Breathe Easier With 5 Cost-saving Clean Air Tips

In the summertime, energy use spikes and families pile into cars for long road trips.

While there’s nothing wrong with the use of air-conditioning -- and there’s a lot right about a family vacation -- these activities have their consequences, among them increased energy use and higher ozone levels.

But you don’t have to throw up your hands and simply be part of the problem. There are plenty of small steps you as a driver can take to improve our air quality and our health.

For instance, the state of Texas just launched a new initiative called Drive Clean Across Texas, the nation’s first statewide public education campaign on air quality. Campaign organizers from the Texas Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality point out that motorists can implement cost-saving, no-cost and low-cost changes in their driving and vehicle maintenance behaviors to reduce harmful vehicle emissions.

“Each of us is part of the solution to continue to improve air pollution,” said Dianna Noble, the Texas DOT’s environmental affairs division director. “Doing simple things like getting a tune-up and keeping your tires properly inflated improves gas mileage and reduces vehicle emissions.”

Here are some tips from the Drive Clean campaign:

1. Keep your vehicle in top shape.
Proper and timely maintenance of your car or truck will conserve fuel and reduce emissions. A poorly maintained vehicle can release 10 times the emissions of one in good condition, so keep your car or truck engine well-serviced to lower exhaust emissions, maintain properly inflated tires, regularly change air and fuel filters, and service air-conditioning. Lighten your load by removing roof racks and emptying your trunk of unnecessary weight. Even refilling your gas tank can have positive effects. Seal your gas cap tightly, refuel during late afternoon or evening, and don’t “top off” the tank.

2. Use your feet.
If you drive less, you’re doing your part to limit the number of vehicles on the road -- and that, in turn, means less exhaust. With a little planning, you can combine your errands into only one trip. For other trips, take a bicycle or walk, carpool, vanpool or ride public transit. In this Internet Age, telecommuting is also a good option.

3. Buy a “cleaner” vehicle.
Help make the air healthier for yourself and others by purchasing a fuel-efficient or low-emission vehicle like a new hybrid-electric car.

4. Drive the speed limit.
At high speeds, you’ll burn more fuel per mile driven, thus creating more harmful pollutants in the air. In addition to watching your speed, accelerate and decelerate slowly and smoothly. Anticipate stops and coast to a stop gradually. Hard braking is inefficient.

5. Reduce idling.
Idling wastes gas. In fact, turning off the car and starting it again uses less gas than idling for 30 seconds or more, so park and go inside rather than using the drive thru at the bank or fast food restaurant. (You’ll get the added bonus of easy exercise.)

Fuel Economy Limits for Big Trucks

With oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, it seemed an opportune time for the Obama administration to do something it has sought to do for some time -- set mileage and pollution limits for big trucks.

Currently, there are no such requirements for big rigs, although the pressures of running a competitive business have always pushed truck operators toward the most fuel-efficient rigs they can buy.

Estimates are that the typical big-rig truck averages something on the order of 6.5 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, and that same truck will burn about 20,000 gallons of fuel annually. Over-the-road trucks make up just 4 percent of the total vehicle fleet but consume more than 20 percent of on-road transportation fuels, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that has been heavily involved in the global warming debate. In comparison, passenger cars, which now average more than 20 mpg in the aggregate, seem much more fuel-efficient, but that misses the point that big-rig trucks transport exceptionally heavy loads that are vital to the nation’s commerce -- including, for example, virtually all of our food. 

New Fuel Economy Rules Might Be Costly
If the new fuel economy rules reduce the capabilities of the trucks, the overall effect might end up costing both truck operators, businesses and consumers much more. The good news is that the new standards haven’t been formulated yet, so there is time to make sure that they will actually reduce overall fuel usage and save consumers’ and businesses’ money. The regulations are set to be issued in a little over a year, and they will apply to commercial medium and heavy trucks beginning in 2014.

If technology enables an improvement in big-rig fuel economy by 3.7 mpg, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates it would reduce American annual oil consumption by 11 billion gallons in 2030. But those estimates assume that the cargo-carrying ability of the trucks would not be diminished in the process. The Obama administration suggests that a 25 percent increase in big truck fuel economy is possible using current technologies. Under a plan already in place, auto manufacturers must increase their overall fleet fuel economy ratings from 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks to a combined 35.5 mpg by 2016. Carmakers are currently scrambling to find ways to reach those hard-to-achieve levels.

President Obama Seeks Energy Independence
“We know that our dependence on foreign oil endangers our security and our economy. We know that climate change poses a threat to our way of life -- in fact we’re already seeing some of the profound and costly impacts,” President Obama said in his weekly radio address. “And the disaster in the Gulf only underscores that even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil, our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies.”

