AltWheels Rolls into Boston

This was my second AltWheels festival, and my how the event has grown! Last year it was a relatively modest display of clean vehicles, from hydrogen fuel cells to battery electrics, on the grounds of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Massachusetts. This year it was on steroids, occupying the vast concrete plaza outside Boston City Hall September 22 and 23.

The DaimlerChrysler Smart car at AltWheels: coming soon to a dealership near you.© Jim Motavalli

I was recruited as an award presenter, and it was an honor to hand the engraved crystal to such luminaries as Professor E.O. Wilson of Harvard University (two-time Pulitzer Prize winner); Francis Moore Lappé (whose 15 books include Food First and the hugely successful, three-million-selling 1971 bestseller Diet for a Small Planet, which changed the way America eats); and Scott Griffith, CEO of the influential and fast-spreading car-sharing company Zipcar.

The first two made highly illuminating speeches. Wilson, who has been called "the natural heir to Darwin," and whose most recent book is The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), pointed out that there may be as many as 100 million species on Earth that are affected by the ravages humans have visited on the planet. "Why care?" he said. "Why protect them?" Wilson, who made his early name working with ants, pointed out that the "little creatures we never see" can affect our lives in profound ways.

Wilson’s most recent project is helping create The Encyclopedia of Life, with one page per species, to chronicle what we know in the 21st century about the amazing biodiversity around us. Echoing the theme of his latest book, he declared, "The real reason for saving the rest of life is spiritual. I am frustrated by the slow process of building a global environmental consciousness. So in The Creation I propose that we postpone the cultural wars and enlist the spectrum of religious groups in the task of saving the living creation."

Lappé had her own epiphany, a spiritual awakening of sorts, when at 26 she realized that the most basic human need is food, and that there was more than enough of it on the planet "to make us all chubby. But we humans created the least-efficient food system on the planet, with 16 pounds of grain needed to make one pound of steak. I discovered, based on a British study, that 40 percent of transportation miles is moving food around."

This passionate advocate of food democracy is jarred by the inequities of wealth around the world. "The economy is driven by the highest return to established wealth," she said. "The money controlled by just the world’s billionaires is equal to the total gross national product of China."

Lappé, who looks people right in the eye and squeezes their shoulders as she talks to them, is the kind of speaker whose speeches are full of the most fascinating facts. She said her daughter and co-author Anna came up with this one: "Producing just one crop—the tomatoes delivered to New Jersey—requires enough energy to drive an 18-wheel truck to the moon and back." She also pointed out something I certainly didn’t know: "70 percent of the food Americans eat has genetically modified ingredients, but most Americans believe they’ve never eaten anything that was genetically engineered." What a gaping hole between perception and reality!

Lappé’s most recent book is Democracy’s Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life(Jossey-Bass, 2005). She told me that after long sojourns in Berkeley, California and Vermont, she now makes Massachusetts her home and her particular place on earth. The commonwealth is lucky.

When I wasn’t staffing E/The Environmental Magazine‘s booth with my colleague Shannon Huecker, I wandered among the exhibitors. I liked the look of the LivableStreets Alliance, which works on improving the city’s public transportation. The group passed around a flier with some fascinating facts: Car ownership in Boston has risen by almost 50 percent since 1996. The average household there spends $7,000 a year on transportation, almost all of it car-related. (Cars make more than 75 percent of the one million trips into the City of Boston daily.) The percentage of Bostonians without cars is declining, reaching 35 percent in 2000.

Co-author Shannon Huecker mans the E Magazine booth.© Jim Motavalli

Meanwhile, congestion is increasing (Boston is the fifth worst of 85 metropolitan areas, according to The Boston Foundation Indicators Project); and parking is worsening, with a huge increase in residential parking permits issued. The "T" transit line is at double capacity. If ever a city needed a group like the Livable Streets Alliance, this is it. The group believes that strong urban transportation "can make Boston a more connected, livable city." Who could argue?

Car-sharing groups like Zipcar do their bit to reduce urban congestion. Cars are parked all over participating cities, and members get to choose between hybrids, Minis, Mazdas and even pickup trucks for that infrequent use. Members say they save an average of $435 a month over owning a car. The red Zipcar Priuses at AltWheels had "reserve me" notices on them.

It was also good to see Plug-In Partners at AltWheels. I recently drove the very impressive DaimlerChrysler plug-in Sprinter van, the first plug-in from a manufacturer (albeit an experimental one). The basic idea is to increase the already generous range of hybrid vehicles by installing a large battery pack and plug-in capability. In that way, hybrids gain up to 20 miles of all-electric cruising capability. Commuters in many cases won’t need to access the gas motor at all. Proponents claim you"ll be able to pay 70 or 80 cents for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas.

