Not Your Daddy’s Diesel

Automakers are replacing gas-guzzling vehicles with alternative fuel sources

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America has a love affair with their vehicles. Maybe not as much as the guy from Knoxville, Tennessee who tried to marry his car (he listed the Mustang’s birthplace as Detroit, father as Henry Ford and blood type as 10W-40), but enough to know that the average household has more vehicles than people to drive them. According to the Transportation Department, there are 204 million vehicles on the roads today and 191 million drivers.

Considering this love affair, it’s not likely that Minnesotans will readily ditch their vehicles in the name of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, even though driving a vehicle is the most polluting act the average person commits. Vehicles in the U.S. emit well over a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, contributing to global warming and climate change. Add to that the environmental implications of mining the iron ore, manufacturing the car, drilling for oil, transporting the petroleum, and maintaining the roads–owning a gas-guzzling vehicle represents a moving ecological disaster.

The bad news is that most people won’t get rid of their wheels until the day comes when they can no longer drive. The good news is that vehicles of the future hold promise.

One of these promising vehicles is the Neighborhood Electric Car, (aka Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, or NEV) a category invented by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Electric cars plug into a standard outlet and cost anywhere from a penny to 3 cents per mile to operate (depending on the price of electricity).

One of these cars, the Zap, operates on three wheels rather than four and can get cruising up to 40 mph (NEVs go 20-25 mph and no faster). The MM NmG (Myers Motors No More Gas), or Sparrow, is a three-wheeled city car that can top out at 75 mph and comes with power windows, a CD player, and a tilt steering wheel. The Zenn (Zero Emissions No Noise) is a four-wheeled luxury sedan of the posh variety. For those who would rather travel on two motorized wheels, there is an electric motorcycle on the market today; and anyone who wants to get in touch with their inner Fred Flinstone will appreciate the Twike, an electric car that combines muscle power (a three-pedal assist) with an electric motor.

“Electric vehicles have no emissions at all [during driving], which make them a great ‘clean air choice,’†explains Robert Moffitt, communications director of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest’s Clean Fuel and Vehicles Program. “Unfortunately, the technology to create practical, all-electric vehicles is not ready yet for consumers. Several companies around the globe are working on building and marketing a practical electrical vehicle, so hopefully this option will be available in Minnesota in the near future.â€

Members of the Minnesota Chapter of the Electric Auto Association, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to the promotion of clean, quiet, energy efficient personal electric vehicle transportation, are also hopeful that more Minnesotans will realize the benefits of do-it-yourself conversions, Electric Vehicles (EV), and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV).

“I think the biggest benefit of electric cars is emissions reductions,†explains Dave Peichel, vice president of the Minnesota chapter of the EAA. “They can be recharged at night using the excess grid capacity, and the cleaner we make the grid power by adding more wind and other renewable energy sources, the cleaner our commutes will become. Driving an electric vehicle is one of the best things anyone can do to help get us off our dependence on foreign oil.â€

Another alternative fuel choice is the hybrid vehicle, or gas powered car with electrical motor assist. This environmentally friendly combination of gas and electric hybrid technology gives the driver higher gas mileage and lower engine exhaust emissions. “Hybrid-electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular in Minnesota, and are a great way to conserve fuel and reduce emissions,†Moffitt says.

While electric vehicles and hybrids are growing in popularity, another green technology option offers flexible-fuel vehicles that can run on E85, a blend of up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, or regular unleaded gasoline.

In Minnesota alone, corn ethanol has reduced drivers’ dependence on gasoline by more than 10 percent, helped to clean the air, and established one of the largest and most efficient infrastructures for biofuels in North America.

“We are a model, not only for the rest of the nation, but for many foreign visitors who visit Minnesota to see for themselves and learn the ‘Minnesota Model’ for making alternative fuels into a practical reality,†Moffitt says.

Minnesota was the first state to require a 10 blend of ethanol in gasoline (E10), the first to require a 2 percent blend of biodiesel statewide (B2), and has invested a large amount of public and private dollars toward increasing high blend ethanol (E85) and biodiesel fuel stations.

Minnesota has more than 350 E85 stations in Minnesota, “far more than any other state,†Moffitt says.

Biodiesel, one of the eco-friendly buzzwords of the moment, is diesel fuel typically made from soybeans and other vegetable oils or animal fats, instead of petroleum.  Use of this biofuel causes significantly less air pollution and emission of carcinogens as compared to diesel made from petroleum.  In addition, because it is made from a plant-based materia, the net increase in carbon dioxide to our atmosphere is drastically less.

Advancements in the field of alternative fuel options are dizzying, including the plug-in/flex-fuel hybrid, a vehicle that plugs into a driver’s electricity source, runs on a combination of cleaner-burning E85 and gasoline, and uses a hybrid-electric engine to reduce emissions and save fuel; Metro Transit’s fleet of hybrid electric-diesel buses; the creation of biodiesel from algae rather than soybeans; and zero emission fuel cell cars that run on hydrogen.

The American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest cares about cleaner fuels and engines because vehicles are the single largest source of outdoor air pollution.

According to the American Lung Association’s website, “Our dependence on traditional fuels has endangered our health, economy, environment, and national security. Increased public transit services and other transportation options are needed. However, in Minnesota, most businesses, governments, and consumers continue to rely heavily on individual vehicles.â€

Vehicles that run on cleaner, American-made alternatives to traditional gasoline and diesel are a critical solution to this problem. Visit www.cleanairchoice.org for more information.


Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s official car, a Toyota Prius converted to a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, is expected to get an exceptional 70 to 100 miles per gallon. This new technology allows batteries in the car to be recharged by plugging it into a standard electric outlet.  Eventually this vehicle will be recharged through electricity generated by solar panels installed on the roof of a city public works building. This extraordinary use of renewable energy to help power a car will be a featured exhibit at the Living Green Expo May 3 and 4 on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The Minnesota Chapter of the Electric Auto Association will also be displaying electric vehicles at the Expo.