|By far the most popular items among the technology-dazzled laymen were the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Among the cars on display were a number of first-generation Honda FCX hatchbacks, which had attracted a crowd clamoring for rides.|
|The Santa Monica Alternative Energy and Transport Expo|
The issues of chronically rising fossil fuel prices, traffic congestion, and air pollution weigh especially heavily in a megalopolis such as that of southern California, where millions migrate over vast distances every day, and many life-sustaining infrastructure elements drink oil and blast smoke. Some people are even going so far as to consider solving these problems, as evidenced by the recent gathering of the southland community at the Santa Monica Alternative Energy and Transport Expo, where businesses, bureaucrats, and engineers presented possible solutions to a curious public.
The Expo was held somewhat ironically in an aircraft hanger and adjacent parking lot at the Santa Monica Airport. Inside the hanger, the organizations tabled their wares, ideas, and ideals, chief among them futuristic conveyances. Vehicles ranged from the eclectic to the super-engineered. One hobbyist displayed his “world-record setting” electric drag racer, a converted kit car; further down was “White Lightning: The Fastest Electric Car in the World.” Other exhibits were more relevant to pedestrian life. The Roth stand-up scooter, despite looking like cheap toy, does a wheelie with a full-grown man standing on it, and is marketed by nubile young women.
Battery-powered electric vehicles showed up in surprising force, defying the conventional wisdom that GM’s late-nineties failure had sealed their demise (along with “White Lightning,” the EV1 was displayed as a relic). “We’re making a profit,” insisted Jack Benedett from Vectrix Motors as he posed on a Vectrix Electric Maxi-Scooter. The revolutionary Maxi-Scooter can do 63 miles an hour for one hour. “The secret is the nickel hydride battery,” he explained.
At an adjacent display, FalconEV entrepreneur Andy Voltenstein was skeptical. “Why is mine better?” he asked, rhetorically. “The lithium ion battery,” he answered, “but I’m not making any money. No one wants to buy these things.”
A123 Systems of Massachusetts has put the lithium ion battery to use as an after-market improvement to the Honda Civic hybrid. The “plug-in” hybrid can be charged from a household outlet or by the engine, and delivers the cost equivalent of more than 100 miles per gallon. The company may or may not be making money, but has at any rate managed to secure some 100 million dollars in venture capital, and scratches around at nearby MIT for brilliant employees.
Meanwhile, under tents on the tarmac outside, speakers versed on subjects such as climate change presented their postulations and findings, occasionally interrupted by the roar of a Leer jet blasting off behind them. Mass transit advocates noted that most people had come to the Expo in their cars. “For lack of an alternative,” said train buff Bart Reed of the Transit Coalition, but the crowd seemed to consider the car show an attractive alternative to the transit seminar. Most of these advocates themselves had ridden the bus to the Expo, as had this reporter; a bumpy, jerking, ninety minute ride on two separate lines from downtown.
Forming a pillar amidst those present at the seminars was the biofuel contingent. Bearded permaculture purists from San Francisco presented their vision of pleasantly-odorous smog with enthusiasm. They were joined by several businesses hoping to cash in on the rising price of fossil fuel and a number of techies asking pointed questions that betrayed detailed knowledge of the subject. The future biofuel vehicle was a hulking mid-eighties Mercedes Benz that, unlike the rest, produced more than a low hum.
In response to the question of whether biofuel production will steal beans from the hungry, the delegation politely bristled. “The feed stock,” assured one earthtone-attired panelist, “would ideally be locally-produced agricultural waste,” such as wood chips and corn cobs. Furthermore, someone piped in, the energy input-to-gain ratio from biofuels is already better than that of fossil fuels, which are becoming increasingly difficult to extract from the ground.
By far the most popular items among the technology-dazzled laymen were the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Among the cars on display were a number of first-generation Honda FCX hatchbacks, which had attracted a crowd clamoring for rides. The hydrogen seminar was paneled by several engineers, a pretty young actress, and Steven Ellis, a well-dressed, persuasive marketing director from American Honda Motors. Filling the tent around them was a mass of eager autophiles, optimistic about their motoring future.
Hydrogen is not a source of energy, but fuel cell vehicles promise much higher efficiency than internal-combustion engines. “You don’t have a stove driving your car, you have something a little more sophisticated,” said the eloquent Vasilios Manousiouthakis, a UCLA chemical engineer. A conventional car, he explained, can only transform 30% of the potential energy in its fuel into movement, while a fuel cell vehicle doubles that figure. Furthermore, said Vasilious, fuel cell technology has improved drastically in the last five years, with engineers successful in reducing weight, improving lifespan, and weatherizing the units. This seemed sufficient to convince many that their next SUV might emit only a spaceship hum and water vapor.
“Unfortunately, they still cost a million dollars,” said Ellis, referring to the FCX. Also, none are yet for sale. But at some point next year, he promised, Honda would unveil a new FCX production car with a range of 270 miles and gaining the cost equivalent of 70 miles per gallon. The fuel cell will last about one hundred sixty thousand miles. “I know I’d be pretty darn mad if my engine failed after a hundred sixty thousand miles,” Ellis said, “but that used to be good back in the fifties, and just look where we’ve come from there.”
In a corner, behind the fuel cells and lithium ion batteries lay a clergy of religious cyclists, promising that their old two-wheeled machines were still the solution to most societal ills. “Every peddle stroke you take strengthens your heart, your mind, and your soul,” said Jennifer Gardener of the LA Bike Coalition, “once someone tries the bicycle, he never goes back.” Bicyclists, they cautioned, should avoid cars on pain of death, as well.
Eventually, Terry Tamminen, director of the California EPA, arrived in his h-powered 12-cylinder BMW luxury sedan to deliver the keynote. In a rousing speech attended by legitimate journalists, he flattered a famous actor and then, heartwarmingly, reconciled the various movements present. “In solving global warming, there is no silver bullet,” he pronounced, “only silver buckshot.”
Nathaniel Page is a Los Angeles based journalist interested in alternative energy technology and permaculture design.