"Over 40 percent of the generating capacity of the U.S. sits idle or operates at a reduced load overnight when most plug-in hybrids would be recharged," says Plug-In Partners. "Tens of millions of PHEVs could be charged without requiring new plants." It’s not surprising that electric utilities (including Austin Energy, which has set aside $1 million for plug-in purchase rebates) are solidly behind these greener hybrids.

Mayor Thomas Menino stopped by AltWheels to announce that the city is planning to buy a fleet of 200 plug-in hybrids "when available," which is a pretty big caveat. No manufacturer has announced plans to build a plug-in yet. Menino got some applause when he announced that his personal vehicle is powered by natural gas, but some activists at AltWheels told me he hasn’t been out front enough on their issues.

Meanwhile, the public is buying hybrids, and the options are growing rapidly, with some new vehicles displayed at AltWheels. Saturn is poised to introduce the Saturn Vue Green Line, which gets 32 miles per gallon on the highway, and 27 in the city. Look for a list price around $23,000. Ford is prepared to add hybrids based on the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Mazda Tribute. During the festival, Honda (which had both fuel cell and natural gas vehicles on display) announced a new and very impressive version of its hydrogen-powered FCX, looking like something customizer Chuck Barris would create. I also enjoyed sitting in the very cute DaimlerChrysler Smart convertible on display. The Smart, after some delays, is finally ready for U.S. introduction.

Boston also appears to be a center of

the rapidly growing biodiesel movement. A group called New England Biodiesel was circulating fliers announcing workshops to teach people how to make this vegetable-based fuel at home, using the FuelMeister II and a ready supply of lye, methanol and other key ingredients.

According to founder and chief sparkplug Alison Sander, AltWheels featured more than 16 types of sustainable technologies, including fuel cells, compressed natural gas, electricity, biodiesel, propane, solar, vegetable oil and, of course, bicycles galore. Our own booth was opposite the Mass Bike organization, which was offering free checkups to anyone coming by.

While I wandered around and pressed the flesh, Shannon was anchored to our E Magazine table and returned with impressions somewhat influenced by the blustery, Chicago-type winds that battered us at City Hall Plaza that morning:

"We arrived in the dark, at 5:30 a.m., and were one of the first groups there. It was freezing cold, made all the worse by the coastal wind whipping between the buildings. I huddled by the entrance of the subway to catch the warm but smelly subway air. When the sun finally came over City Hall, it was an amazing relief, but it took hours before my fingers thawed enough to write properly.

"The day got off to a slow start. The first people to walk by were the politicians and their representatives. Next came the other exhibitors, checking out who else was on hand. Almost everyone walking by was working in the environmental field somehow. Many stopped to ask how E Magazine was working to help solve pollution issues or raise awareness about conservation efforts. Everyone was eating the Whole Foods" apples and munching on the free popcorn. There was a desperate lack of music (at least until the end of the day) or entertainment in general, and the wind made displaying anything on a table next to impossible. There were also clearly some communication problems, because none of the visitors had any idea that E.O. Wilson, Frances Moore Lappé or any other luminaries were speaking.

"It was encouraging to see so many exhibitors with so much enthusiasm for the environment and for alternative transportation. There were vehicles that ran on natural gas, biodiesel, ethanol, batteries and the sun, including what appeared to be a biodiesel Indy racecar.

"Displays included a solar-powered housing development, solar-powered water purifiers, numerous wind power booths, sustainable dry cleaning, a bicycle taxi service called Boston Pedicab, and a group dedicated to recycling local industry’s waste, such as cloth scraps and "defective" trinkets, as art supplies for local schools and youth programs.

"The most entertaining invention was a motorized, tilting tricycle. The vehicle was homemade from a scooter, with two wheels in front instead of one. An independent linkage on the front axle allowed the tricycle to lean into turns, improving handling, while gaining stability from the extra wheel. The creator also said the Tilting Trike was not limited to gas, and could run on any power source.

"However, despite the enthusiasm, there was a general sense that the festival had not done much to open the eyes of those who were not already environmentally aware. Perhaps the lesson is that you cannot simply "build it, and they will come." Perhaps after you build it, you should let the people know that there is something to come to."

My own impression is that AltWheels had some growing pains this year, but it is learning as it expands. The City Hall Plaza location was big and spacious, and the politicians obviously loved it, but it will take a while (and huge amounts of publicity) to get crowds of ordinary folk down there. Still, AltWheels is shaping up as one of the largest alternative-energy festivals in the Northeast, and that’s good news all around.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E; SHANNON HUECKER is an intern at E.



Livable Streets Alliance

New England Biodiesel

Plug-In Partners