GLEE in the Florida Keys
By Bill Moore
There's just one main highway that traverses Monroe Country, Florida. And while the county is 120 miles in length, in some parts it's less than a quarter mile in width, at least the part that is above water. I am, of course, referring to the Florida Keys, a chain of coral and mangrove islands stretching south southwest off the tip of the Florida Peninsula into the Caribbean Sea.
Some fifty miles up Highway One from Key West, which sits at the end of the chain, is Marathon, one of the more populated islands of the 1700 that make up the Keys and the site of this year's Green Living and Energy Education (GLEE) expo. Now in its second year, the expo attracted residents up and down the archipeligo to the Stanley Switlik School for a day-long series of workshops on everything from global warming to designing a solar-powered home to organic gardening.
EV World was invited to do two hour-long sessions on "Green Transportation", but from the number of Toyota Priuses on display and parked in the school's parking lot, as well as passed on the road, many Keys residents already seem up to speed on the advantages of hybrid electric cars. They also have more than a passing acquaintance with the environmental consequences of mankind's voracious consumption of fossil fuels since the Keys sit exposed out in the Gulf where simple tropical depressions mature into killer hurricanes and six-foot storm surges can inundate most of the chain.
For only being in its second year, GLEE drew an impressive list of presenters including scientists from NOAA who are based in the Keys, solar experts skilled in both residential, commercial and marine installations. The Keys has many homes -- and boats -- that are "off-grid" and the federal government, who appears to be the largest employer in the region, employees both solar and wind to power the many remote communications and navigation installations scattered along the low-lying chain. Based on Marathon, Bob Williams, the owner of Sea Air Land Technologies, Inc. (SALT) also does solar installations in the Bahamas and in Central America, and has just completed his own low-energy home, built like all new homes here on concrete pilings 9 feet above ground to protect them from hurricane surge tides.
Alan and Norma Williamson came from Southern California to talk about their Zero Energy Home in Ceritos. The Williamson's 6kW solar PV system not only powers their home, but also their Toyota RAV4 EV. The only fossil fuel they use is one therm (1000 cubic feet) annually of natural gas for their cook stove and gas clothes dryer, and this is largely offset by the $200+ electricity credit they earn from Southern California Edison for putting more electricity into the local grid than they consume. Unfortunately, their utility doesn't reimburse them, so like other solar PV/EV owners in the region they often invite friends over to recharge their electric vehicles to use up their surplus.
Alan is a solar installer and his wife is a school teacher, hardly the Hollywood set usually associated with being able to afford "going solar." That was, in fact, the point of their presentation, that the average American can do much the same. When they bought their forty-year-old home in 2003, they set aside an extra $100,000 to do various energy and convenience upgrades including their solar PV system. In addition, they replaced all the windows with more energy efficient ones and insulated all the walls and ceiling. Their efforts are paying off for them. They not only are insulated from volatile energy prices for their home and their vehicle, but they can now get a tax deduction for both. How smart is that?
As for the green vehicle of the expo, there were hybrid cars galore: Priuses, Highlanders, Lexus, Accords, Ciivics and Escapes, some provided by local dealers from Key Largo and others by local residents who helped organize the event. Charles Whalen drove one of his two RAV4 EVs down from the mainland, making two recharging stops along the way.
Shawn Waggoner and Matthew Graham brought down a Toyota Prius that they are in the process of converting into a grid-chargeable, plug-in hybrid using low-tech components developed by Rich Rudman in Seattle. Instead of installing high-priced lithium ion or NiMH batteries, they utilize AGM lead-acid batteries that cost about $120 a piece, a tenth the price of the advanced chemistry cells. By doing so, they are hoping to break the $10,000 price barrier using a far less complicated control strategy and lower cost components. Essentially, their system is designed to trick the Prius into thinking its own NiMH battery has more electric energy available than it actually does by sharing the energy stored in the AGM cells mounted in the well under the rear cargo deck. While the Suncoast EV Outfitters (SEVO ) vehicle has just a 10-mile range in EV-only mode operating at speeds under 35 mph (see also Three Speed Prius), it still should boost the overall fuel economy of the car from the low 50's to 100+ mpg, which begins to justify the additional $10k price tag.
Parked next to Charles Whalen's RAV4 EV was Cliff Rassweiler's Subaru Impreza all-electric road racer, powered by Kokam lithium polymer cells. Cliff has been racing the car against Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competitors in gasoline-powered cars and beating most of them. After moving up from autocross to road racing this past year, his best finish so far has been second, but in 2005, he actually won the D Modified Class competing against conventional IC engine cars. He told EV World that his fellow SCCA drivers are now starting to ask about building their electric road racers. He explained that because of the car's lower center of gravity and its greater motor torque, the car has superior handling on the road course. He pointed that the lithium polymer cells which are each roughly the size of a small briefcase and about a centimeter thick, are stacked vertically and separated by plastic core board to improve cooling. They are mounted to the floor board of the car, which has been striped of its interior except for the driver's seat. The car does sport a bit of racing damage, but ironically, most of the dings and dents in the car's hood and roof came when a branch fell on it during one of Florida's hurricanes.
Perhaps the most unusual and yet intriguing EV on exhibit was the somewhat grandly named XLR 8 Sun. Sporting nearly 3 square meters of heavy, polysilicon and monosilicon photovoltaic panels, the low-slung three-seater is said by its owner and developer, Larry Wexler, to be capable of running all day in full sunlight at 35 mph. At 60 mph it has a range of 90 miles on just four deep cycle lead acid batteries. To be sure, it's a gangly, three-wheeled affair of aluminum tubing and sheet metal that requires the skills of a contortionist to clamber into and out of, but Wexler has put his heart and soul into this machine, which while he didn't demonstrate during the Expo, would seem to suggest that it is, in fact, feasible to build a multi-passenger solar vehicle fueled only by the sun. He has great aspirations for it, but he is clearly fatigued by the effort that it has taken over the years to get it to even this rather rough state of development. Boeing has apparently given him a glimmer of hope in offering to help him with some of the engineering on the vehicle.
For all the excitement and interest in green living the Expo generated, the Keys, like much of the rest of the planet, still has a long way to go to reducing its energy consumption and carbon emissions. The tens of thousands of boats, big and small, old and new that line the docks and fill the boatyards along Highway One underscore how dependent the region's economy is on water sports and the tourism it attracts. Most of those boats need either gasoline or diesel fuel, both of which might someday be able to substitute ethanol, methanol, butanol or biodiesel. And there is always the potential to develop series hybrid systems for many of these craft, like the water taxis that ply the Intercoastal waters along the greater Miami coastline.
As I explained to the people who attended my two "Green Transportation" workshops, no vehicle technology is perfect. Gasoline cars bring with them a host of problems from oil addiction to environmental damage. Electric vehicles (EVs) have their shortcomings as well, but as we move increasingly into a post-petroleum era, we will learn to appreciate their advantages and live with their shortcomings. As the people of the Keys learned long ago, we can adapt and we all will, not easily nor willingly perhaps, but we will, and the world will be a bit better for it.
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