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Living for the Long Haul: How can we reduce consumption of gasoline and diesel fuel?

Options for those wishing to reduce gas consumption.

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Most of us here in rural Minnesota are highly dependent on gasoline and diesel fuel to transport goods to us and to produce our food, as well as for our own transportation, lawn and garden power tools and recreational vehicles.

Our use of these fuels is problematic both because the demand is rapidly depleting our oil supplies and because automobile and truck exhaust is the single greatest cause of air pollution. The United States uses about 9 billion barrels of oil each year, two-thirds of which is used for transportation.

And air pollution associated with fossil fuels has been estimated to kill 200,000 Americans every year. Associated diseases include chronic lung diseases, kidney disease, dementia and high blood pressure.

There are several possible approaches to reducing our consumption of gasoline and diesel fuel. Aging automobiles can be replaced with more fuel-efficient models. At present the Environmental Protection Agency is mandating that automobile manufacturers increase gas mileage and decrease emissions by 1.5% per year across all models that they produce (not much, but something).

Another way to reduce fuel consumption and reduce emissions is to purchase electric cars and trucks. These consist of 100% electric automobiles and plug-in hybrid electric automobiles that operate on both electricity and internal combustion engines. Compared to plug-in hybrids, automobiles that are 100% electric are more efficient at reducing both fuel consumption and emissions.

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Converting electric energy to power is more efficient (approximately 60%) than is converting gasoline energy to power (approximately 18%). That makes electric cars considerably more efficient compared to internal combustion engines.

The savings on emissions for electric automobiles is dependent on how they are charged. Our car (Chevy Bolt) is charged almost exclusively by energy generated by our solar array; therefore, emissions are virtually zero.

Alternatively, if automobiles are charged from a power grid that generates power by burning coal or natural gas, the savings in fuel consumption and emissions are reduced.

For example, Crow Wing Power generates approximately 58% of its power from coal and only 25% from renewable sources. Therefore, charging electric cars from the Crow Wing Power grid significantly reduces the benefit of driving an electric automobile. (NOTE: There are some downsides to owning electric automobiles that will be discussed in a later column.)

In addition to electric cars and trucks, many other electric power tools have become available. Many types of battery-operated lawn and garden equipment/tools are available. A variety of battery-operated electric lawn mowers are available. Many models have acceptable power and run for up to one hour on a charge.

Other battery-operated equipment includes: leaf blowers, trimmers, edgers, pressure washers, cultivators, snow blowers, hedge trimmers and chain saws. Electric tractors have even been recently produced.

A large portion of the fuel that is consumed results from transporting goods around the world in our global economy. These goods crisscross the globe largely on diesel-powered ships and trucks consuming tremendous amounts of fuel. We as consumers tend to focus on price and are frequently oblivious to the distances the things we buy are transported.

For example, when ordering online, we may order a product from Sweden or Germany rather than from Minneapolis because we can save a dollar and not give any thought to the amount of fossil fuel required to transport the product. Many of us have heard the phrase “shop local;" however, in terms of saving fossil fuels the key is “buying local products” or at least buying products that are produced close to home.

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Of course, we would be remiss if we did not mention reducing the number of miles that we drive. Gasoline consumption has increased by 33% since 1990 despite an increase in fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles. We can all find ways to break our addiction to our automobiles.

Many of us would do well to think about getting out of our cars, side-by-sides and four-wheelers, and walking and biking more, and be healthier for it.

(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: weiss005@umn.edu)

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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