Running on Green

BY Jules Norwood

There are millions of cars on the road in the United States driving millions of miles every day the vast majority of them burning petroleum-based gasoline releasing harmful emissions and keeping us dependent upon oil from the volatile Middle East. What other options are out there? What can we do today to help in the push for an alternative form of transportation?

Start at zero. Drive to work run your errands and head back home. How many miles did you drive today? If you’re like the vast majority of drivers your daily commute is 50 miles or less well within the range of electric vehicles based on today’s battery technology.

You could charge your battery each night drawing power from the grid at night when energy demands are low and complete your daily commute without ever firing up an internal combustion engine. The only thing standing in the way is that such vehicles are not widely available.

In the 1990s there was a push started by a mandate from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) toward all-electric vehicles. General Motors introduced its EV1 and Ford built more than a thousand electric Ranger pickup trucks. Following a lawsuit filed by vehicle manufacturers and oil companies CARB weakened its mandate and the electric vehicle programs were scrapped. Today there are no mass-produced electric vehicles available despite a loyal following of enthusiasts and increasing interest among average drivers.

Wilmington’s Bouton Baldridge has one of those electric Ford Rangers as well as a niche-market electric vehicle called a Solectria Force; and two hybrid vehicles a Honda Insight and a Ford Escape Hybrid. He says the electric vehicles are fun to drive and are more than adequate for his commuting needs.

“You’d be amazed ” Baldridge says. “There are very few trips for which the range wouldn’t be sufficient. I really love it; it’s fun to drive and it’s quiet.”

The cost of electricity to operate the truck he says works out to about 4 or 5 cents per mile. For the Solectria a smaller lighter vehicle the cost is only 2 to 3 cents per mile. For comparison fuel cost for an average gas-powered vehicle getting 25 miles per gallon (mpg) works out to 12 cents per mile with current gas prices. The hybrid Insight he says has averaged 60 mpg over its 80 000-mile life and costs about 6 cents per mile in fuel.

Electric vehicles offer a number of advantages over traditional vehicles. In addition to the lower operating cost increased energy efficiency and lack of emissions they have fewer moving parts and thus fewer costly repairs.

To get the Ranger serviced Baldridge says “I come in and they rotate the tires and top up the windshield washer fluid and that’s about it.”

As battery technology improves and costs come down as a result of mass production electric vehicles will become an increasingly viable alternative to internal combustion. In the last decade nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries like those in laptops and cellular phones as well as lithium-ion batteries have increased the range and lifespan of electric vehicles over those using lead-acid batteries like Baldridge’s Ranger and Solectria.

Several manufacturers are working to bring current battery technology to the market including Tesla Motors a company started by the founders of Google which has already received orders for its entire first-year production run of its Tesla Roadster a $100 000 electric sports car that should hit the streets within a year. The company’s next project is a more affordable sedan model.

Another company Phoenix Motorcars is offering mid-size pickups and SUVs with a range of more than 100 miles and a top speed of 95 mph.

Locally students in an EV (electric vehicle) class at Topsail High School have converted three vehicles — a Ford Ranger a Toyota Paseo and a Pontiac Fiero — from internal combustion to electric since instructor Steve Garrett started the program in 2000.

In the meantime for drivers who need the extended range and quick fill-up capabilities of a traditional vehicle hybrids offer an excellent compromise.

I’m very impressed with them ” Baldridge said of his hybrid vehicles. Hybrids make longer trips possible since they have a greater range than full electrics and can be refueled at traditional filling stations but they offer improved fuel economy over gasoline-only vehicles. The drawbacks are increased complexity and cost and the fact that they still rely on gasoline and produce emissions.

Current hybrids on the market from major manufacturers include the Toyota Prius Honda Insight Ford Escape Hybrid and hybrid models of Honda’s Civic and Accord. These current models use electric motors to assist their gas-powered drivetrains while future models may offer even better efficiency by using all-electric drivetrains with an onboard internal combustion engine that is used only to charge the battery. There is also a push toward plug-in hybrids which use even less fuel because their batteries can be recharged each night in the garage.

Hybrid vehicles are not the only way to bridge the gap until full electric is a viable alternative. Biodiesel made from vegetable oil or animal fat is now available in the Wilmington area. It can be used in existing diesel engines without modification.

“There is a laundry list of advantages ” says Brent Manning vice president of Cape Fear Biofuels a local co-op working to bring biodiesel to the Wilmington market. “The key first off is the emissions benefit. It’s a carbon-neutral fuel ” he said.

Biodiesel still produces carbon dioxide emissions like regular diesel Manning says. “With a normal diesel vehicle you’re producing 27 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon burned. The same applies for biodiesel but you are sequestering that same amount of carbon during the crop-growing process so it’s a closed carbon loop. With petroleum you’re reintroducing carbon that’s been sequestered for millions of years into the atmosphere.”

The other big advantage is that the fuel comes from locally grown crops rather than oil fields in the Middle East.

“Our model is to work within our watershed and support farmers who are 100 or 200 miles away from us rather than oil sheiks that are 2 000 to 3 000 miles away from us. The concept of supporting the local economy is very key to our mission ” says Manning.

