Plug It In Or Fill It Up?: Boiseans Look to Alternative Fuels 

From electric cars to compressed natural gas, more alt fuels mean more choices

A plastic sheet divides Mark Hayes' garage neatly in half. On the one side is the frog-green 1962 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite he restored and converted to battery power. On the other side is the shell of a 1967 Austin Mini he's restoring for his wife, Kathy, and an electric motor jimmied to a 1996 Honda Del Sol transmission Hayes found at a junkyard in Garden City.

For Hayes converting classic cars synthesizes his passions for restoration and the environment, and he's not alone. Boise is a beehive of businessmen, scientists, activists and just plain enthusiasts who see challenge and excitement from alternatives to gasoline. For Hayes, the switch from fossil fuels was a personal project, but for others, it's a mission to change the way Boiseans and the world see alternative fuels.

Hayes built his Sprite and is converting the Mini for his wife out of his love of the game. His fascination with electric vehicles began when he was a kid installing an electric motor in a go-kart. It was an experiment that worked for about 15 minutes before it melted down.

"Due to a lack of resources, that was the end of the electric go-kart," he said.

The failure of the go-kart was a minor setback for Hayes, who went on to earn his beer money at a mechanic's shop, where he doesn't recall melting anything. In 1979, Hayes helped a friend with some repair work on a Datsun Roadster and received the Sprite's chassis and hood as payment, but it would be 28 years before he could spare the time to restore and convert his Sprite.

In April 2007 he saw his chance and began the roughly 1,800-hour process of sanding, scraping and welding the parts he had into some semblance of a Bugeye Sprite. The conversion to battery power was the easy part, Hayes said.

EV conversions can be a tricky balance of weight and size. The car's skeleton--the chassis--has to be large enough to accommodate battery packs, but light enough for an electric motor to propel. Researching conversions, Hayes spoke to several experts on the subject. One of them, Michael Brown, author of Convert It, and owner of a California conversion shop, Electro Automotive, tried to dissuade Hayes from converting his Sprite into an EV.

"He told me that I would not be able to get enough batteries into it and get the range I needed and still be able to get up the hill to go home at the end of the day," Hayes said.

The very nature of conversions saved the Sprite. Switching a car to battery power means removing parts of the car specific to internal combustion performance like the engine, the gas tank and the radiator, and replacing them with an electric motor, wiring and, of course, as many batteries as possible.

"It really simplifies the car overall," he said.

By using mock-ups of the 82-pound lead acid batteries he intended to use, Hayes determined he had room for 10 of them. Today the Sprite has a top speed of 85 mph and gets 40 miles to a charge, making it the perfect daily car for Hayes, whose commute is about 25 miles.

With the daily cost of recharging the Sprite less than $1, you'd think there would be more EVs on the road. You'd be wrong. Mass-market EVs like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt are more expensive than similarly performing gasoline-powered cars, and conversions (not including the price of the base car) cost between $6,000 and $20,000.

People don't convert cars to battery power to save money on gas, Hayes said. Rather, electric cars are lessons in being smart about energy use.

"Instead of buying something that meets your maximum needs, buy something that meets your needs 90 percent of the time," he said.

Hayes gave the example of the cars he sees parked at the Hewlett-Packard parking lot, many of which are trucks and sport utility vehicles their owners use to tow boats or drive to the ski hill. He says that if those drivers used their trucks and SUVs exclusively for towing or on difficult terrain, and used commuter cars for getting around Boise, they'd save money on gas and be doing the air quality of the Treasure Valley a favor.

There are some classic arguments against EVs--that they have low-horsepower motors that make them unsuitable for driving in hilly or mountainous places and they have limited range and are no good for long commutes--but one of the gravest is that in drawing power from the electrical grid, they're relying indirectly on fossil fuels.

"I'm not one of those people who says electric cars are the right thing for everybody," Hayes said. "In Detroit, it wouldn't be the answer."

EVs aren't the miracle technology for every region, and the environmental benefit of driving one varies, depending on where it's charged. Detroit, for example, gets about 80 percent of its electricity from coal. Infamously, a University of Tennessee study concluded that EVs indirectly released more air-born pollutants than gasoline cars in China, where 85 percent of electricity is generated in coal-burning power plants alone. The United States generates about 69 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, while Boise gets 40 percent of its power from fossil fuels.

California throws a wrinkle into the wisdom that states with plentiful renewable energy are good places for EVs. In 2011, that state passed a law requiring 33 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources within nine years. The catch: California is America's largest energy debtor, purchasing between 20 percent and 30 percent of its electricity from other states. Energy creditors like Oregon, which gets 42 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams, sells clean power to California, supplementing its own needs with coal and natural gas. Ironically, clean energy laws in California have ensured coal a place in the West's energy portfolio for years to come.

