Posted November 20, 2007 in News

In the past, the phrase “alternative fuel” has conjured images of hippies raving about Henry Ford’s deal with precursors of Big Oil to abandon plans to run his Model T on flex fuels. More recently it’s evoked the hipster, proudly tooling around Echo Park and Los Feliz in a Mercedes retooled to run recycled veggie oil.

Increasingly, however, the cutting edge of alt-fuel is accoutered by work boots, a handlebar moustache and a polo shirt usually concealing a beer gut. At least that’s the way it looked at last week’s Clean Vehicle Technology Expo, organized by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and held at the Ontario Convention Center.

Although not big enough to earn a spot in the main exhibition hall (setting it apart from, say, the annual Jacuzzi show), the expo did manage to pull alt-fuel vehicle vendors and vehicle fleet reps from all over the U.S. to talk shop—and a bit of smack.

“If we continue this romance with ethanol, it’ll bankrupt our country,” said Roger Wheeler, technical services manager at Gardena-based propane fuel supplier Mutual Liquid and Gas, during a smoke break beneath typically smoggy IE skies. “We have enough propane right now, without going into the ground, to satisfy our transportation needs for the next 30 years.”

Clearly the alternative fuel scene seems more Wild West than reasoned scientific debate. Depending on the basis of one’s argument—global warming, Peak Oil, air quality, Foreign Oil—each of the handful of alternatives to gasoline and diesel has its advantages. And for the time being, small companies headed by a handful of engineers are leading the debate.

Compressed natural gas and propane run relatively clean, but still represent the unleashing of carbon that spent millions of years deep in the earth. Ethanol takes carbon from the air, but some estimates have it costing more in hydrocarbons than it’s worth (plus, President Bush is an advocate, a poison pill for some). Electrics beat all, but are still plagued with problems of range, slow recharging and pervading dorkiness.

As public attention and public policy increase the country’s focus on alternatives, vehicle fleets—a bastion of blue-collar jobs that can’t be outsourced—are emerging as the battleground. And that battle is heating up faster than the Greenland Ice Sheet.

For the time being, though, it will happen more or less behind the scenes at school districts, sanitation fleets and maintenance yards. Because they can cut large checks and endure the hassles that go along with alternative fuel tax breaks, public and private entities operating the fleets are getting a crack at alternative vehicle technology years before they appear on consumers’ horizons.

“If something isn’t quite ready, it’s far easier dealing with a small handful of people,” said Daniel Riegert, chairman of Ojai-based Phoenix Motorcars, which has spent the last few months unveiling a new line of electric SUVs and pickup trucks at every alt-fuel event from here to Sacramento.

Like many of the vehicles populating the forefront, Phoenix represents a grab bag of partnerships, with Reno’s Altairnano contributing quick-charge batteries and Ontario’s Boshart Engineering helping navigate seriously choppy regulatory waters.

And the help is necessary. As Rebecca Royer, president of Baytech, a Los Altos-based company that upfits trucks to run on CNG, put it, “We’re on the same list as Ferrari or Mazerati in the eyes of the government.”

You can bet Henry Ford never had to deal with this crap.


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