General Motors EV1 Electric Car and Citrus Waste Gasoline of the Future

This short series of reports includes news on General Motors marketing an electric car that operates independent of gasoline, but with a hefty price tag, and an alternative gasoline made of citrus waste.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors
April/May 1996
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GM's silent EV1: No emissions, but a booming sticker price.
PHOTO: GENERAL MOTORS


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News briefs on General Motors new electric car that operates independent of gasoline, but the cost of the car has hefty price tag, and a new alternative gasoline made of citrus waste. 

General Motors EV1 Electric Car and Citrus Waste Gasoline of the Future

GM's silent EV1: No emissions, but a booming sticker price. 

When you hear about someone spending $25,000 on a car, you might dream for a moment of yourself behind the wheel of, say, a pale yellow convertible, your purebred retriever hanging his head out the back ...

Outside your fantasies, you're probably too practical to spend that kind of money on any car, but as long as we're fantasizing, what if you could get your hands on a car that comes with this guarantee: "You will never have to go to the gas station again." How much would you be willing to pay for that?

General Motors promises to be the first car company to mass-produce an electric vehicle that does indeed come with this guarantee and does indeed sell for $25,000. The EV1, or "Impact" (a name perhaps better replaced by one with less unfortunate connotations?), will be available this fall at Saturn dealers in four western cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson. Like your pale yellow convertible, it's a two-seater, but EV1 is equipped with a double-lead battery that runs 70-90 miles per charge. GM says the electric car has power everything and comes with dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, a CD player, and cruise control and functions in all other ways like a regular car except it makes no noise and has zero emissions.

Lucy Zielinski, GM's electric vehicle spokesperson, says the EV1 will probably be most appropriate for households with two cars. People can use it for commuting and errands rather than road trips since you need to refuel (plug in) about three times as often as a conventional vehicle. You can carry a convenience charger in your trunk, "kind of like a spare tire," Zielinski says, which tops off the batteries in about eight hours, or accomplish the same at home in about three hours with a larger 220-volt charger.

EV1 may not be a convertible, but thankfully it isn't the anemic little wheezer we were anticipating either. It can go from O mph to 60 mph in eight and a half seconds, a feat rarely matched by most gas-engined cars, and some test models have even been setting high-performance records. Recently an electric-powered Italian EV set a speed record of 188.9 mph, says Michael Coates of Green Car Media, a California group that defines itself as an "independent alternative fuel research organization." GM also has plans to market an electric pickup truck nationwide in 1997 for use in commercial fleets. The truck, a Chevy S-10, will be most appropriate for predetermined routes where the truck comes back to a garage every night.

Though the technology for this type of vehicle has existed for some time, Zielinski says GM began manufacturing the car to be marketed because "there's finally a demand." In fact, pollution created a market for the car. Since 1990, the California Air Resource Board (CARB) has had regulations requiring that two percent of all light-duty vehicles offered for sale in California in 1998 must emit zero tailpipe emissions. This increases to five percent in 2001 and ten percent in 2003, with similar regulations going into effect in New York and Massachusetts, though in this political climate, all emissions requirements could be repealed before they are enacted.

Predictably, just about everybody in the car or battery business is experimenting with electric vehicles in an effort to keep GM from stealing the market. Honda has an electric test model they call the CRX; Chrysler plans to convert a test model minivan to mass market by 1998, but the expense of this conversion will drive its price into the $100,000 stratosphere. As for batteries, nickel-metal hydride models that would eliminate lead and cadmium from the battery manufacturing process will soon be available. They take a longer charge and last the lifetime of the vehicle.

Still GM's $25,000 price seems like a lot of money for a car that should actually be very simple to make. But U.S. Department of Energy studies claim that by the year 2000 the cost of owning and operating an EV should reach parity with gas-powered vehicles, and in states with emissions requirements, a 10 percent tax credit is available to you when you purchase an EV. Once you figure in the cost of health care and environmental damage from emissions of gasoline-powered vehicles, electric vehicles start getting cheaper. A study by the Institute of Economic and Environmental Studies of California State University, Fullerton, estimated that a failure to sufficiently clean up the air in the Los Angeles region will cost $10 billion a year in health costs. Even at $25,000 a pop, $10 billion a year could purchase quite a fleet of electric vehicles.

—Molly Miller 

Gasoline of the Future? 

Here's a novel idea: Margarita's for your car, because as it turns out, triple sec and lime juice aren't too far from the ethanol fuel USDA scientists have started making from citrus waste. Although in 1994 ethanol production peaked at 1.1 billion gallons and this number is expected to continue growing, it is still very much a fringe activity in the fuel industry. Production is expected to increase, however, and alcohol-blended gasoline is expected to be a strong factor in meeting the future demands for oxygenation in reformulated gasolines, which, in turn, make them cleaner burning.

In the past, the more than 800,000 tons of citrus waste produced by growers was dumped onto pastures where it either took its natural path and fermented or was eaten by livestock. But as crop production increases, it is becoming increasingly impractical to continue treating the waste in this way. USDA chemist Dr. Karel Grohmann notes that "citrus processors now convert the waste to low-value animal feed, which is not very profitable, bringing only 3-5 cents per pound," so the cost of drying the waste is higher than the market value of the feed. By converting citrus waste into fuel, a profitable system would be established to provide economic opportunities and benefit the environment.

As we all know by now, one of our current problems with the energy sources we use is that their production and combustion releases huge amounts of C02 , a "greenhouse" gas. Dr. Grohmann does not foresee this as a problem with citrus waste conversion, however. There are three byproducts of this process: ethanol, a bio-fuel; carbon dioxide; and acetic acid, used in making vinegar and other foods. The percentage of C02 to ethanol produced is about 50/50, but, Grohmann explains, "This C02 can be cycled back into plants and organisms quickly because it is a closed cycle, unlike the case with fossil fuels. When we burn fossil fuels, we burn materials that have accumulated for billions of years," thus throwing off the natural cycles of C02 absorption. Additionally, the amounts of C02 emitted as a byproduct of citrus waste conversion are considerably lower than that emitted by fossil fuel combustion. The wide-scale integration of ethanol would provide a clean-burning, domestically-produced, relatively nontoxic and non-carcinogenic fuel.

It would also promote the international position of the United States by reducing our dependence upon other countries for oil. Grohmann sees this project as "strategically important because we are currently spending $50 billion yearly in trade deficit on oil." If we took after Brazil, a country that runs about 1 million cars on alcohol converted from sugarcane, we'd be in a better situation. America already does produce alcohol from corn sugars, but not nearly enough of this alcohol is produced yearly to make any substantial shift in consumption. We need to increase production at least tenfold before we can blend all gasoline with ethanol or alcohol and make a dent in fossil fuel dependence.

—Jessica Bolson 


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