Paradoxically electric cars may be the solution to their own problem. A 2011 report to the U.S. Department of Energy found that EV rechargers can "green" electrical grids by making intermittent sources of electricity like wind, which cause spikes in electricity output, more attractive to power companies, which helps them become less dependent on fossil fuels.

Today power companies trade electricity surpluses in real time because they have no way of containing or storing excess electricity, but EVs are batteries on wheels, and their recharge cycles can be monitored by computers that allow them to draw power in response to fluctuations in the power grid, soaking up excess electricity.

Fossil fuels are still king, though, and switching from them will be difficult. Dr. John Gardner, an expert on energy efficiency and faculty adviser for the Boise State bio-diesel racing club Greenspeed, said America's deep-rooted dependence on fossil fuels is what makes a mass exodus from them problematic.

"The way we look at fuel is totally colored by petroleum," he said. "No matter what we try to replace it with, it looks bad."

That's why the transition away from gasoline-powered cars may lead us toward a variety of alternative technologies and not directly to EVs. Repurposing or replacing all of America's--or even just Boise's--fossil-fuel infrastructure would be enormously expensive and economically deleterious. Market forces, and not good intentions, will drive that transition, Gardner said.

"Ultimately it all comes down to the economy," he said.

Boise happens to be one place where some are seeing savings and even profits in alternative fuels. Republic Services recently bought 53 compressed natural gas garbage and recycling trucks and built two CNG refueling stations with a $5,519,862 stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The new garbage trucks cost between $25,000 and $30,000 more than their diesel-powered counterparts and are about as efficient, getting 4 mpg. Rachele Klein of Republic Services, who worked closely with the Treasure Valley Clean Cities Coalition to secure the grant, said the reason for the switch was because of the potential savings on fuel. While the diesel that powered Republic's old garbage truck fleet reached $5 a gallon, natural gas hovered around $2 a gallon.

"The swings were unpredictable," Klein said about diesel prices. "With natural gas, it's very stable."

With gasoline prices slated to rise this summer, businesses like Al's Car Care are looking to get in on the ground floor of what it sees as a soon-to-boom revenue stream. Manager Brad Fahey is working on his certification to install CNG tanks for taxi and government car fleets.

"It's going to be the next coming thing with gas prices going the way they're going," he said.

Despite its advantages over gasoline, natural gas production remains controversial. The process of drilling for it--hydraulic fracturing or "fracking"--poses waste disposal and pollution challenges, and is suspected of causing minor earthquakes. In February, the Idaho Legislature permitted fracking with carcinogenic, radioactive and otherwise dangerous chemicals that may potentially seep into the aquifer, much to the chagrin of Idaho conservationists and landowners.

Sometimes the stars have to align for a company to profit from widespread interest in an emerging alternative fuel technology, as John Weber and David Gray discovered. In 2006, their EV conversion shop, Suncar Industries, rolled out Suncar 1, a Ford Festiva that recharged in sunlight. It was a hit with the local and national media.

"The car marketed itself," Gray said. "We thought we could generate more interest."

Weber and Gray were optimistic that good press would translate to EV sales and bought six more Festivas to convert and sell for between $20,000 and $25,000 each, but getting a manufacturer to sell them rolling chassis so they could mass-produce converted EVs proved to be impossible.

"We really wanted to convert new Ford Fiestas, but without getting a rolling chassis, it would have been wasteful to remove all the gas parts and replace them with electric," Weber said.

Despite the initial public enthusiasm Suncar 1 generated, Suncar Industries became part of Westside Body Works in March 2007 after Gray left the company and moved to Weiser. Today, it exists as Westside EV.

Weber and Gray still believe there's a market for EVs, and every year, new EVs, CNG vehicles and hybrids hit Boise's streets. These cars are mostly commuters designed to get people around town with a minimal effect on the environment and sometimes just to save money. But one group in town has put forth an alt-fuel hero to compete with--and outperform--petroleum head-on.

That hero, Greenspeed Team member Adrian Rothenbuhler said, is Greenspeed, a Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck powered by crude vegetable oil built by the Boise State club of the same name. Since 2006, the fastest a vegetable oil-powered truck had ever gone was 98 mph. Last year, Greenspeed crushed that record at El Mirage, Calif., reaching a top speed of 155 mph.

This year, Greenspeed hopes to break the standing diesel truck stock class record of 215 mph.

"We believe our truck is fully capable of breaking the record," said Rothenbuhler, who is a master's candidate in electrical engineering at Boise State by day and the club's systems manager by night.

The team built the truck for performance. It sports a 708-horsepower engine (an almost absurd amount of power, considering that, off the lot, a Chevy S-10 has between 160 and 180 horsepower), but Rothenbuhler said that figure is based on computer simulations.

"We expect to get more than 708 horsepower," he said.

