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Get your motor runnin’

Staff Reports

A few weeks ago, during the TV show “Lost,” there was a pair of surprising commercials. Not surprising like an octogenarian shouting “Where’s the beef?” or P. Diddy driving a Diet Pepsi truck, but startling because of what they were advertising. Tucked in between spots for chips and beer (and Hummers) were ads for Toyota’s and Honda’s hybrid cars. It was almost as if the car companies were trying to prove that the Prius and new, hybrid Civic were as common as Miller Light or Doritos that these cars of the future were here, ready for anyone to use.When Vail was founded more than 40 years ago, no one really thought we’d still be driving cars in 2005. Hovercrafts and teleporters (or at least monorails) were supposed to be the wave of the future. But that future never really materialized. Instead it’s been old-fashioned internal combustion all the way.Although the future looks a lot less like Star Wars than some had hoped, there’s a lot of promise in emerging technologies. At the top of the heap (for now, anyway) are hybrid cars, named so because they combine the power of electric engines with traditional, internal combustion engines. The results are promising: Honda’s hybrid, the Prius, already gets four times the gas mileage of an ’89 Pathfinder (a Prius gets 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway, compared to around 15 for a Pathfinder).But the Prius and hybrid Honda fleet aren’t the only green technologies designed to propel us into the new millennium. There are also fuels made of French-fry grease and cars which burn no fossil fuels and emit only water vapor.The future looks bright, if someone will just lead the way. Right now, the Town of Vail may be doing just that. The town already has two hybrid cars in the local fleet, and town officials have just ordered their first diesel-hybrid bus for mass transit. Eagle County officials are also pondering the purchase of hybrid vehicles, and a few private citizens are driving hybrids or eyeing new hybrid models.The new technology seems to be catching on, but how well do hybrid cars, and other new technologies, work in the mountains?The long and winding roadWe caught up with Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi while he was driving in his car, past Wolcott after a day of work. Although Menconi was well-known (during campaign season) as a hybrid driver, he’s now burning more gasoline, more dinosaur bones, in his new Subaru Outback.Not that he’s happy about it.”Call me hypocritical,” he says. “I started my first term with a hybrid. Now I’ve gone to something with a different type of practicality. I really wrestled with my conscience between another hybrid and the Subaru.”The Prius just wasn’t right for him, he says. It didn’t fit his Eagle County lifestyle, which is built around the long snake of I-70 and many miles in the car per day.The separation between Eagle and Vail was once considered vast. It was a long-distance phone call. It was a full-day trip.But these days, Eagle County can almost be considered a single community. People regularly commute from one side of the county to the other.And, unless a monorail is approved sometime soon (which isn’t likely), Eagle County residents are going to be guzzling gas up and down passes on their way to the Cherry Creek Mall, the Glenwood pool and any ski resort with a better snow report than Vail.And we’re mountain people not city people. Which means most drivers aren’t going to be making car trips in little Civics, Hyundais, or Outbacks. In Eagle County the big car is king Dodge Rams for ranchers, Chevy Suburbans for rich vacationers and SUVs for everyone else. Who wants a tiny, electric car with the horsepower of a golf cart?This is where Toyota’s Cindy Knight comes in. A big part of Knight’s job is dispelling the myths about hybrid technology.”There are still people that think (a hybrid) needs to be plugged in to recharge, which isn’t true,” says Knight. “Or that it needs to be small, which is also not true.”Mostly what Knight is trying to do is broaden the appeal of hybrids; to let the ranchers and the mothers of three know that, despite what they may think, hybrid is a technology, not a specific car.”The hybrid power train can go in any sized vehicle, it could go in our biggest vehicle, the Tundra, without any problem,” she says. “We just need to know there’s a market.”But is there a market for hybrid SUVs? And if hybrid SUVs were available, would people in Eagle County drive them?We will soon know.The hybrid market is exploding. Consumer demand is outstripping supply. The current waiting list for a hybrid vehicle can be as long as a year.But vehicle makers are trying to catch up. Almost every major car company has plans to release a hybrid by the end of the decade. There will be a luxury Lexus (for the real estate magnate), a 300-horsepower TK Dodge Ram (for the landscapers and carpenters) and Fords, Saturns, GMs, Toyotas and Hondas for the rest of us.Takin’ it to the streetsWhen hybrids first hit the streets, their market seemed to be made up mostly of Ed Begley Jr. types. People with a lot of money who cared as much about the low emissions as the great gas mileage; people who didn’t want a big car. But the hybrid market is quickly changing. It’s evolving from conservation-minded city folk to people who love the outdoors but need their 4×4 to get their bike, kayak and snowboard up dirt roads, over mountain