Institute for Energy Research Says Benefits Are Dubious
Others are much less sanguine about the idea. The Institute for Energy Research, a think tank and lobbying group, noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that the administration’s efforts to force Americans to purchase vehicles that will deliver better fuel economy, including the newly minted big-truck proposal, will have minimal effects on global warming and the associated expected rise in sea levels. They ask if the small benefits are worth the substantial expense the changes will ultimately require -- in additional costs of vehicles themselves and of transportation for goods we all use every day.

Hydrogen for Your Car at Home

How would you like to be able to refuel your car each night from the comfort of your own home?  

And how would you like the car that would use the fuel to be a super-clean hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle whose only emission is water vapor? 

Sounds like a futuristic cable TV show on one of the more esoteric channels, doesn’t it? But in fact, the possibility is very real.

Honda, one car company that is still gung-ho about fuel cell vehicles, has just put into operation a next-generation solar hydrogen station prototype intended for ultimate use as a home refueling appliance capable of an overnight refill of fuel cell electric vehicles. Designed as a single, integrated unit to fit in a user’s garage, the solar system is much smaller than previous systems while producing enough hydrogen via an eight-hour overnight fill for daily commuting.

Compatible with a smart grid energy system, the Honda Solar Hydrogen Station would enable users to refill their vehicle overnight without storing hydrogen. It is expected to lower carbon dioxide emissions by using solar energy supplemented at night by less expensive off-peak electrical power. During daytime peak power times, the system can actually export renewable, solar-derived electricity to the grid, providing a cost benefit to the customer while remaining energy neutral.

Designed for simple, user-friendly operation, the intuitive system layout enables the user to easily lift and remove the fuel hose, which we believe is a very good idea. The system doesn’t require any tedious and awkward hose coiling when returning the hose to the dispenser unit either.

Engineered for slow-fill overnight refilling of a fuel cell electric vehicle like Honda’s FCX Clarity, the home-use Solar Hydrogen Station would replenish enough hydrogen for typical daily driving, meeting the commuting requirements of many drivers. But it won’t meet all their needs, so Honda expects the in-home refueling system to be complemented by a public network of fast-fill hydrogen stations. The FCX Clarity is fast-fill capable and offers an EPA-estimated driving range of 240 miles. With fast-fill public stations providing five-minute refueling time, cross-country trips will be much more convenient that in a battery electric with much longer recharge times. 

As installed at the Los Angeles center of Honda R&D Americas, the new solar hydrogen system will employ the same 48-panel, 6 kW solar array that powered the previous system. The array utilizes thin film solar cells composed of copper, indium, gallium and selenium. Honda Soltec Co., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Honda, was established to produce and sell these cells. Honda’s unique solar cells reduce the amount of carbon dioxide generated during production as compared to conventional solar cells. As with the previous-generation system, the hydrogen purity from the new station meets the highest SAE and ISO specifications.

By addressing the need for refueling infrastructure that can advance the wider use of fuel cell electric vehicles by consumers, Honda aims to encourage a new lifestyle with convenient, clean, energy-efficient and sustainable home refueling. The combination of a fuel cell electric vehicle and the solar hydrogen station could help accomplish this goal and result in a major reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and greater energy sustainability.

Embracing New Restrictions

The newly proposed Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, recently unveiled with much fanfare by President Barack Obama are by far the most stringent ones ever imposed on the industry and consumers. The new rules, which are expected to win quick approval, are so tough that in years past, automakers would have fought against them tooth-and-nail. Yet these new regulations were met by automakers not with derision, not with predictions of the end of the auto industry as we know it, but with an almost uncanny unanimity.

Certainly, two of the three American car manufacturers are essentially under the government’s thumb these days, so you wouldn’t expect much squawking from them, but no other manufacturer uttered a peep of protest either. And while some auto manufacturing executives might have been working overtime to keep a smile on their faces as President Obama introduced the new rules -- which require the U.S. passenger ehicle fleet to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 -- the overall feeling seemed to be one of relief…and perhaps a bit of inevitability.

As might be expected from skilled political hands, the announcement seemed to have something in it for everyone. The environmentalists can take heart from the establishment of a set of fuel economy standards that specify the biggest jump in government-mandated fuel economy in history -- incremental increases of some 5 percent each year. No, the rules don’t ban gasoline cars, but they will definitely build a fire under electrics and hybrids. And the environmentalists also won clear acknowledgement that the federal government feels carbon dioxide emissions are a public health threat and must be curbed, despite the fact that the evidence supporting that is controversial.

