Houston’s Other Energy Options
Ready, set, go – to the most energy-efficient fuel
Thirty years ago, a man flew into William P. Hobby Airport to visit his son. He rented a car and got onto the 610 Loop, quickly realizing that his hotel was one mile in the other direction. Thinking he could simply follow the highway until he reached his hotel again, he decided to take the 610 Loop full circle. Three hours later, he was finally at his hotel and better understood just how large the city of Houston was.
The city has expanded since then, and the Houston area now covers almost 6,000 square miles. The Texas Department of Transportation estimated in 2005 that more than 80 million miles are driven every day in the Houston area. In fact, more than 4 million cars were registered in Houston in 2005, and this fast-growing oil industry capital is starting to look to new types of energy as we move further into the 21st century.
Drivers of diesel vehicles now have an alternative source for fuel – their local McDonald’s. An alternative to typical diesel fuel, biodiesel is made from processed vegetable oils and can even be made from the oil in which fast food restaurants use to fry their foods. (Some restaurants will give out used oil for free because it costs them to dispose of this waste properly.) Two groups in Houston are fighting to get this cheaper, cleaner-burning fuel into the mainstream for diesel automobiles.
The Rice University Biodiesel Initiative, founded by graduate students Christine Robichaud and Matt Yarrison, takes used cooking oils from the school’s cafeterias and refines them into biodiesel fuel for the university’s shuttle system and other diesel vehicles. Even Rice’s lawn maintenance equipment runs on the biodiesel created through this program – so, you can find riding mowers with exhaust smelling of french fries!
Chris Powers, founder of Houston Biodiesel, has opened the city’s first biodiesel station at 723 N. Drennan (in the East End). All of the fuel is made on the premises from recycled vegetable oils and boasts a high ratio of biodiesel to petrol. Houston Biodiesel even offers a variety of educational programs open to the general public on how to make your own biodiesel at home, and why it is a safer, cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. The fuel at Houston Biodiesel is currently priced about $0.30 cheaper than the average unleaded gasoline around the city. The filling station, built out of an old warehouse, is not your average gas station, either. There is no convenience store or touch-free car wash, but this renovated industrial building houses a knowledgeable and friendly staff who will help you with all of your biodiesel concerns.
The best of both worlds
Living in a city as large as Houston, many people are interested in getting the most out of their gas tank, especially commuters. Because of the size of the city and the distance between major attractions, Houstonians have begun to show interest in hybrid cars.
These vehicles drive just like normal automobiles, but they have gas and electric motors that work in tandem. Hybrid vehicles do not require special maintenance, and many come with high-tech features, such as the built-in computer and voice-activated navigation system available in the Toyota Prius.
Nearly every car manufacturer now has a hybrid vehicle on the market for a total of 12 vehicles currently available in the U.S., with more being designed for release in 2007 and 2008. From trucks to luxury sedans, economy cars to SUVs, styles of hybrids abound. Texans have shown their support for the hybrid car market, even in the midst of oil country. In 2005, Texas was third in the number of hybrid vehicle registrations, behind second-place Florida, as well as the top hybrid state, California.
On June 5, 2006, the Kroger at 8550 State Hwy. 6 in northwest Houston opened the city’s first E85 fuel pumps. E85 is a mix of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol and is cleaner-burning and cheaper than regular unleaded gasoline. The ethanol is made from corn, or maize, a major crop of the American Midwest. The corn grown by Midwest farms exceeds consumer demands, so farmers have begun to turn the extra crops into ethanol for E85 fuel. Because of the amounts of excess corn produced every year, it has been predicted that ethanol fuels could completely replace fossil fuels in the future. The Kroger at State Hwy. 6 and West Road is the first of a dozen gas stations slated to supply E85 to the Houston area.
E85 fuel, however, will not work in all vehicles successfully. The high content of ethanol will corrode rubber and metal pieces in the fuel systems of cars made before 1988; and while some have reported getting E85 to run successfully in their gasoline-designated car, experimentation with your automobile is usually very expensive.
There are 20 cars available in the U.S. that are designated as flexible-fuel vehicles, or FFVs, and most are highly affordable. Popular models like the Ford Taurus, Chrysler Sebring and Chevrolet Silverado are offered with flex-fuel options. General Motors’ flex-fuel vehicles have special decals proudly showing their versatility. FFVs can use either gasoline or E85, depending on what is available. Sensors in the gas tank send information to the engine about what type of fuel is in the tank. If you’re in the market for a new car, be sure to check out flex-fuel vehicles. You won’t want to miss out on this new, clean fuel of the future!