Some West Virginians are looking to alternative fuels as a way to use less foreign oil and reduce pollution. Recently, a New York company announced plans to build a $3 billion plant that turns coal into liquid gas, but you might be surprised to hear about the alternatives already in use in West Virginia.
“This is a Mazda MX3. It runs on 13 12-volt batteries,” said George Law, Monongalia County Technical Education Center instructor. “There’s no noise at all; in fact, we have to put back up alarms on the thing so that when we go into reverse gear, people can hear us coming. We can get 45 miles range on one charge, and then charge it for seven hours and we’re ready to go again.”
Law and his students converted the Mazda as part of the national Smart Challenge program where high school students compete with cars they’ve converted from gas powered to electric.
“It took 19 days to do the actual conversion, so that’s pretty good for high school students. The students that we deal with are going to be the engineers and technicians of tomorrow, and it’s important that we educate them as to the need for alternative fuels for our transportation systems,” said Law.
Some West Virginia students already ride in vehicles that use alternative fuels everyday. 25 counties use biodiesel in school buses.
“That accounts for about 2.5 million gallons of fuel annually out of the total 6 million gallons that we use throughout the state,” said Ben Shew, director of transportation for the WV Department of Education. “The cost of biodiesel is somewhat higher than regular diesel, but there are federal grants that are available to the supplier so that we don’t see the big difference between the costs.”
The biodiesel used in the school buses comes from the state’s only commercial producer, AC&S in Nitro. It’s a company that makes fuel dyes, cleans rail cars and performs environmental testing.
“We looked at biodiesel as adding a product for AC&S that we could benefit the environment and provide fuel that lessens our dependency on foreign oil in the United States and West Virginia,” said Dean Cordel, AC&S Vice President.
There are two biodiesel stations in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle where consumers can fill up their car, but some people, like Phillipi resident John Prusa, are making their own biodiesel. Prusa converted his diesel truck to run on pure vegetable oil. He gets the oil from local fast food restaurants.
“The emissions are lower. Economy-wise, it’s really not saving all that much money, because by the time you put in all of your time and you get dirty cleaning it up, if you held a regular job, you could probably pay for diesel. But that’s not the point. The point is that we help the environment a little bit, and we feel better because we don’t go to the gas stations or at least not that often,” Prusa said.
E-85 is another alternative fuel. It’s made from ethanol.
“It’s moonshine. It’s a grain alcohol. Obviously, once it gets to the E-85 it’s 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol, so, you obviously can’t drink it,” said Mike Kelly, owner of Dulaney Oil in Morgantown, one of two stations in the state where E-85 is sold.
“Traveling around you’ve probably seen where they have E-10, and that just means it’s 10% ethanol, 90% gasoline whereas what we have is reversed; it’s 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. So you have to have a flex fuel vehicle to run E-85,” Kelly said.
Flex fuel cars look like traditional gas powered ones but a few changes to the engine and fuel system allow these cars to run on gasoline or E-85.
Another alternative fuel is derived from coal.
“It’s been announced that there may be some coal to energy plants being built, and therefore, we have a lot of coal here so why not take that coal, turn it into liquid, and now, it becomes basically an alternative fuel to imported oil,” said Al Ebron, director of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium at West Virginia University.
Coal to liquids is not a new concept. The Germans started converting coal to liquid gas in the 1930s, but this alternative doesn’t come without drawbacks.
WVU engineering professor Nigel Clark, says these plants require significant financial investment and that could be hard to come by when oil prices are so unstable. Also, the process creates pollution from carbon dioxide during production and when the fuel is used in vehicles.
“From a climate change perspective, you would need to sequester that CO2 at the point of production. If that can be done, then certainly it can be viable from a climate change point of view, or as viable as petroleum fuels are,” Clark said.
Hybrids are the most popular alternative vehicles today. A hybrid uses both an electric motor and a gasoline or diesel engine. The Toyota Prius is the best known and best selling hybrid. Even with all of these alternatives, Clark says driving a smaller car with a small engine is the simplest.
You can see this story on our television program Outlook Thursday night at 9 pm on WVPBS.