Motoring: How sewage sludge will power your car

The trouble with eco-friendly motors is that they're just not sexy. After all, who wants to drive a milkfloat?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ANOTHER WEEK, another campaign. Sandwiched between National Pilchard Day and Water on the Knee Awareness Week was the Environmental Transport Association's Green Transport Week.

The idea was to get us to walk,cycle and seriously consider public transport alternatives to the car. For local journeys, provided there isn't major shifting of goods or people involved, who could argue with a brisk walk or cycle?

The environmental and health benefits would do everyone a favour. But this is the real world, and giving up the car is not going to be easy, however bad its use may be perceived to be by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) in particular, and the Government in general,

For those who cannot face life without a car, but still want to do our bit for the environment, the most obvious alternative is an electric vehicle. Usually, the battery-powered motor is slow, short-range and surrounded by clinking bottles. A milk float has an image problem. Research by Touchline, a direct insurer, shows the majority of motorists would not consider driving an electric car.

And women drivers tend to be more environmentally conscious than men, 83 per cent owning cars that run on unleaded petrol compared with 69 per cent of men. Matt Wallace, of Touchline, says: "To many, the car is a necessity rather than a luxury. Alternatives will have to be proved viable to convince motorists to change."

Toyota may be able to do just that. At the recent Engine of the Year Awards, the winner of the Best Eco-friendly category was the Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle, with its unique petrol and electric power plant. The judges commended Toyota for being the first firm to engineer and bring to market a complex hybrid vehicle offering significantly reduced emissions with the potential for a remarkable 79mpg.

Sales of the electric/petrol Prius will not start in the UK until the autumn of 2000, although it has been very successful in Japan. Prices here have not been set, but will exceed the pounds 10,000 tag in Japan. Buying an electric car in the UK has not been easy, because there is limited choice and those available in Europe are rarely imported.

But one man has managed to make owning an electric vehicle in central London more practical. Simon Roberts took four years to persuade London Electricity and the London Borough of Lambeth to install a kerbside charging point for his electric Peugeot 106. "The way is now open for anyone living in London or elsewhere to have such a charging point installed," says Mr Roberts. The delay was caused in unravelling the bureaucracy and complex procedures, which constrain the electricity utility and local council.

The charging point is 1.6 metres high containing a 13-amp power outlet and electricity meter in a box. It is locked with a protection device to cut the current if the charging cable is tampered with. The red tape that almost scuppered the installation was the requirement of a 0.45m gap between the charging point and the kerb line, plus the fact that it was in a conservation area.

The cost of the connection was more than pounds 1,000 and London Electricity spent several thousand more developing the box. Although this initiative is laudable, there is plenty to criticise. An electric car ultimately uses fossil fuel consumed at the power station, meaning more, not less, pollution.

Mr Roberts says: "In London, the Renewable Energy Company distributes Ecotricity-power produced from sewage sludge on behalf of Thames Water. Although they do not yet have a licence to supply domestic customers in the London area, they are keen to support my electric car. Under a `green ticket' scheme they will allocate a proportion of Ecotricity generated that corresponds to the energy used by my car." Of course, Mr Roberts, could have hired a lock-up with a power point and charged his electric Peugeot there. The development cost of the post will be met by London Electricity consumers, and lead acid batteries need replacing after five years use.

But the electric car is not yet the answer, as Government findings confirm. The DETR has monitored UK trials of electric vehicles. The Government Car Service had a Volta van, Ipswich Borough Council a Danish El-Jet car and Westminster City Council a Bradshaw Envirovan. Each reported reservations about the vehicle's range, from 25 to 60 miles on a single charge.

For 23 years Shell has held an annual Eco-Marathon, challenging young people to design and build a vehicle capable of travelling as many miles as possible on a gallon of fuel. Last week at Silverstone they added a solar category, measuring teams on the amount of energy used. The winners, Microjoule from France recorded an astonishing 9,845 miles to the gallon, a new world record. Oh yes, and it was driven by a 10-year-old.

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