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A New Educational Tool for the Urban Ecology Center: Alternatively Fueled Vans!

by Ken Leinbach, Executive Director, Urban Ecology Center Thanks to the generosity of Wisconsin Energy Corpor-ation, a small grant from the state, and a discount from Hall Chevrolet, soon you will see two brand new vans circulating in the neighborhood. These vans will look much like any van from the outside, but an astute observer will notice something interesting. Where the spare tire is normally stored is an extra fuel tank and on the side of the van there is not one gas cap but two! Actually these vans will not look just like any other van. Our colors, silver for one and green for the other, were chosen in a tie vote of our middle school summer camp. Each van is uniquely decorated with large, brightly colored decals representing larger than life native animals, insects, and plants. As far as we know, we are the only field trip site in Wisconsin to provide transportation for our classes. We do this for two primary reasons. One is that we are small. Our facility limits us to serving a single class of 25 students at a time. The other is that all of our schools lie within two miles of the Center. No principal in her right mind would let a teacher pay the flat fee for a school bus for just one class of 25 students to travel for only ten minutes. So when we set up our Neighborhood Environmental Education Project three years ago we knew we had to come up with a creative solution to get students to Riverside Park. We solved our problem with a grant from Ronald McDonald House Charities and collaboration with the nearby Children’s Outing Association (COA). This spring our grant ran out and COA downsized its fleet of vans. Well…they say necessity is the mother of invention. In this case our need forced us to think how we might transport kids in a more environmentally friendly manner. Our first thought was an electric van. Perhaps we could just plug our vans in at night and drive them during the day, like they do with golf carts. We discovered, though, that no one makes electric 15-passenger vans. Electric vehicles tend to be small and don’t work well in cold climates. There are not even any hybrids (high efficiency gas and electric vehicles) on the large vehicle market. We then looked into the fuel cell, a clean power generating system that is predicted to revolutionize the way we get power…but unfortunately this technology still seems to be a few years away. A solar van would be cool, but suffers the same problems as an electric van. So what is left? Little did we realize that right here in Milwaukee is one of the best resources available for the very questions we were asking. We called Don Pieper, who manages the University’s Alternative Fuel Testing Facility. He said that a flexible fuel engine installed into a 15-passenger van was the way to go. This stainless steel engine burns both ethanol and gasoline. In Mr. Pieper’s opinion ethanol is the “cats meow” in fuel as it burns clean and is created from an alcohol made from corn…a plentiful, renewable resource. We were sold…until we learned that the only ethanol fueling station in the state is in Madison! It was then that we learned of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Natural gas is what most of us use to heat our homes. To make it work in an automobile equires the same fuel under more pressure. This can be done with a specialized pump. Natural gas, while still a fossil fuel, burns much cleaner than gasoline. One mechanic informed me that oil in a natural gas engine hardly ever has to be cleaned and engines last much longer. For us the real selling point for CNG is that there are nine public fueling stations in Milwaukee. Natural gas is good for local travel. If we travel outside of the area though, say on a long trip to the boundary waters, we have a problem…no fueling stations. For this reason a bi-fueled van was recommended. When our vans run out of CNG they will automatically switch to the gasoline tank. The same engine will work for both fuel types. Pretty cool, don’t you think?
by Ken Leinbach, Executive Director, Urban Ecology Center