passes, and everywhere in between.If you lived in Vail during the ’80s you remember the haze. Vail was never another Los Angeles or Denver, but we still had our own little brown cloud. People blamed it on the inversion (a typical problem in mountain valleys where warm air traps in colder air which traps in air pollution) and wood-burning fire places. So codes were changed, people switched to gas, and the problem dissipated.But it wasn’t just wood smoke that hurt the valley’s air. Cars played a role, too. The question is, how much pollution are cars creating in our valley?”There is a lot of traffic on I-70. I’m sure that there is an issue with that but I just don’t have any data or measurement for that,” says Vail Environmental Health director Bill Carlson.Nonetheless, Carlson doesn’t want to wait for data when it comes to something he knows intuitively: the internal combustion engine is bad for environmental health.”Everybody’s doing something that hurts the environment. We just want to be less bad,” he says. “We just want to reduce the impact of our pollution and provide an example to other North American ski resort communities.”Lately the town has put a lot of its money where its mouth is. The town already has two hybrid cars both Toyotas and there are plans to get a hybrid bus.Vail also has the largest free mass transit system in the U.S. Carlson and transportation manager Mike Rose have plans to make it cleaner and quieter. Rose says he’s gotten an earful of complaints about the noisy diesel engines over the years. A fleet of hybrid buses would take care of both those problems but a fleet is years, if not decades, away, he says.Rose has been looking at the technology for years, watching it advance and evolve. But it’s been too costly and too experimental, until now. Still, the technology is costly and experimental. The price for a hybrid is double that of a normal bus they range from $500,000 to $600,000, compared to about $300,000 for a standard bus. And Rose doesn’t expect to make that money back by skipping fill-ups.”What you save in fuel you might spend twice in maintenance,” he says. “You want a system that’s going to stay up and running. That’s why we’ve been reluctant to get into the hybrid game until now.”Diesel and dustHybrid isn’t the only technology available but it may be the only technology that’s proven to work in our mountain environment.Other ski resorts, most notably Breckenridge, have had some successes (and failures) with biodiesel. Biodiesel is a diesel fuel substitute made from oils from soybeans, sunflowers or virtually any other vegetable some towns have even made it from old grease in hot oil fryers. Most often it’s mixed with petroleum diesel to create a blended fuel. Its advantages are many it’s biodegradable, nontoxic, works in most diesel engines with little or no modifications and reduces dependence on foreign oil. But it also has its problems: Breckenridge recently put their program on hiatus when, in extremely cold temperatures, the fuel began gelling and brought vehicles to stumbling stops.Vail tried the fuel a decade ago. It didn’t work, says Rose. There were mechanical issues, cold-starting issues and it was costly, he says.But many Colorado towns and cities have made it work. A month ago, the Denver Public School district announced it would use biodiesel fuel in 50 of its 450 school buses. Fort Collins followed suit putting its diesel vehicles on a biodiesel blend.The temperatures in Fort Collins and Denver, however, tend to be a bit warmer. No ski town transit authority has perfected the art of biodiesel fuel in their buses, and, ski towns often can’t afford to experiment like big cities do.Like many other green-minded transit and transportation directors, Steamboat’s George Krawzoff wanted to use biodiesel in his fleet but just couldn’t make it work. Given the town’s budget and their number of mechanics, even the low level of risk was more than they could chance, Krawzoff says. Not to mention costs: Biodiesel can cost 15 to 20 cents more per gallon than petroleum diesel.”It would have added 15 percent to fuel costs,” he says. “Our fuel costs have already risen 75 percent in the last few years.”Even with the added cost and the cold-starting problems, Vail Environmental Health director Carlson and County Commissioner Menconi both want to bring the idea of biodiesel back to the valley.”I’d like to have a pilot program here,” says Carlson, adding that he and his peers plan to look hard at biodiesel as one of the green technologies they’ll review in the next few months.Every silver lining has a touch of greyWhile biodiesel isn’t as widely known, it’s gaining ground fast even Neil Young uses it in his tour bus. But both these technologies aren’t perfect from a conservation standpoint. Hybrids still burn fossil fuels and create carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Biodiesel comes in a blend that’s predominantly petroleum diesel, and therefore puts toxins into the air. When it comes to providing a long-term solution, industry pundits believe there is only one real answer: the hydrogen fuel cell.A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device which turns hydrogen and oxygen into water. This process generates electricity, and its only byproduct is water. It may seem like science fiction, but it’s basically the same technology that goes into a standard battery. But batteries have a limited amount of chemicals inside them, whereas a fuel cell gets a constant