The auto manufacturers received strong assurances that they would have to meet just one set of standards to participate in the United States market, not two or perhaps more in a possibly never-ending stream of state and local emissions standards. In addition, the government promised to spend billions of dollars to subsidize the research and development efforts of the car manufacturers in reaching the new standards. That aspect helped mollify not only the vehicle makers but also the United Auto Workers union, which otherwise might have seen in the proposal a serious threat to the survival of the domestic automakers and thus its own survival as well.

The constituency that didn’t get addressed in the new fuel economy rules is the general public. While the case can be made that a lessening of the nation’s reliance on foreign oil is a benefit to the population as a whole, that case ignores the fact that previous fuel economy regulations haven’t curbed the importation of oil. In fact, even with fuel economy restrictions in place over more than three decades, imported oil now makes up a larger portion of the total petroleum used in America than before the restrictions were imposed. Why? Well, one reason among many is that when vehicles get better fuel economy and driving gets cheaper, people drive more. That’s not a hard-to-grasp concept, but it seems to have eluded the politicians. 

Won’t the new fuel restrictions help in the battle against global climate change, you ask. Well, that is one of the talking points, but if you ask anyone in the Department of Energy or the Department of Transportation to quantify that in terms of its effect on global temperature, we predict you will get nothing back but a blank stare. Yes, trimming the growth of fuel use will cut the production of carbon dioxide, but efforts to calculate the effects of that are imprecise at best. What we do know is that your next new car will probably cost you more. So how do you feel about that?

An Epoch-changing Decision

You have to give the Environmental Protection Agency credit for dreaming big. Believing that the agency can put a halt to global climate change is an awfully tall order since the globe’s climate has always gone through change, but that is a task the EPA has cut out for itself by declaring that carbon dioxide emissions amount to a “public health danger” and therefore need to be regulated. Of course, climate change may or may not be caused by the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and some of the most recent scientific thought on the issue suggests we might be in for a period of cooling rather than warming because of decreased activity from the sun, no matter what happens with carbon dioxide emissions.

The reality of the climate change situation doesn’t change the stark reality that now confronts the auto manufacturers, who must toe the line to government regulations whether the regulations will actually cure an ill or not. The order of the day is to limit carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks. The Obama administration has made it clear that it would like the United States to adopt standards that could lower overall emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” by 80 percent by 2050, and the United States could well enter into an international treaty that would memorialize that commitment. While the efficacy of such a move is ripe for debate, listening to alternative points of view does not seem a strength of the current administration. Because of this, the signals are clear that the auto industry must be ready to respond to the regulations that will treat carbon dioxide -- the stuff you and I are exhaling right now and the stuff plants require to live -- as a pollutant. The EPA ruling isn’t just a game changer or even a season changer but an epoch changer. Far more than any government regulation we have seen up to now, this new set of regulations has the potential to change the nature of the vehicle you drive each day.

Among the other results, these regulations could send the auto manufacturing world topsy-turvy. Certainly there is the potential for innovation and breakthroughs that could send us toward a greener future -- if greener means lessening the emissions of carbon dioxide. But the policy shift also has the potential for giant unanticipated consequences, including new types of pollution, recycling headaches and higher costs to the consumer. With the goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent, this issue dwarfs the 50-year transition cars and trucks have made from gross emitters of what has been commonly referred to as “pollution” to producers of so little “pollution” that the emissions are hard even to measure. The clear inference to be drawn based on our current knowledge base is that internal-combustion engines will be unable to reach the increasingly stringent targets that will be specified by the federal government, and that includes vehicles with hybrid power plants, since the current hybrids are, in essence, gasoline-powered cars that derive a small portion of assist from electric power.

Industry estimates suggest that future improvements in gasoline engines are likely to become perhaps 30 percent better in limiting CO2 emissions than they are today and that “clean diesel” technology advances might have a similar benefit. Even advanced hybrids, including plug-ins, might only move the needle another 50 percent. Why? They all burn fuel, meaning they will always emit carbon dioxide. The only alternative seems to be electrics -- either battery electrics or fuel-cell electrics. Some companies, like Renault-Nissan, are launching ambitious battery-electric vehicle initiatives. We expect to see a Nissan EV that will use lithium-ion batteries in 2010. Honda already has its FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle in a limited number of consumers’ driveways.

Is a battery-electric the right bet? Is pursuing hydrogen fuel cell technology the smart path to bringing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent? Or will changing “realities” make both mute as we better understand climate and our effects on it? For the short term at least, auto companies are moving forward with all possible speed to develop low- and no-carbon vehicles, and that will profoundly change what you drive. Whether you like it or not.