Drive Green: What's That Mean?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 17 Mar 2010

The last two days spent the better part of a day and a half putting together a 45-minute presentation in Apple Keynote to deliver at Dana College's 2nd Annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference on March 31st, 2010. The title of my talk is "Greening Your Wheels: What You Can Do Personally to Spend Your Transportation Dollars Smarter and More Sustainably." Obviously, that's not just a mouthful, but also a serious technical and economic challenge; one that is easy to espouse, but a challenge to implement, especially in a predominately rural state like Nebraska.

When you look at nationwide statistics of energy usage per capita, it turns out that the more rural -- and remote -- the population, the greater the energy each person uses; Alaska having the highest per capita count, followed by places like Wyoming and North Dakotas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Agency. My state happens to all about in the middle of the pack at 365 million BTU of annual energy usage per person, or about a million BTU per day. Interestingly, the three states with the lowest consumption per capita are California (227), New York (217) and tiny Rhode Island (215).

In terms of the total amount of BTUs consumed by transportation, a different picture emerges. The top consuming states in trillions of btu's consumed are California (3,386), Texas (2,907) and Florida (1,614). Nebraska consumed 128 trillion BTU to fuel its transportation system, but with a population of about 1/18th that of California, our per capita numbers here are 61% higher.

If, however, you look at per capita energy consumption based on income, the picture again changes. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently commissioned a study entitled, Ranking States' Oil Vulnerability that looked at this issue and concluded that if we see price spikes for gasoline and diesel fuels over $3 a gallon this Spring, the list of most and least vulnerable states line up differently, as the map above indicates. NRDC found that the "10 most vulnerable states are (from most to least): Mississippi, Montana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Maine, Georgia and Idaho." By contrast, the least vulnerable are Florida, Washington, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, New Hampshire, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York.. Nebraska ranked #38 out of the 50. Our surrounding states, Wyoming, Kansas, the Dakotas, Missouri, Iowa, even Minnesota, all ranked higher, in terms of vulnerability. So, when talking to my fellow Nebraskans, I have some good news to report: if things get worst, they'll be less worse here than elsewhere, generally speaking. But will we be driving "green"?

First, let's define what "driving green" means, at least by my definition. It does not mean saving money or paying less for fuel. I define it as using less fossil fuels, and better yet, no fossil fuels; thus producing less climate-altering CO2. Since 95% of our transportation system remain shackled to petroleum, which, ironically, is still one of the cheapest energy sources around -- priced less than a gallon of milk or even bottle of water -- switching to just about any other fuel substitute will cost more, not less. Using less petroleum, using it more efficiently, however, will save money.

One of my Keynote slides compares the lifetime costs of a 2010 Chevy Malibu and 2010 Toyota Price by adding up the MSRP of comparably equipped models driven 100,000 miles, using a base line of $3 gasoline. As you might expect, the Prius, with its 88% better fuel economy, meant that despite costing $2,000 more initially, the owner spent $5,000 less in fuel costs over the 100,000 miles.

The first option for "driving green" then is to seriously consider moving into a more fuel efficient vehicle: thereby using less fuel, period.

Even better than using less fuel, is using none at all; so my next suggestion is "don't drive when you can walk or bike." 27% of all trips made in Netherlands are by bicycle, compared to less than 1% in America. In the self-proclaimed cycling capital of the country, Portland, Oregon, just 5% of trips are made on bicycles, though they have goal of eventually increasing this to 25% by 2030.

After walking and cycling -- which both presume smart city planning that makes this both safe and convenient -- comes "don't drive if you can NEV", meaning, where possible and legal, use vehicles like golf cars and neighborhood electric vehicles. I rang up a golf car dealership in The Villages, Florida yesterday to find out how many of the 77,000 full and part-time (snowbird) residents there own golf cars, and was told there are somewhere around 25,000 of them. Assuming two people per household, that's 64% of the population driving low speed vehicles, at least half of them electric. Photos of The Villages downtown show most of the cars parked along main street are LSVs and NEVs. It's an amazing sight, and one that other communities could easily emulate with a bit of thought and planning, especially smaller, more rural towns and communities.

My next "rule" is "don't drive when you can share," which focuses on various vehicle sharing schemes from World War Two-era car-pooling to Zipcar and Autolib (the carshare equivalent to Velib) in Paris, as well as using public transit when and where available.

The last "rule" is "don't drive when you can be there virtually," referring, of course, to telecommuting.

Most of the people I will be talking to will still have vehicles to fuel and here they can consider substituting gasoline for such fuels as E85 (which is what I did with my S10); converting to compressed natural gas, provided you have refueling capabilities; running on biodiesel if you have or can acquire a diesel-powered vehicle; and converting to electric drive, the most expensive option of the four. Interestingly, Nebraska is the nation's second largest producer of ethanol, but we consume only about 7% of what we make, though the percentage of drivers using ethanol -- primarily blended in E10 -- continues to rise. In 2009, 68% of all drivers in the state used some form of gasoline-ethanol blend, a number that has steadily risen over the last decade.

Of course, ethanol made from corn and other cereal grains has its share of issues from water usage to the use of natural gas and coal for running the distillation process. While the feedstock, itself, is carbon neutral and renewable, the additional energy inputs may not be; so it doesn't necessarily qualify as "driving green" in the strictest sense, but it does represent a step towards less dependence on a non-renewable energy source.

It seems the bottom line for "driving green" is "driving less," "driving more efficiently," and "driving on less carbon-intense energy sources," the best, of course being that derived, either directly or indirectly (wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass) from the Sun. I have tried to implement as much of this in our life, as a family, as possible. I use my electric bicycle when I can, run my small truck on E85 and power our plug-in Prius with electricity for the first 20 miles. While that electricity -- produced mainly from coal and nuclear power, still produces CO2, it generates less of it on a per mile basis than using conventional gasoline.

And when all is said and done, 'Driving Green" is more a mission, than a destination.

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