flow of chemicals.Many people believe fuel cells will offer a final solution to the internal combustion problem but there are still major hurdles to clear before that dream becomes a reality.The first problem is that there’s not enough room to store large quantities of hydrogen, so fuel-cell vehicles can only go about 80 miles before needing a fill-up.The cars are also prohibitively expensive. Fuel-cell technology requires the use of platinum metal which is extremely expensive. There are purity problems, too the chemical reactions that power the car can’t be completely controlled yet, and impurities can be detrimental to the mechanics of the car.But scientists and engineers are working hard to solve these problems. There are already hundreds of fuel cell cars on the road that have been leased to people as prototypes. According to Toyota’s Knight, the test drivers love many aspects of the cars (like the fact that they’re almost noiseless and the only emission is a little bit of water pushed out the tail pipe).The auto industry also has hope that problems with fuel-cell cars can be overcome, and they’re investing millions trying to get it done. Toyota has been working on hydrogen fuel-cell technology for as long as it’s been working on hybrids which is more than a decade.”You find that everyone is researching this technology,” says Toyota’s Knight. “Not just the car manufactures, but the national labs and universities. It seems to be something that everyone recognizes as having a tremendous amount of potential.”But, hey, if a car creates no harmful effects to the environment isn’t that worth paying ten times what you’d normally spend on a car? Knight doesn’t think so.What most people don’t realize, Knight says, is that the possibility of mass-produced fuel cell-powered cars will grow more distant as they are forced to compete with more hybrids and less ’89 Pathfinders. As hybrids become mainstream, the expectations of how far one can go before filling up is going to increase. A fuel-cell car’s 80 miles will become ever-more ridiculous as hybrid cars begin to go a thousand miles before making a pit stop.”Any new technology has to be better than what it’s trying to replace or people won’t accept it,” says Knight. “People have to see a clear benefit.”The mountains win againEven with ski resorts’ emphasis on green-technology, even with a population that values trees over asphalt, Steamboat’s Krawzoff can’t see mountain towns being at the forefront of hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel or hybrids.”As promising as new technologies are, Colorado ski resorts are not the place to be a test bed for new technologies,” he says.Why? Because budgets are tight and the environmental factors the cold, snow, high altitude and steep grades make ski towns a dicey place to test something new. There are also worries that big companies won’t care about helping out small markets. This is something in which Krawzoff has some experience.Krawzoff used to head transportation in Snowmass Village. In the early ’80s, the village decided to clean up some of their pollution, and adapted their buses for propane fuel.”Despite all the assurances that the technology was well developed and at a point where it was appropriate for transit use, we found that we had some pretty disastrous experiences with it,” he says. “Not only were we having to replace engines at twice the normal frequency but we had problems with buses shutting down as they were pulling up steep grades.”His theory seems to be proving true. Breckenridge had to spend time and money ironing out the kinks in its biodiesel blending.As for Vail? Well, along with their one hybrid bus, they also ordered six of the old-fashioned, fossil-fuel buses. If mountains towns are ever to green up their fleets it’s going to take a lot of work on the inside.And here’s where people like Menconi comes in again.Even after his switch to the Subaru, Menconi hasn’t turned his back on the potential of hybrid technology. He’s trying to use the power of his office to bring more hybrids into the mountains. In a few weeks, all three county commissioners are sitting down with County Planner Adam Palmer (and former head of the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability) to brainstorm how to fast track some green technologies.”Why can’t we go to a Toyota or a Honda and say, ‘We want you to be the official car of Eagle County because we want to promote fuel efficiency in our county,'” asks Menconi. “It’s a balloon I’ve floated before and not had much success with.””I think it’s totally appropriate for the county to take a lead position (on this),” said Commissioner Peter Runyon. “I know Adam will have a lot of ideas.””But I’m also concerned about budget,” Runyon added. “I don’t think we should go out and spend willy nilly for something that could be largely symbolic. But, the way gas prices are going, I don’t think it will be as symbolic as all that.”Commissioner Tom Stone may not be as positive about green technology. He did not return repeated calls to his office.As far as Menconi and Runyon are concerned, the idea of fuel-efficient county vehicles is promising. Despite doubts from people like Krawzoff, the pair believe Eagle County can find a way to lead the charge toward newer, cleaner driving technologies. VTJed Gottlieb is a frequent contributor to the Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at wanderousjed@yahoo.com.


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