Mr. Green Car: Transportation highlights from the 2010 Renewable Energy Fair

Tom Brunka (left) of Brown Deer, Wis., hangs out with friend Dave Lewis of Byron, Ill., at Dave's all-electric 1991 Chevy S-10 pick-up. Photo by Allen Penticoff

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

This year, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 7-8, marked the Ninth Annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair at the Ogle County Fairgrounds near Oregon, Ill. Each year, the fair has been a wonderful opportunity to learn about everything from solar panels to straw-bale construction and soap to prairie seeds. I find it all interesting, and enjoy interacting with the people.

For me, the fair has provided one of the few places where I can talk biofuels with knowledgeable people. We’ll take a quick look at what was there in the transportation area.

This year, there were only two electric cars. One was the Zap “Xebra” three-wheeled pick-up truck. This bright-green, two-seat truck has six 12-volt batteries, giving it a range of 25 miles. Three-wheeled vehicles are licensed as motorcycles. The bed on the truck would tilt, but I would not call it a dump truck.

The other electric vehicle was the perennial appearance of Dave Lewis’ 1991 Chevy S-10 pick-up. Lewis’ S-10 is a homebuilt project that continues to evolve. It is powered by 20 6-volt batteries that provide a range of about 40 miles.

Cute little Zap "Xebra" electric vehicle. It was on sale for less than half of sticker price. Photo by Allen Penticoff

Dave is from Byron, so he always drives his electric truck to the fair, just as he does on nearly a daily basis. It, too, has a tilt bed, but this is for access to the batteries as in the Xebra, and not to act as a dump capability.

Dave figures he has spent $10,000 on the conversion, but the cost was less because of receiving $4,000 in the form of an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency grant. Those interested in converting vehicles to electric power would be wise to contact the Fox Valley Electric Auto Association.

I spent some time listening to Toyota-trained Prius guru Wayne Mitchell go into intimate detail on the technology differences between the Toyota Prius generation two and generation three cars. He was advising an owner of a Gen-2 Prius on many maintenance tips, some of which he cautioned even the dealers were not aware of.

From Mitchell’s descriptions, I learned that the latest Prius is substantially different from the one previous to it, such that it would not be worth looking for a used older Prius, when there were so many improvements in the new model. The new model has a larger 1.8-liter engine that actually gets better fuel economy than the old 1.5-liter. The new engine has no accessory belts—even the water pump is electric powered.

I learned that new and old Priuses both have water-cooled inverters and that the cooling system needs careful maintenance.

Bloom High School has an advanced science project of producing biodiesel. Pictured is their biodiesel-fueled Volkswagen Jetta. Photo by Allen Penticoff

Mitchell also cautioned that the Gen-2 Priuses need less oil in the engine than the specifications call for. Several issues arise from this. I heard that the handling is much improved on the new Priuses. One person commented that his Gen-2 wandered in a crosswind on the highway so much that a state patrol officer pulled him over and tested him for DUI—which he certainly was not! Prius owners should arm themselves with Mitchell’s bountiful knowledge by joining the Chicago Prius/Hybrid group.

Steve Fugate, education director of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association, was there Saturday with a Ford F-250 pick-up that runs on 100 percent biodiesel. He is also involved in the Yoderville Biodiesel Cooperative. They gather waste vegetable oil and process it into biodiesel of very high quality standards.

I was lobbying for increased use of straight vegetable oil (SVO) instead of processing it into biodiesel. Fugate explained how SVO does not meet pollution standards and that the new diesels with pump pressures of 20,000 psi can be damaged by use of SVO or even biodiesel that is not extremely clean.

Fugate cautioned anyone considering using B-100 or SVO to CAREFULLY research applicability to their vehicle.

Fugate also informed me about some impending tax credits that, if they go through, may make the availability of waste oil difficult to obtain for hobbyists and small-time operators. With this credit, the big processors can earn another dollar per gallon and will inspire them to double down on their oil gathering efforts. The co-op’s website is:

Dave and Eileen Wetzel of Decatur, Ill., are regulars with their 1987 Mercedes-Benz diesel that runs on SVO and sometimes a bit of hydrogen. Dave likes to experiment. They are always ready to answer questions. Next to them, I met Jay and Donna Gaydosh of Lincoln, Ill. They have a 1995 Chevy Suburban diesel that runs on SVO. In the back is a 40-gallon SVO tank. Jay was inspired to start looking for an alternative fuel for his daily commute back when gas first hit $3 a gallon eight years ago.

Jay produced a little brochure, “Safety Concerns for the Home Biofuel Producer,” that he was handing out, along with an Illinois EPA guide to handling of waste motor oil. His guide was concise and beneficial to anyone considering producing SVO, biodiesel or ethanol. I thank Jay, too, for helping sort out the mysteries of my own SVO system on my 1981 VW Rabbit diesel, which was on display Sunday. You can contact me if you’d like Jay’s e-mail address for a copy of the brochure.

A biodiesel-fueled Volkswagen Jetta from the Bloom High School science project was there, but nobody around with displays like last year. Elgin Community College surprised some of us by showing up with an attractively-painted semi-tractor trailer rig that was biodiesel-fueled. I thought there would be some big presentation in the trailer, but that was not the case. It is apparently used to transport project materials and equipment.

So that’s the quick wrap-up. I continue to learn and be amazed at what people are doing to lessen our impact on the planet and damage to our wallets. Kudos to Bob, Sonia and Lin Vogl and the many volunteers who make it all happen. Be sure to attend the fair next year if you have not yet had the experience.

From the Aug. 11-17, 2010 issue

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