Answering the Call to Living Green

Ask yourselves a question: How do you truly live green?

I can into what I do, such as take public transport to work and separate recyclables at home. Some say that’s not enough. Some would rather have you live off the Earth and not use energy-wasting goods and services – such as the automobile.

Still, I have an interest in finding alternatives to the remaining parts of the green universe. My interest takes me to an annual event every May to learn more – especially in the world of transportation.

Almost every year since I moved to the Twin Cities, I attended a free event at the state fairgrounds called the Living Green Expo. The idea behind this event is to bridge sustainable and ecologically friendly ideas to our everyday lives. These ideas range from usage of environmentally friendly materials and goods at home to changing the way you transport yourself daily.

When I first attended the Living Green Expo in 2006, I learned a lot about what was out there in the sustainable world. It was also at a time when the automobile and public transport world were diving into hybrid propulsion systems for their vehicles. I also gained the notion that joining a car share service, such as the Twin City’s own HourCar is a good solution for local transportation when MetroTransit wasn’t going to work.

Green living has been on the rise. This is partly because of the rise in petrol prices. Earlier this week, Twin Cities gas pumps held at $3.99 a gallon for unleaded – some speculate in fear of retribution if the price goes over $4.00 for the same gallon. Even for an automotive enthusiast, $4.00 a gallon is a breaking point, if not close to it. Luckily, pump prices are starting to drop again.

Now, consumers are asking what real alternatives do they have. Every year, the list of answers for alternatives continues to grow, as more options are made available in this marketplace. Attending this year’s Living Green Expo provides an actual examination of the growing number of alternatives. Some may not as readily available to the general public, but that will not stop anyone with deep wallets to invest in these solutions.

In terms of vehicles, there are two trains of thought: Either ones that readily available to own or ones you can convert to another alternative. In the former camp, it is no surprise that Chevrolet brought out the Volt to show off and offer rides to Expo attendees. I rode a Volt before, but only in an indoor controlled environment. I found myself in the rear seat of a Volt for this demo. The on-road demo did show what the Volt could do under electric power (though a petrol-fueled “generator” is at ready when the electric motor is spent). I was impressed with the pickup and spunk the Volt had. However, I can re-affirm one thing: I’m too big for this thing whether I’m up front or in back.

A 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport, one of eight of the electric sports cars residing in the Twin Cities, was also offered for rides to expo attendees. I was able to contort myself in the passenger seat of this tiny roadster for a chance to experience what Elon Musk’s big deal was all about. The owner was more of an electric vehicle supporter than an enthusiast, which was a good thing knowing he had plenty of firepower to play with in the Lotus-built EV. It drove great, but you have to three-fourths my size to truly enjoy the car for what it’s worth. Believe me, I had more questions I would had loved to get answered about the ownership experience and such.

My contacts at the American Lung Association, presenters of an informative website called CleanAirChoice.org, gave me a tour of other fuel and propulsion alternatives on display at the State Fairgrounds. We began with the Chevrolet HHR, available with the Ecotec 2.4litre FlexFuel engine that you can put E85 in as well as regular petrol. They also had a Ford F-150 crew cab that had the same FlexFuel/E85 set-up – a common option now found on most full-sized pickup trucks in this country. Rounding out the biofuel options, a new Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagon was shown off as an example of biodiesel use in a passenger vehicle. It’s been said you can run B20 biodiesel (20% biomass) without any conversion in a Volkswagen TDI in colder climates such as Minnesota’s.

Plus, I was presented with several other alternatives for commercial use, mainly through a conversion of a factory-made vehicles. For example, Compressed Natural Gas, Liquid Natural Gas or Propane can be used on a vehicle. I was shown two examples of these fuel conversions. One such Ford E-Series van had a propane conversion done by Roush between the factory and the dealership where only the fuel system was replaced. In place of a regular fuel tank, a propane tank holding 20 gallons is used with special hoses leading into the motor. All you need is to fill up the vehicle with propane at any place that sells it. The cost to fuel up with propane comes out to around $2.00 a gallon.

Perhaps the most compelling view of a commercial application has been the marriage of an EV system to the Ford Transit Connect van, as demonstrated by a local Ford Trucks dealer with the City of Saint Paul’s Parks and Recreation Department. The conversion is done between the factory and the dealer where an electric motor replaces the usual four-cylinder mill with a battery pack in the cargo hold. One ride inside the van assured me that an EV could be done if everything is designed for use in all climates. This was the key to the conversion as the van arrived into the city’s fleet in January – and tested extremely well under cold weather conditions.

There are so many different options to maintain a green lifestyle. If you must do without a four-wheel contraption, there’s always the two-wheeled option. Previously, I discussed bike-sharing programs as the region’s Nice Ride program is underway for another warm weather season. They are in an aggressive expansion that will put new hubs stretching from Robbinsdale into Saint Paul by 2012. I was given an opportunity to ride one of Nice Ride’s specially designed 3-speed urban bikes. My thighs never felt better – those bikes are worth taking out for an hour or more!

There are many options on display regarding sustainable transportation from plug-in hybrid conversions to Segways. The point of all of this is that we have access to so many different ways to lower our emissions footprint, our petrol or diesel usage that we can satisfy not just the environmentalists, but for our future as a society. I’m for making green progress – such as taking the opportunity to fuel up with E85 in a FlexFuel vehicle, testing a Hybrid to its limits and leaving any car at home for a relaxing commute on public transport when possible. How much more will it take for you to take those steps towards a sustainable future?

It is a loaded question – there are many answers available. Perhaps a trip to the Living Green Expo at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds – or a similar fair near you – would help sort out those answers for you.

All photos by Randy Stern

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