High gas prices boost appeal of alternatives

Proponents of renewable energy see more interest in electric cars and fossil fuel substitutes, but auto manufacturers remain reluctant


Each day before Dave Goldstein walks out the door of his Gaithersburg home and climbs into the front seat of his 1981 Mercury Lynx, he remembers to bring along a stack of papers with written answers to the questions he invariably gets from curious bystanders.

"How fast can it go?" "How far?" "Where can I get one?"

Ah, the joys of owning an electric car.

Though Goldstein is one of fewer than 100 motorists in Maryland who are driving electric cars, he's feeling pretty good these days, because he doesn't have to worry about high gas prices.

Others, concerned about the cost of gas or America's dependence on foreign oil, are also abandoning gasoline for other fuels, including ethanol, a liquid made from corn or other grains, natural gas, or biodiesel, which is often made from soybean or vegetable oil, the same oil used to cook french fries.

"If you use renewable energy, the benefits are infinite," Goldstein said. "We feel we are doing good things for the Earth. There are a growing number of people who feel strongly about that obligation."

Sandy Davis, executive director of the Maryland Soybean Board, said the opportunity to move away from dependence on fossil fuels without sacrificing engine performance explains why the interest in electric cars and alternative fuels is growing.

"Especially this year, since the price of gas is so high, many people are giving it a try, not necessarily because they want to save money, but because they are disgusted with the petroleum industry in our country and they are becoming more aware of the environment," she said. "If I had a diesel car, I would use biodiesel."

Biodiesel, an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel, is often produced from soybean oil and can be used with regular diesel engines without any modifications, Davis said.

Biodiesel also burns more cleanly and completely than regular diesel fuel and does not produce as much pollution.

Electric vehicles can provide benefits to motorists as well, said Goldstein, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington.

Goldstein owns three electric cars, and he said they have many advantages over gasoline-engine cars.

"Electric cars are an excellent investment," he said. "Maintaining them is simple."

The cars never need an oil or filter change, he said, and they never need spark plugs replaced.

Taking care of them means buying new batteries, which cost about $1,000 each, every few years, he said.

"They're smooth and fun to drive, and it feels special every single time," he said. "You're not a victim anymore. You don't have to pay $3 for gasoline. You're ahead of the game."

The cars are also quieter, cheaper (they cost as little as 2.5 cents in electricity per mile), five times more efficient than gasoline and release up to 90 percent less pollution into the environment, he said.

About six months, ago Goldstein purchased his most recent electric car, a 1981 Mercury Lynx that was converted from gas to electric in the 1980s.

The 1973 Arab oil embargo created new interest in electric and alternative fuel vehicles, Goldstein said. A few years later, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration began a government program to advance electric and hybrid technology.

Goldstein's Lynx was transformed as part of that initiative. Several kinds of electric vehicles were made, he said, but major automobile manufacturers are no longer producing electric cars.

"Despite the warning signs of another oil crisis, automobile manufacturers today are still reluctant to become involved in electric vehicles," he said.

Electric vehicles are being manufactured by a few small companies in the United States, but many people still convert cars from gas to electric themselves, he said.

Goldstein said the Lynx can run for about 40 miles before it must be plugged in and recharged, but some of the newer electric cars with better battery technologies can get up to 150 miles, he said.

Goldstein said the Electric Vehicle Association hopes to raise the consciousness of legislators in Annapolis and nationwide to promote and support cleaner cars.

Another member of the organization, Owings resident Bryan Murtha, drives an electric 2002 Toyota RAV4 and a 2003 Volkswagen Jetta running on biodiesel.

About 320 electric RAV4s were made available in California in 2002, he said, and he was able to buy one from a friend in Los Angeles about two years ago.

Solar panels installed on the roof of his house add energy to his home and allow him to power up his electric car using the sun, he said.

Murtha said his goal is to be able to produce enough energy to cover all of his own energy needs cleanly and on his own property.

Murtha drives his RAV4 on his 70-mile round-trip commute to work in Washington. The car uses nickel-hydride batteries, like the ones in laptop computers, so it can run for about 130 miles on one charge, he said.

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