Biodiesel currently costs a little more than regular diesel but it has greater energy density and thus provides increased fuel mileage he added.

Cape Fear Biofuels currently has about 90 members and buys its biodiesel from Piedmont Biofuels a larger co-op in the Chapel Hill area. Members have access to a B100 (100-percent biodiesel) pump where they can fill up and record their fuel usage in a logbook. B20 (20-percent biodiesel) is available at Ted’s Exxon at the corner of Wrightsville Avenue and College Road.

“We’ve seen a 400-percent sales increase in his diesel sales ” Manning says. “People are seeking it out. We’re having truckers call us and tell us they’re driving an hour out of the way to get to the B20 pump because they get extra miles per gallon out of the fuel.”

A second B20 pump opened August 31 at 1332 Castle Hayne Road near the downtown area.

Existing diesel vehicles including offerings from Volkswagen and Mercedes as well as many trucks can use biodiesel without modification. There are however a few precautions.

“When you first start using the fuel you need to keep an eye on your fuel filter because biodiesel is a powerful solvent ” Manning says. “It will actually clean out all the deposits in your fuel line and those deposits are caught in your fuel filter.”

Also biodiesel begins to solidify at a higher temperature — 36 degrees — than conventional diesel so B100 shouldn’t be used during the coldest months of the year.

“Once you get past those two pieces of education you have no change in your daily driving ” Manning says from his 2001 Volkswagen Golf TDI. “I’m flying down I-26 right now going 70 miles an hour running on B100. There’s absolutely no change; if I took the sticker off the back of my car you wouldn’t know any different.”

B20 he says is a great way to get people started on biodiesel. “It’s a great way to introduce people to the concept. With B20 you don’t have to worry about cold-flow issues. For most cars you don’t have to worry about voiding your warranty and the price is right. It’s only a couple of cents more per gallon than the diesel across the street.”

Going forward Cape Fear Biofuels hopes to continue to educate the public about the benefits of the fuel and the economic benefits for the agricultural community. A new market for existing crops Manning says could provide a boost for local farmers hurt by the end of subsidies for tobacco and other crops.

 The verdict: As battery technology improves and mass production brings costs down plug-in electric vehicles could satisfy the vast majority of commuting needs. Electric vehicles are quiet efficient powerful have few moving parts and can be refueled at home. Biofuels and hybrid technology are excellent alternatives that can help bridge the gap improving efficiency and decreasing the use of petroleum while the infrastructure and technology for electric vehicles are improved upon and until consumers are ready to switch over to the grid.

Alternative Rides


The good

Can be used in existing diesel vehicles
• I
ncreased mileage due to energy density
Uses existing refueling infrastructure
Supports local farmers
Replaces fuel made from imported oil
• Carbon neutral

The bad

Not enough crop production to satisfy fuel needs
Cost inefficient production process (improving)
Still produces emissions


The good

Zero emissions
Most efficient use of energy
Decreased reliance on imported oil
Quiet powerful fewer moving parts
• No more trips to the gas station

The bad

Limited range
Cost (improving)
Lack of infrastructure availability


The good
Lower emissions than traditional internal combustion
Improved fuel mileage
Better range than existing electrics
• Uses existing refueling infrastructure

The bad

Complexity and cost
Still produces emissions
• Still reliant upon imported oil

The Electrical Vehicle Team at Topsail High School is Supercharged

For more than a decade EV (electric vehicle) Challenge has been the country’s premier alternative fuel education program. Sponsored by Wake County-based Carolina Electric Vehicles Coaliton Inc. the EV Challenge program started in 1993 with three high schools. Since then it has grown into a yearlong hands-on education program that includes 30 high schools in seven states. In excess of 4 500 students from all walks of life actively participate in the design and construction of solar and electric vehicles including the team from Topsail High School.

It started in the spring of 2000 when Topsail High was visited by EV Challenge program’s Chevy S-10 electric truck. Topsail technology and mechanical drawing instructor Steve Garrett and his students were impressed enough by the program and the converted Chevy to begin and develop their own EV Challenge program. To date he and his EV Challenge Team have raised the funds to convert three vehicles: a Ford Ranger a Toyota Paseo and a Pontiac Fiero.

“When you typically read stories about high school students they are often negative ” says Garrett. “But the students in this program are starting a new trend of positive recognition.” The Topsail EV Challenge Team students meet an hour before school starts every morning and continue their work long after school has ended. They compete in EV Challenge competitions write papers on alternative fuels give presentations to educate the public on fossil fuel dependency and convert normal vehicles to electric cars.

With this much work involved in the program it’s no surprise that some of Garrett’s former students have received full college scholarships.

“What truly sets them apart from the other A students ” Garrett says “is that they helped build an electric vehicle and they won national competitions.” With more than 70 trophies some almost as tall as the students themselves the Topsail High School EV Team has won first place and either second or third place at the EV Challenge Final Event in Raleigh for the past four years.

To learn more or check out the three cars Topsail’s EV Team has successfully converted to electric visit