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

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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.

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