gas prices could mean cleaner air
By GREG CLARY
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original Publication: November 10, 2005)
Bouncing gas prices may
be squeezing monthly budgets, but energy experts say a sustained
rise in fuel prices could translate to healthier air as drivers
look at options that are cheaper, cleaner and renewable.
High gas prices have
also led to a cottage industry of mechanics who are converting
engines that use fossil fuel into ones that use electricity
and kitchen oil.
"If you look back
to the 1970s, market forces certainly have a way of changing
people's behavior," said George Douglas, a spokesman
for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy
Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "If gas prices rise enough,
people start driving more fuel-efficient cars; they drive
their cars less or they use vehicles that have fewer fossil
fuels in them. Those all reduce the amount of carbon in the
air, and that's a positive."
Gas prices have more
than doubled in the past five years — from a national
average of $1.52 a gallon for regular in 2000, to $3.07 after
Hurricane Katrina disrupted national supplies this year. That
rise has resulted in the following trends, according to Douglas
• Hybrid car sales are on the rise
nationally. Waiting lists grow as new models are introduced.
Railroad saw a short-term spike in train use in the Lower
Hudson Valley when gas prices peaked in late summer and
early fall. Car pools also became more popular.
• Tinkerers are
starting to benefit from converting vehicles into ones that
don't rely on gasoline.
Take George Westphal,
for example. The retired mechanical engineer from Pearl River
drives a 1985 Nissan Sentra he converted to electric power
about six years ago as a personal challenge. Now, he pays
about 3 cents a mile to get around, about a third to a quarter
of what most drivers pay to power their gasoline vehicles.
"When the engine
went, the cost of the repair would have been more than the
car was worth," said Westphal, who started his working
life as an auto mechanic. "It's basically a (train) station
car now because you can only go about 25 miles without recharging
the batteries, but lately it's paying for itself."
Using a manufacturer's
kit, Westphal replaced the car's fuel tank with batteries,
the engine with an electric motor and relay switches, and
implanted his recharging plug where he used to insert the
gas pump nozzle.
Now his license plate
reads "GOINOHM," and he's got a 120-volt system,
powered by 650 pounds of batteries, that is big enough to
push a much heavier car.
Since gas prices started
moving up, Westphal finds he is using the car more.
"I like driving
an electric vehicle. When the body on this finally goes, I'll
go to a small pickup truck," he said. "They're the
easiest to convert."
One thing Westphal doesn't
need to worry about is exhaust fumes — they disappeared
for good when he pulled out the Sentra's exhaust system.
"I did this for
myself, to see if I could, more than for any other reason,"
the 66-year-old grandfather said. "But not polluting
the air makes me feel good."
That's a benefit as far
as Wally Little is concerned, too.
The Yorktown resident
runs Wally's Super Service, an auto repair shop in Mahopac,
and likes spreading the gospel of cleaner air every time one
of his customers looks to find a way to keep down his or her
Little has been busy,
as gas prices have risen, converting cars and trucks from
diesel fuel to vegetable oil fuel. They need a little diesel
fuel to help warm the engine; otherwise, they are just as
powerful as vehicles that use soot-producing fuels.
Little got started in
the diesel-conversion business after Jonathan Pratt, a friend
and neighbor, showed off a Ford 250 pickup he was running
on used kitchen oil generated by the three restaurants he
"I guess all my
buddies sat back and waited until I had about 20,000 miles
on my truck," said Pratt, who owns Peter Pratt's Inn
in Yorktown and the Umami cafes in Croton-on-Hudson and Fishkill.
"Then they all bought Ford 250s, and now everyone is
out gathering vegetable oil."
Initially, it was like
looking for petroleum in a sheik's backyard. Restaurants,
who have to pay to get rid of the oil properly, were happy
to give it away for free.
"Imagine in one
neighborhood, four vehicles running on renewable fuel,"
Pratt said. "There are hardly any emissions because 97
percent of the emissions are absorbed by nature and turned
back into oxygen. "
Pratt said he had been
spending $800 a month in diesel fuel to drive back and forth
to three locations, at 10 miles to the gallon. With his fuel
now coming from his kitchens, that cost has all but disappeared.
David Friedman, research
director for clean vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists,
said if gas prices stay high, the move away from fossil fuels
could occur faster than the 50-year horizon some are predicting.
"The history of
biofuels is that when the government is interested in a new
technology, it moves forward," Friedman said. "When
it isn't, progress wanes."
Friedman said the emerging
energy technologies — hydrogen, batteries, ethanol —
will have to be made more economical to work in most applications
and will have to be produced in a clean manner to deliver
the environmental help the scientific community promises.
"We know what petroleum's
characteristics are," he said. "We don't know as
much about the others. For all of this, we need a vision like
the one that got us to the moon. The irony is, it's a lot
easier. The first step is auto mechanics, not rocket science."
California standards updated: New York first adopted the
California Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) program in the early
1990s. Under the Clean Air Act, states have the right to
adopt the more stringent California program or adhere to
federal standards but may not create their own programs.
Yesterday's approval is the latest in a series of changes
necessary for New York to maintain adherence to the California
Cutting greenhouse gases: Traditionally, the
LEV program has focused on reducing nitrogen oxides and volatile
organic compounds from tailpipe and fuel system emissions.
The latest version of the program addresses greenhouse gases
for the first time. The regulations revise the LEV program
to address carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons,
Stricter standards: The regulations mandate
new vehicle certification levels for all passenger cars, light-duty
trucks and medium-duty passenger vehicles starting with the
2009 model year. Manufacturers of all 2009 and later model-year
vehicles will be required to meet a fleet average standard
that becomes more stringent each year through 2016.
Environmental board: The 16-member environmental
board is composed of state agency heads and representatives
of the environmental community, citizen groups, business and
On the Web
For more information about alternative fuels,
visit the following Web sites