Plugging In: Adventures on the 18th Tour de Sol

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NEW YORK—When was the last time you were low on gas on the way to your friend’s house and thought, “No problem; I’ll just plug in when I get there”? Well, some of the cars showcased May 10 to 14 at the 18th annual Tour de Sol were electric vehicles (EVs) that could power-up using ordinary wall outlets—one of many exciting alternatives to standard internal-combustion featured at the upstate New York event.

Ricardo Bazzarella, co-founder of Hymotion, poses with a plug-in Toyota Prius at the Tour de Sol.© Brianne Goodspeed

The annual Tour de Sol is organized by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), and offers inventors, students and entrepreneurs the opportunity both to showcase their work and compete for $10,000 in cash prizes. Prize categories include vehicles and bikes designed to do around-town errands, and cars suited for long-distance trips.

That’s a big change from the first Tour de Sol in 1989, which featured only five solar-powered cars, says Nancy Hazard, director of the Tour. Since then, Hazard says the public has become much more aware of the environmental impact of oil. “It’s clear that the cost of gas at the pump is what makes people stand up and take notice,” she points out.

That has opened people up to other reasons to go green. “It’s only in the last six months that I could really talk to people about climate change without them looking at me like I had three heads,” Hazard says.

Here are some highlights from this year’s show:

Hymotion. This Toronto-based company converts traditional hybrids like the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape to plug-in status, increasing their fuel efficiency to up to 100 miles per gallon (see EarthTalk, May/June 2006). The Hymotion system consists of a lithium-ion battery pack that plugs into regular 120-volt wall outlets and recharges from the engine, from the regenerative braking system, and from the grid. Hymotion conversion kits for the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape are currently on the market for fleet vehicles, and are expected to be available to consumers this fall (for approximately $10,000 above the price of the Prius or Escape). Co-founder Akos Thot explains one advantage of the car: “When you are driving in rush hour, your blood pressure is not as high.” CONTACT: Hymotion, (519)489-0471, www.hymotion.com.

St. Mark’s Electric Vehicle Club. Under the guidance of a friendly physics and environmental chemistry teacher, Kenneth Wells, a group of Massachusetts high school students has converted a 1994 Ford Ranger 4×4 (they call it “Woodstock”) to run exclusively on electricity and solar energy. The power is stored in four lead-acid batteries under the hood, and 20 in the bed. A large, flat solar panel cap covers the bed, allowing the truck to recharge some power as it travels. The truck produces zero emissions. Says Wells, “We can recharge it from renewable energy sources.”

Massachusetts high school students converted this Ford Ranger to run on electricity and solar energy.© Adrian Larose

The team purchases clean energy credits from ClimateSAVE to make up for the electricity the truck consumes when plugged into the power grid. “There are more plugs out there than there are gas stations,” Wells says. And with a 100-foot extension cord, it’s easy to plug in anywhere.

In ideal warm conditions with a skilled driver, Woodstock can travel up to 100 miles on a single charge, but 60 miles is more realistic. The truck can reach speeds of 90 miles per hour.

The St. Mark’s group also showcased”Moritz,” a 2000 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which runs on biodiesel that the students produce from leftover oil. (With the right chemicals and some expertise, people can brew biodiesel through a reaction with just about any vegetable oil or fats.) The team did not change the Jetta in any way except to put biodiesel in the tank in place of regular, gas-station diesel. “We can switch to a non-petroleum source of energy if the public is interested,” says student Carole Lemos-Wade.

Greasecar. Winners of the Tour de Sol are measured by how many miles per gallon they achieve, not by how fast they travel. A Mini of the sort Austin Powers drove (with a simple green paint job) took third place, and it did so running on vegetable oil. Greasecar sells fairly simple conversion kits that turn diesel cars into vegetable-oil chomping machines. They start at about $800.

A converted car runs off two fuel tanks, with the first containing standard diesel. Since diesel engines cannot burn cold vegetable oil, the Greasecar system heats the oil while the car runs on diesel fuel. With the oil warmed up, the driver can switch to the second tank, which contains filtered vegetable oil. Drivers must also switch back to diesel shortly before parking, to ensure the vegetable oil does not cool down inside the engine. Since many restaurants have used vegetable oil they would otherwise pay to dispose of, Greasecar users can often get this clean-burning fuel from restaurants for free. The conversion kit retails at about $800, not including installation. CONTACT: Greasecar, (413)529-0013, www.greasecar.com.

Optibike. The 2005 Neighborhood Electric Vehicle winner, Optibike returned this year with its fire-engine red, pedal-assisted electric bicycle. The Optibike 400 is powered by a nickel-metal-hydride battery concealed in the frame and, with an additional push from pedaling, can reach speeds up to 35 mph. This year, Optibike Marketing Director Craig Weakley also rode in Tour de Sol’s car competition, a long-distance course from Saratoga Springs to Cooperstown, New York. “We wanted to show our customers that the bike can go 100 miles,” he says. No stranger to challenges, Weakley has also ridden the Optibike up Colorado’s Pike’s Peak—an elevation gain of about 7,200 feet over 19 miles—in under two hours. As for safety, the bike’s low center of gravity, full suspension and disc brakes keep the rider in control at high speeds. The fully assembled bike, which is hand-built in a wind-powered facility in Boulder, Colorado retails at $5,495. CONTACT: Optibike, (303)443-0932, www.optibike.com.

The State Gets Involved

The state-sponsored show also served to publicize New York government programs driving towards greener transportation, including plans for an alternative energy research facility at the Saratoga Technology and Energy Park, where the event was held this year. Bob Callender, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s vice president for programs, notes that last year New Yorkers spent $53 billion on energy, 85 percent of which was imported. “It’s time for us to think outside the barrel,” he says.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, the result of collaboration between Honda and New York’s state government, were on display. Not long ago, fuel-cell cars were seen only in diagrams and predictions of what was to come. Not any more. “They drive,” says Carl Johnson, deputy commissioner with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “They’re the real thing. You get the driving and environmental performance you’re looking for.” Perhaps those qualities—and a slightly less sky-high price tag—are what’s needed to put Tour de Sol technology to everyday use.

Hazard hopes plug-in hybrid cars will be one green step forward. “In five or 10 years, I hope that we’re going to see plug-in hybrids that anyone can buy,” she says. “That’s a doable goal.”

CONTACT:

Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, (413)774-6051, www.nesea.org

Tour de Sol, www.tourdesol.org

Adria

n Larose is a journalism student from Ontario who focuses on earth-friendly energy, in particular renewable transportation. He is an intern with E.

Brianne Goodspeed is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and current E Magazine intern. She has worked with farmers in West Africa, biked solo through France, and hiked the Appalachian Trail.