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September 23, 2007

No gas-guzzling, no carbon, no guilt

Driving a convertible Mazda Miata along sunny country roads in September is glorious. And when the car has "Powered by Renewable Energy" and "Zero Carbon Car" emblazoned on it, you don't even have to contend with eco-guilt.

"It's a nice feeling," said Bill Kemp, the renewable energy expert and author who built the electric/biodiesel hybrid as a concept car and is writing a book on it that will be published in October.

Along with no carbon emissions, there's also no noise pollution - it's so quiet, you can't even tell it's turned on. But hit the gas pedal and off you go, with the wind in your hair.

Unlike other hybrids, this is a truly zero-carbon car, not only while driving but also while refuelling. When the big yellow cord is plugged into the outlet near the trunk to recharge the eight batteries (which take six hours to charge fully, but can be driven on a partial charge) under the hood, the electricity comes from photovoltaic solar panels on Kemp's roof and a wind turbine next to his off-grid home. He also purchased shares from Bullfrog Power - a green-electricity company founded in 2005 with outlets in Alberta and Ontario - so he can plug the car in elsewhere and know the electricity comes from renewable sources.

"If I plug this car in where electricity comes from coal, then there's nothing zero emissions about it," he said.

The batteries are depleted after about 60 kilometres. That's when the diesel engine, - modified to take 100 per cent biodiesel and mounted in the trunk - kicks in to recharge the batteries as you continue driving. He said that 80 per cent of all driving adds up to less than 60 kilometres per day.

"For most people, most of the time, a vehicle that could go 60 kilometres without using carbon-based fuels would be sufficient."

Kemp believes that society cannot afford to keep building and maintaining roads and bridges that only expand the number of drivers. He envisions a future where carbon-free electric trains, rather than cars and trucks, move goods and people between cities, and businesspeople use video teleconferencing rather than jumping on planes.

He proposes a substantial carbon tax that would put gasoline prices at $3.50 a litre.

"People will curtail their driving habits," he said, and there will be eco-friendly vehicles, more carpooling, and mass transportation that people actually use.

Until society gets to that point, there's a need for transition vehicles like the Zero Carbon Car, he said. His car uses biodiesel to assist the electric power that drives the wheels, compared with hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic, which use electricity to assist the primary gas power.

"It's a very simple technology. There's nothing that needs to be invented. The technology's available today."

Kemp and a group of friends bought a 2001 Miata and gutted it. Under the hood, they installed an electric motor, eight batteries and various controllers. In the trunk are an alternator and a $15,000 diesel engine from Germany. The glove compartment houses a control panel and voltage and amp meters. The dashboard stereo was replaced with a touchscreen computer to monitor and control the various systems, including the music system and automatic garage door opener. Total cost: about $35,000.

There's nothing exactly like it on the market today because there's no incentive for it, he said. "No need. Just go buy a Hummer. Fossil fuels are cheap."

General Motors' Volt is similar to Kemp's car, but it's still a concept that's not due on the market until 2010 at the earliest. Zenn Motor Company has its all-electric Zenn car with a top speed of 40 kilometres per hour.

Tesla Motors has its high-speed all-electric $98,000 US Tesla and Commuter Cars has its ultra-narrow Tango but, as with other all-electric cars, once you've driven the maximum range, you have to wait for batteries to recharge.

"The plug-in hybrid solves all those problems," Kemp said.

Even though the Miata body is heavy, he estimates the car costs five cents per kilometer to operate, compared with a more conventional car at about 9.2 cents. Top speed is 140 kilometres per hour and it's fully licensed and insured.

Kemp's book will show people how to build their own, without waiting for the car industry or government to lead the way.

"We can use this technology immediately and embarrass governments and the automobile industry into producing these cars because if homeowners and university and college students can do it, there's no reason why we shouldn't," he said.

The Zero Carbon Car will be published by Aztext Press and available across Canada at Chapters and Indigo.

Do the right thing on climate change, UN head says

OTTAWA - Environmentalists need to mobilize popular support to allow governments to legislate to fight climate change, said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

His comments come on the eve of a special summit on Monday that the UN is billing as the largest ever gathering of world leaders to discuss the threat of global warming. More than 70 heads of state or government, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President George W. Bush, are expected to attend the one-day event that Ban convened in the hopes of breaking a stalemate on international climate negotiations between the developed and developing countries of the world.

"We need you, Greenpeace, to mobilize public opinion and enable politicians to do the right thing," Ban said during a meeting last week with several representatives of Greenpeace International.

Ban also publicly urged politicians last week to show more leadership on the file and start acting before it's too late.

The international community is in the midst of negotiating an extension to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change which expires in 2012. But some developed countries, such as the U.S., Canada and Australia have warned that they will only participate in a deal that places binding caps on pollution from the industries of large emerging economies such as India and China.

"It's very heartening though to see that somebody at (Ban's) level understands the important role civil society plays and is aware that politics isn't just about negotiating words and documents; it isn't just about convening meetings," said Daniel Mittler, a climate policy expert with Greenpeace International who sat in on the meeting with Ban. "It's also about public understanding about what civil societies around the world demand of their politicians."

Conservation groups have criticized Bush for convening a separate meeting of major economies at the end of next week to discuss climate change outside the official UN process. They warn that the separate meetings, including discussions at a recent trade summit in Australia for Pacific Rim economies, are a distraction designed to undermine the Kyoto Protocol and create a new agreement with no mandatory or binding commitments.

"Basically, Canada has been extremely destructive at these negotiations and has fought to prevent any progress in terms of setting new targets in this process," said Emilie Moorhouse, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club of Canada, at a news conference on Thursday in Ottawa. "Yet we hear claims that Canada is a bridge, and that Canada is a leader."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has insisted that Canada is a leading by example after his government introduced new policies to slash greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from industry with binding targets for action at home.

The UN summit comes on the heels of Saturday's announcement a deal between 191 nations - including Canada - to eliminate ozone-depleting substances 10 years ahead of schedule.

John Kerry, the Democratic senator who was defeated by Bush in the last U.S. election, said it would be up to his own country to take action that would broker a deal.

"It is a matter of record that President Bush successfully blocked the G8 nations (major industrialized countries) from accepting firm emission reduction targets at the June G8 meeting," said Kerry, during a conference call organized by the National Environmental Trust. "The United States needs to lead the world by passing cap-and-trade legislation that establishes concrete, economy-wide reduction targets on the order of 60 to 80 per cent (below current levels) by 2050."

Timothy Worth, president of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund, added that rich countries should even take a look at the example set by developing countries such as China, instead of blaming them for lack of progress on an international treaty.

"You don't start by saying, 'You're a bad guy,' kick them in the shins, and then say, 'Please sit down and negotiate with me,'" said Worth, who was also a member of former U.S. president Bill Clinton's Democratic administration. "They've got fuel economy standards in their auto fleets, for example, that are better than ours."

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