity, nor are the unending greenhouse gas emissions a viable option. Electric vehicles have their own inefficiencies, especially if they are plugged into a highly polluting energy grid that itself operates with very low rates of energy efficiency. Biodiesel makes sense, reducing oil dependency and greenhouse gas emissions, but turning crops into fuel while millions starve, is not all that ethical, one would have to admit. Biofuel ethanol spells the same thing, at least when the ethanol is produced from cropland. If it is produced from waste – such as forest waste – then it makes sense, but there will still need to be a number of technologies developed and implemented in order to wean ourselves off gas and oil as quickly as possible. Hybrids are great, but they’re still petrol-burners, and as such are not sufficient in themselves. They are a step in the right direction, not the ultimate answer. Now a flexi-fuel hybrid that can run on whatever fuel is available – gas, biofuel ethanol or hydrogen – backed by an electric hybrid system, would be the best possible transition system. One way or another, we have to get from an oil-dependent, carbon-heavy, highly wasteful, highly polluting society, to one that is clean green, low carbon and sustainable. Hydrogen is one technology that will help us get there.
All in all, hydrogen from electrolysis – from water – or from waste – municipal sewage, compost or landfill gas – makes very good sense, so long as the hydrogen generation systems are powered by truly clean, green renewable energy. We are talking about an energy revolution if we make this happen. No more monopolies over world energy supplies: community controlled energy sources. This is a social revolution, not just an ecological one. Control over energy means control in society. If big corporations control the energy that runs our society, then they control the levers of power. If communities control their own energy supplies, then they control their own fate. They are not pawns, spectators, cogs or consumers alone. Communities and individuals become empowered when control over energy is decentralized, brought down to earth. Hydrogen fuel, when combined with distributed generation that is in the hands of communities, powered by wind, water and solar, is a social revolution.
Whether we are talking about electric cars, bio-fuel cars or hydrogen cars, the source of the fuel is critical. Electric cars powered by coal plants is unsustainable. Bio-fuel cars powered by food crops is unethical and unfeasible on a global scale. Hydrogen cars fueled by natural gas-derived hydrogen would be a red herring. But all three are feasible and ecologically superior to petroleum if done with some forethought and clear-headedness.
Yes, electrolysis and stream reformation production of hydrogen are both low-efficiency processes, but with abundant solar, wind or tidal power that really becomes a non-issue. We are ultimately storing renewable energy in the form of hydrogen, which is a very convenient storage medium, and the power ultimately comes from the wind, water or sun. It should be remembered that the entire electric grid is grossly inefficient, from generating plant to transmission towers, and so too are gasoline and diesel cars terribly inefficient. The gas or diesel car utilizes only 15-20% of the energy of its fuel to move the car; the rest is lost in heat and friction. (And this does not include the enormous energy consumption and inefficiencies involved in the exploration, extraction, shipping and refining of the oil.) That’s not terribly efficient, and the electrical power grid runs at similar gross inefficiencies. So harping about the inefficiency of hydrogen production is not particularly appropriate or relevant, considering all of the above. The relevant question is one of cost, but that is one we have to suck up and subsidize, in order to create the needed infrastructure. Once we have built the infrastructure, the hydrogen generation and distribution network, using renewable energy sources, we have essentially free fuel. Pay now, or pay later. If we pay now, and invest in this smart technology, the fuel of the 21st century, we can save ourselves a lot of pain, in terms of environmental crisis, oil dependency, resource wars and global warming; and we can also reap economic rewards by becoming world leaders in leading edge environmental technologies.
And yes, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source – just as batteries in an electric car are an energy carrier, not an energy source. So what? The point is, hydrogen can be produced sustainably, cleanly and from renewable energy sources – using solar, wind and tidal power – just as electric cars can be powered by the same clean, green energies. Problem…? (In fact, storing energy for an electric vehicle can be accomplished either through batteries or with hydrogen fuel cells. The fuel cells operate as energy carriers just as the batteries do, only with potentially fewer disposal problems – battery disposal is an issue in itself. )I’d rather drive a BMW Hydrogen 7, powered by my own at home electrolysis unit, which in turn runs on off-grid clean solar and wind power, than run an electric car that sucks up its juice from a coal fired power plant – to make the comparison of energy sources clear. It makes a difference where the energy comes from, yes, and this applies equally to electric and hydrogen cars. Both are zero emission vehicles, and both require some energy source to run them. More nuke plants and coal plants to juice those millions of electric cars, would be a nightmare, just as hydrogen cars running on fuel made from natural gas would be stupid and unecological. But nobody in their right mind – outside the nuke lobby – is advocating more nuke plants, when we still don’t have a clue as to how to safely dispose of radioactive waste that has a half-life of a hundred thousand years; and no-one in their right mind would advocate more coal plants. We do have options. Bio-fuels make sense, particularly when the source used for producing it is carefully chosen. Electric (EV) and hydrogen cars both make sense, but are only at their best under certain very specific conditions. For EV’s, the power should ultimately come from clean, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or tidal power. Exactly the same is true for hydrogen. And both are viable – right now. The problem with hydrogen is simply, will we do it? Will we cough up the investment for the needed fuel distribution infrastructure? We could build it in less than a year if we wanted to, and it wouldn’t cost that much. The trouble is, big oil has more clout in the capitals of Canada, the U.S. and Britain than brains have sway – as with many other nations. I hope this changes soon. The technology is ready, but are we? What in hell are we waiting for?
Hydrogen is happening:
Cutting through the fog – and the smog
Don’t own, share
Vrtucar.com – Ottawa ON
CarSharing Handbook – How to start a car co-op in your community.
Other alternatives to cars:
Share a car for occasional use, rent a car for longer trips once in a while, and use transit, train, bus or bike as primary transportation. Before dismissing the notion, take a look at some of the options below.
Cool bikes and electric scooters:
Where can you find this gem? An all-weather bike for $650 USD? Or is there a mistake on the price?
Shirouma Science’s All Weather Bicycle.
HPV’s (Human Powered Vehicles), Velomobiles, Hybrid HPV/EV’s:
Green car rentals, airport shuttles and taxis:
Alternative fuels locater & other resources: