Verde Laguna: Pondering new breed of 'clean' energy vehicles

Perhaps no technology will transform society in the coming years as much as that related to personal transportation, since transportation is one of the most pervasive factors playing a negative role on the atmosphere.

How to provide choices and flexibility to mobility needs is a question many have for a long time. A sign of our times is that peak-oil and economic uncertainty has plunged the automobile industry into a state of flux, and that soon the internal combustion engine will be obsolete, the question is: What's next?

The Los Angeles Auto Show and many recent publications celebrated in the last months an apparent race in the industry for the clean car of the future, with the release by GM of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan with the Leaf model.

Something not to be missed after the Thanksgiving weekend, when "more than 2 million California families hit the road, spending about $54 million to fuel up their trips" as reported by the L.A. Times. Drivers could save $30 million if they drove a clean fuel car, according to a report from Environmental California. People are waiting anxiously for the release of new models such as the Ford Focus next year, and the Toyota RAV4, the Honda Fit EV, and the Teslar models rolling out on 2012.

The concerns many potential buyers have these days are: if a web of charging stations will be available in Southern California; and how much are they are getting for their buck, meaning how much money they will save on fuel cost per year buying these cars.

Among other things, many wonder what the label that rates miles per gallon is going to say. The current fuel economy label required all new passenger cars to contain information related to city/highway fuel economy values in miles per gallon, and an estimated fuel cost to operate the vehicle per year. This sticker design helped consumers over the last 30 years to choose more efficient and environmental friendly vehicles. Consumers are waiting to see how the EPA elaborates a form of equivalency of miles per kilowatt hours charged rating for these new cars.

Nowadays we have a hybrid, the Toyota Prius, that is rated at 51 miles per gallon in the city and 48 on the highway, so far one of the most efficient vehicles on the market; a plug-in hybrid, the Volt, a car GM says can drive up to 50 miles purely on electricity from a large-ion battery before a small fuel engine would start the battery. The Leaf is a pure electric car powered by an electric battery, and soon we are also going to have a new generation with fuel cells under the hood. The National Fuel Cell Research Center at UCI and many other research centers has been working on fuel cells not only to power cars but buildings too, to reduce pollution and produce clean and relatively inexpensive power.

The Environmental Protection Agency delivered the first of the answers on Nov. 22, rating the Nissan Leaf, which uses no gas, as "best" for the environment in the midsize vehicle class for fuel efficiency based on zero greenhouse gases or other traditional tailpipe emissions. The window sticker credits the Leaf with 99 MPG equivalent (combined city/highway).

This is a step on the right direction on Nissan's commitment to a reduction in CO2 emissions (believed by many scientists to be a cause of global warming) under the Nissan Green Program 2010 that has been recognized as a 2010 ENERGY STAR® partner of the year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Now those consumers interested in making an educated purchase will have to wait for the agency to rate the electric-gas powered Volt.

For General Motors, the company that "killed the electrical car," according to a 2006 documentary, the Volt becomes a symbol of hope, the blueprint of redemption for a company driven to bankruptcy by this recession.

The situation with the Volt is more complex, since it uses two energy sources, electricity and gas, something that become a source of debate among car reviewers accusing GM of lying after revealing that in some situations the gas engine helps to propel the wheels, information to be reflected on the EPA label. GM expected the Volt to achieve at least 230 mpg, based on using an EPA draft for labeling plug-in electric vehicles. The car is expected to travel up to 40 to 50 miles on electricity from a single battery charge and be able to extend its overall range to more than 300 miles with its flex fuel-powered engine-generator, and was awarded the "Green Car" of the year at the LA show.

What you need to know is that federal and state programs provide rebates for these vehicles. The Clean Vehicle Rebate Project benefits Californians who purchase or lease a new eligible zero-emission plug-in hybrid electric car. More information is available at the Center for Sustainable Energy: https://energycenter.org/index.php/incentive-programs/clean-vehicle-rebate-project/cvrp-eligible-vehicles.

As per the federal tax incentives the range goes from $2,500 to $7,500. In order to qualify the vehicle must have at least a 4 Kilowatt-hour for the minimum credit, making both the Leaf (24 Kwh battery) and the Volt (16 Kwh capacity) eligible for the $7,500 credit. This is something that helps to bring down the $40,000 price tag for the Volt and the $25,000 price for the Leaf.

As for fuel cells, Honda expects to lease about 200 FCX Clarity vehicles over the next three years. The FCX is a fuel cell electric zero emission car that combines hydrogen with oxygen to make electricity. The electricity then powers the motor, which in turn propels the vehicle. The issue with fuel cells still is the cost of production, and the fuel itself, since hydrogen is abundant but not in pure form. But I would like to think of a future day when water and solar panels are all we are going to need to create fuel. It's a no-brainer to collect rainfall for the fluid and use the energy of the sun as power source.

GUSTAVO GRAD is a Laguna Beach resident and certified sustainable building advisor. He can be reached at ggrad@cox.net.

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