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Federal Way drives toward environmentally-friendly goal

Electric and hybrid-powered vehicles were available for a test drive Sept. 19 at the Clean Vehicles Now! conference in Seattle. Hybrid vehicles used as part of King County’s fleet, as well as electric vehicles, new to the market, were displayed.  - Jacinda Howard, The Mirror
Electric and hybrid-powered vehicles were available for a test drive Sept. 19 at the Clean Vehicles Now! conference in Seattle. Hybrid vehicles used as part of King County’s fleet, as well as electric vehicles, new to the market, were displayed.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard, The Mirror

Participants took a break from discussions about alternative fuel sources Sept. 19 at Qwest Field in Seattle to zip around a cone-lined track in futuristic-looking cars

A handful of Federal Way employees, including City Manager Neal Beets, participated in the events at the Clean Vehicles Now! conference. Attendees were offered a glimpse of the future for motor vehicles — and electric, hybrid and biodiesel-powered vehicles were bountiful.

Cities that sponsored the conference, including Federal Way, agreed to accept the Puget Sound Regional Green Fleet Initiative. The act asks participants to make efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through the alteration of transportation fleets.

Federal Way may introduce electric and hybrid vehicles to its fleet in the coming years, Beets said. For example, electric motorcycles might prove useful in enforcing speed limits in school zones or assisting in trail maintenance, he said.

Currently, small pickup trucks are driven by some city employees. Some of the trucks have been in use for a number of years and are ready for retirement, Beets said. They could be replaced by hybrids, such as Ford Escapes. The utility vehicle would get good gas mileage — about 30 miles per gallon — and offer a wider range of capabilities, Beets said.

The city will begin evaluating its mid-biennium budget and the purchase of alternative fuel-powered vehicles in October. There is a possibility that 2008’s city fleet will include vehicles that utilize alternative fuel sources, he said.

“As vehicles come up for retirement, we will very seriously consider replacement with hybrids,” Beets said.

The technology

The Kurrent, designed by Italians and built by Americans, can operate on only 2 cents per mile. Powering this car requires charging its battery by plugging the car into a 110-volt outlet for three to six hours.

Running on a combination of gasoline and electric power, hybrid vehicles from King County’s transportation fleet were on display as well. The county uses about 24 hybrid Ford Escapes and 150 Toyota Priuses in its fleet, said Robert Toppen, King County equipment maintenance manager. The vehicles operate like gasoline-powered vehicles and require less maintenance, he said.

“(The hybrid Ford Escape) still does the same job; it just does it more efficiently,” Toppen said.

Western Washington University brought its biomethane-powered vehicle, Viking 32, to the conference. Biomethane is a fuel derived from refined cattle waste. The vehicle resembles a sports car, such as a Ferrari. It reaches speeds of 140 mph, gets 53 miles per gallon and accelerates from zero to 60 mph in six seconds, said Drew Wohlenhaus, Western Washington University Vehicle Research Institute spokesman.

Advantages of alternative fuel:

Keynote speakers at the conference agreed that vehicles powered by alternative fuel sources make economic and global sense.

The acceptance of hybrid, electric and biodiesel fueled vehicles would decrease greenhouse gas emissions and America’s dependency on petroleum oil, said Britta Gross, manager of Hydrogen Infrastructure and Strategic Commercialization at Daimler-Chrysler. The country could increase its air quality and diversity of energy sources by embracing the technology, she said.

Currently, the United States has enough electric power to operate 80 percent of the cars on its roadways, said Andrew Frank, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at University of California-Davis.

The drawbacks:

Alternative fuel vehicles have room for improvement.

Hybrid vehicles help decrease America’s dependency on gasoline and lessen greenhouse gas emissions, but they still produce some pollution. Several of the electric-powered vehicles on display were small and traveled a maximum of 30 to 40 miles per day. They also require a time commitment to charge their batteries. Electric power as a fuel source is new technology, which has existed for less than two years and is still being researched, Gross said.

“There are radical improvements taking place every day,” she said.

Biodiesel is a fueling method that is not always practical. In cold weather, the fuel — usually made with vegetable oil — may take on jelly-like consistency, Frank said. Furthermore, fueling stations that offer biodiesel such as ethanol are few and far between, Gross said.

Paradigm change:

Additional research, public education and a shift in market demands are needed before Americans could be expected to purchase alternative fuel vehicles in large quantities.

The general public is not ready to accept and utilize these vehicles, said Gunnar Lindstrom, American Honda senior manager of the alternative fuel department.

The process of creating environmentally friendly vehicles is still one that is expensive for car manufacturers, he said.

Creating energy efficient vehicles that meet consumers’ tastes and demands also poses engineering difficulties, Gross said.

While Honda and Daimler-Chrysler are investing in the technology and researching its uses, they still must manufacture cars that customers want to buy, Lindstrom said.

“Ideology doesn’t get very far when it comes to mass marketing,” Lindstrom said.

The public needs more information about the technology available before it will feel compelled to purchase vehicles that require alternative fuel sources, Frank said. Financial incentives for purchasing environmentally friendly vehicles also must be offered to customers, said Flexcar CEO Mark Norman.

“People do follow the money,” moderator Bill Van Amburg said.

To make a difference, hybrids, electric and biodiesel vehicles must all be embraced, Lindstrom said.

However, this is not anticipated to occur soon. It could take 20 to 50 years before technology and the market demand for vehicles powered by alternative fuel sources are comparable, Lindstrom said.

“Let’s face it folks, this isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Learn more

On Sept. 20, City Manager Neal Beets invited Lakehaven Utility District, South King Fire and Rescue and Federal Way Public Schools to meet with the city to discuss what was learned and observed during the conference. Partnerships to invest in alternative fuel sources may arise from the meeting.

Learn more about the Clean Vehicles Now! conference and the Puget Sound Regional Green Fleet Initiative at www.metrokc.gov/exec/cleanvehiclesnow/.

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