June 29, 2007

Fanning the Flames of Gas Prices

By Javier Sierra

Are you tired of leaving the gas pump with an empty wallet? Of having to decide whether to feed your car or your family? Of seeing Big Oil swimming in profits?

You are not alone. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, gas prices are causing financial hardship to two thirds of American consumers. By late May, gas prices had reached historic heights. And in April, even though a barrel of oil was cheaper than a year before, gasoline cost 50 cents more. At the same time, the two largest oil companies reported a combined first-quarter profit of $14 billion.

There are many reasons to be frustrated. But today I want to offer you many reasons to be cheerful. I am talking about the admirable efforts of people from around the world who are turning our vehicles into amazingly efficient machines and what a few years ago was science fiction into reality.

And the effort by Andy Green, a British scientist and inventor, is perhaps one of the most spectacular ones. After two years of work and a $3,732 investment, Green developed a vehicle capable of yielding 8,000 miles per gallon at a speed of 18 miles per hour. Impossible? Green reminds us that what makes regular cars so inefficient is their weight. Any car out there uses 99.9 percent of the energy it generates to move itself, and the remaining .10 percent to move the passenger. On the other hand, Green’s car weights only 66 pounds, is a little more than 10 feet long and two feet wide, and its one-cylinder engine has a capacity of 35 cc, whereas an average car engine is 1,500 cc. Although a 66-pound car is not practical on today’s highways, this technology is promising.

The wisdom of people like Green is already reaching the consumer market, like in the technology used to build a sleek sports car capable of going from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds thanks to an electric engine. Yes, you read correctly, an electric car. The Tesla Roadster, powered by batteries similar to those in laptops, yields the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon and runs for 250 miles without recharging. True, you will need $92,000 to become the owner of this speed demon. However, the intention of Martin Eberhard, the car’s inventor and CEO of Tesla Motors, is to launch a four-door sedan for half the price in less than two years. Now we just need to make sure that the electricity used to recharge those batteries comes from clean, renewable energy sources.

Or who said restaurants could not serve as gas stations? Ask Mark Wienand, a North Carolina college professor, who, for $600 has modified his old diesel-engine car to run on used restaurant vegetable oil. The transformation turns diesel-fume-spewing cars into vehicles running on biofuels. “In cars like mine, the most harmful emissions are reduced or eliminated,” says Wienand. Researchers are still working on ways to reduce the particulate emissions from biofuel vehicles.

There are other promising technological options to help the environment and your wallet, and you do not have to be a researcher or president of a corporation to develop them. Since 2001, seniors at West Philadelphia High School have been building vehicles powered by clean and renewable energy. Each year, their shiny sports cars have made a splash at the city’s annual auto show. Their hybrid cars (powered by an electric engine and a conventional one) yield up to 60 miles per gallon and run on a soy-based biofuel made at the school.

But you don’t need to attend futuristic shows to find hybrid cars, which are available at dealerships across the country. Some, such as the Honda Insight, yield up to 61 miles in the city and 68 on the road. And more and more makers are offering fuel-efficient vehicles.

Technological innovations, however, are not being matched by the dishonest practices of Big Oil and their allies in Washington. If they just raised the fuel standards of cars and small trucks to a minimum of 40 miles per gallon, in 10 years we would save every drop of oil we import from the Persian Gulf.

And why don’t they do it? Because Big Oil and their endless quest for profits insist on fanning the flames of gas prices. It’s in our hands to put out the fire.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist.

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