Tuesday 20 July 2010. The Green Piece Column
The latest attempt to halt the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 appears to be enjoying some success; however, if there is one thing that the disaster has highlighted, it is how the world would be increasingly foolish to rely on scarce and costly supplies of oil.
Excursions to remote locations to find oil appear to be ever more risky and on land, gathering oil from tar sands doubles its carbon footprint and depletes valuable resources. The verdict appears all the more clear – it is now arguably more important than ever to reduce our reliance on oil and petroleum. However, how can it be done effectively?
A solution we don’t have to wait decades for
While plug-in hybrid and electric cars are gradually emerging into the mainstream it will still take around two decades for them to have a serious impact on our energy use as we wait for them to be mass produced. Another option is to design walkable communities and increase the emphasis on high-speed rail networks. However, ultimately the need to drive is likely to remain, which is why car conversions may hold the key to slashing oil use now.
Money is already being poured into converting homes, offices and factories into green buildings so the same strategy could be applied to the vehicles we drive. With many of the biggest gas guzzlers able to stay on the road for 15 years or more and it often costing a great deal of wasted energy to replace these vehicles outright, retrofits could be the solution.
There is already a host of companies that can convert petrol- and diesel-powered cars to run as battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles depending on how they are built, as well as firms that offer conversions to more efficient fuelling methods such as LPG and CNG.
Technologies also exist to convert larger vehicles – and as batteries become smaller and cheaper and motors become lighter it should be straightforward to install them into smaller cars on a wider scale. Indeed as electricity is increasingly sourced from renewable energy then the vehicles could become cleaner the older they are.
Carrying out retrofits will also present opportunities to make further green enhancements such as fitting carbon filters and adding real-time MPG indicators to show how to save money while still getting where you want on time.
Stumbling block to success
While retrofits appear a great idea in theory, the stumbling block, as with many green technologies, is the cost. Even when mass produced, it is predicted that vehicle conversions could cost around £10,000 ($10-15,000) which is a lot of money to expect anyone with an ageing vehicle to pay.
However, one potential solution is for Government intervention similar to the vehicle scrappage scheme in the UK and the cash for clunkers scheme in the US. With the UK Government poised to support buyers of electric cars with up to £5,000 perhaps a similar incentive could be offered to those looking to retrofit their vehicles if they are in a good enough condition to last for 10 or more years. Though this would involve a major government investment, it could be argued that it will lead to significant savings in the long term by limiting the impact of harmful emissions.
Another potential stumbling block is the reverberations it would cause for the motoring industry. Whereas as the scrappage schemes were meant to stimulate the automotive market, supporting retrofits would encourage people to hold on to their vehicles for longer, potentially limiting car buying activity at a time when the industry is still struggling to recover from the global economic crisis.
However, what would be created is a thriving new conversion industry and if the car manufacturers themselves are involved in the process then the money they make from cars they have already sold could make up for any shortfall.
A vehicle conversion programme on a mass scale certainly has potential but there may be some doubts over the process particularly among those who fear that the conversions will affect the vehicle’s performance or even reduce its lifetime.
Perhaps a smart approach by a Government would be to introduce conversion trials over a 12month period to gain real world knowledge on how vehicles perform and, if successful, then consider offering rebates. For it to work on a mass scale however, it is necessary to involve manufacturers and dealerships directly so conversions are no longer seen as a niche activity.
However, it’s clear that something has to be done to reduce our reliance on oil now – and this is one potential solution that could be achieved in the short-term and yet could offer significant long-term benefits both for the environment and for the emerging green industry.