Team Greenspeed keeps close tabs on its truck during races, using high-tech gear to monitor virtually every aspect of its performance. In part, all this obsessive data mongering is for the sake of science, but keeping careful records helps the club prove the merits of its fuel and conform to strict race rules that forbid various performance-enhancing technologies.

The team does this monitoring through sensors placed all over the vehicle hooked up to reconfigurable inputs and outputs, which the team has nicknamed the flux capacitor. That data is sent to a wireless network provided by Boise-based Cradlepoint that uses cellphone towers to transmit the data directly to Rothenbuhler's computer.

For the lay public, the truck is proof that a vegetable oil-powered truck can go toe-to-toe with its diesel-fueled competitors. For the club, it's a dramatic show of bio-diesel's potential.

"If you can break a speed record with vegetable oil in its unrefined form, what more is it capable of?" asked Rothenbuhler.

For Dave Schenker, the club's president, questions like these are part of the reason Greenspeed was founded: to raise awareness of alternative fuels and instill in people a greater appreciation of the technologies that may someday replace petroleum.

"Vegetable oil needs to be looked at in the same way crude oil is looked at--as more of an energy source than a fuel source," Schenker wrote in an email.

Running Greenspeed on raw vegetable oil is like running a diesel truck on oil fresh out of the ground and would be a far more efficient fuel if it were processed the way oil is processed into gasoline, but for Team Greenspeed, working around that problem is part of the challenge.

The crude vegetable oil that powers the truck contains 95 percent of the raw energy found in diesel fuel you can buy at the pump, and that means the remaining 5 percent gap must be compensated for with ingenuity and premium components in order for Greenspeed to meet the team's goals.

"Vegetable oil isn't very good by itself," Rothenbuhler said.

Greenspeed is on the road to show people what bio-fuels can do and dispel myths about green technologies. Gardner said it has had a tremendous symbolic impact, but he sees it representing the potential of bio-fuels in general more than the latest and most scientifically interesting technologies.

"I don't see Greenspeed being really closely connected to bio-fuel," he said.

Rothenbuhler sees things a little differently: "Hopefully, down the road, we can use algae oils from Boise State," he said.

Those algae oils are being developed nearby in the laboratory of professor Kevin Feris at the Boise State biology department and University of Idaho master's candidate Maxine Prior. While looking for a phosphate removal system for dairy waste, they stumbled upon a Chlorella strain and two other as-yet unidentified algae strains that, when fed phosphorous and denied nitrogen, produce lipids that can be refined into bio-crude.

Idaho is the fourth-largest producer of dairy products--and dairy waste--in America, and Feris and Prior's discovery won them and their colleagues a $400,000 Center for Advanced Energy Studies grant to develop a system for converting dairy waste into an energy source.

Though processing bio-crude is different from processing bio-fuel, they both perform comparably in diesel engines. But bio-crude produced by algae has a distinct advantage over its vegetable-based counterparts: Algae are seven- to 10-times more efficient at creating biomass. An acre of algae can grow more oil than corn, soy or canola.

The trouble, Feris says, is that while America is well versed in growing terrestrial sources of bio-fuel like corn, canola and soy, algae is an aquatic plant that has never been farmed en masse.

"We need to develop some novel technologies to harvest it," he said.

And while there is serious discussion about producing significant quantities of bio-fuel from plants, nobody's talking about repurposing desert and cattle grazing lands in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico (where sunlight and heat are optimal for algae growth) for some new-fangled farming operation.

Making bio-crude a player in America's fuel portfolio would be such a huge undertaking that Feris says getting fuel to market would become a logistical nightmare that would undercut much of the benefit of using an otherwise environmentally friendly fuel. Bio-crude is carbon neutral, which means it absorbs as much carbon from the atmosphere as is released when it's burned, but when it comes to alternative fuels, nothing's ever that simple.

"There's no net increase with greenhouse gasses, but that gets a little more complicated when it comes to shipping and transporting fuel," Feris said.

Completely supplanting fossil fuels nationwide is a daunting project. The United States burns through just less than 20 million barrels of oil every day, and no single alternative fuel can possibly make a transition away from petroleum tenable, but Boise may be a place where alternative fuels can gain a foothold.

Gardner said what Boise has going for it are educational institutions, high-tech industries and civil society that house people with the intelligence and drive to make that transition possible--even exciting.

"We have a whole lot of educated, forward-thinking people," he said.

What these forward-thinking people seem to agree upon is the future of the electric car. Even Rothenbuhler, who has high hopes for Greenspeed, says EVs will one day supplant bio-fuels.

"We see it as a segue fuel. I'm convinced electrical cars are the future, but we're not there yet," he said.

Feris agrees. In the short term, alternative fuels will bridge the gap between petroleum and an end-stage technology, though that gap may be very wide.

"In the end, it's all going to be electric," he said.

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