Week of 7/23/2006

Dear EarthTalk: I'm familiar with the hybrid cars now widely available, but what ever happened to the purely electric cars that were around 10 years ago?

—Peter Zilly, Bellingham, WA

The main problem with the electric cars that reared their heads briefly a decade ago was their ability to only go so far on battery power. Charges lasted just 50 miles or so, so you were in trouble if you needed to go farther or ran out of juice somewhere in-between electric outlets. Hybrids, on the other hand, which have side-by-side electric and gas motors, never need to be plugged in and instead use the motions of their gas-powered engines (as well as those of the car's wheels and brakes) to keep their batteries charged at all times. And with a huge infrastructure of gas stations, refueling is always as easy as pulling over to fill up.

Electric car advocates have long touted their alternative vehicles as primarily short-distance commuter cars. At a 50-mile range, most electric cars could make such short trips without the need for recharging. One need only plug their vehicle into an electric outlet in the garage overnight to charge up the battery for the morning commute, and if needed then plug it in at the office for the return trip later.

But most people want more from their cars than just the daily commute—and gassing up takes minutes whereas re-charging takes hours—so sufficient demand never materialized. Hybrids, though they do use gasoline, are as versatile as conventional cars—and the coming "plug-in hybrids" (covered previously in this column) promise to substantially increase efficiency, to perhaps 100 miles per gallon or more, by using the electric motor exclusively for short runs and commutes and the gas engine only for long trips.

Even though all-electric vehicles are not currently in vogue, innovative engineers are busy working to improve them. Technological advances in battery life and engine efficiency mean that electric vehicles may be able to roam farther than ever before. According to EVWorld.com, drivers looking to go electric will soon have a few options:

California-based Tesla Motors will soon be accepting deposits on orders for its Tesla Roadster, and plans its first deliveries for 2007. Tesla claims its car can go 250 miles on a charge, which can even be extended further through its "regenerative braking" technology, similar to that which is employed in the hybrids.

And Spokane, Washington's Commuter Car Corporation is taking orders for its Tango 600 (a kit you have to assemble) and its Tango 100 and 200 models (fully assembled), with plans to deliver by 2007. Actor George Clooney was Commuter Car's first customer. The Tango can only go 60-80 miles on a charge, but boasts of its ability to go zero to 60 in four seconds and attain a top speed of 150 miles per hour.

Elsewhere, California-based AC Propulsion is working with Toyota on a Scion electric conversion, and Cleanova, based in France, is developing an electric Renault Kangoo, a popular European car.

One consideration to keep in mind about electric vehicles is that, if your utility is a dirty coal-fired plant, tapping that power could mean creating more pollution than driving a gasoline powered car. But progress in renewable energies may well solve that problem and help usher in a new era for electric vehicles.

CONTACTS: EVWorld, www.evworld.com; Tesla Motors, www.teslamotors.com; Commuter Car Corporation, www.commutercars.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any Amway-like multi-level marketing companies that focus on environmentally friendly products?

—Dave Miller, Fresno, CA

Back in the 1950s, Amway and a handful of other consumer products companies first pioneered the concept of "multi-level marketing" (MLM). In this business model, individuals act as distributors, selling the company's products from home while also recruiting others to do the same. In doing so, they earn commissions on both their own sales and on the sales of those they recruit. In recent years, a number of MLM companies have sprouted up with environmentally friendly products as their focus.

The most well known of the crop is Shaklee, which has been selling green-friendly nutrition, personal care and household products since 1956, when research chemist Dr. Forrest Shaklee started the company. Since then, perhaps in an effort to live up to Dr. Shaklee's personal motto ("Follow the laws of nature and you"ll never go wrong"), the company has wracked up a long list of eco-accomplishments. Back in 1960 it introduced the first mass marketed biodegradable cleaning product, Basic-H, an all-natural formula that has since been adopted as an official Earth Day product. More recently, Shaklee became the first independently verified "climate neutral" company in the world, offsetting its carbon dioxide emissions with investments in various renewable energy projects. And just this year, Shaklee embarked upon an ambitious campaign to plant a million trees with the help of thousands of its independent distributors.

Another big player in the green MLM field is Idaho-based Melaleuca, which has been selling natural health care, personal care and household products since 1985. The name Melaleuca is borrowed from a plant that produces organic essential oils found in many of the company's products.

Meanwhile, Amazon Herb Company offers opportunities to sell herbal remedies derived from rainforest plants. "Amazon John" Easterling, who first discovered the healing power of herbs when Shipibo Indians used them to treat him when he fell ill during a visit to the Amazon rainforest, founded the company in 1990. Another up-and-coming player is Krystal Planet, which sells compact fluorescent light bulbs, solar heaters, fuel additives and other energy saving products for home, car and office.

If you're looking to work with an MLM company, keep in mind that just because a company has good green intentions does not mean it is a good deal for you. According to Robert FitzPatrick, who runs the Pyramid Scheme Alert newsletter, less than one in a thousand MLM distributors makes a profit. The bottom line is: Do your homework. As in any business, there are reputable companies and there are bad apples. The perceived opportunity of working independently may seem too good to pass up, so get a solid idea about the work required and the actual return likely before you quit your day job.

CONTACTS: Shaklee, www.shaklee.com; Amazon Herb, www.amazonherb.com; Krystal Planet, www.krystal-planet.com; Melaleuca, www.melaleuca.com; Pyramid Scheme Alert, www.pyramidschemealert.org.