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Clean Across America And Back

Route map

A press release is online (30 July 1998).

The 1990's have seen a great increase in the number of alternative-fuel refueling stations, as well as in the number of vehicles offered by automakers that make use of those alternative fuels. There are now enough public compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations in place from coast to coast that it is possible to drive a CNG vehicle like my van from corner to corner of the continental United States--from California to Maine--and back by a couple of different routes, and from 2 August to 23 August 1998 I did just that. Please join me (retroactively!) on the ride by checking in on the daily diary and photos I posted to the WWW as I drove! You can view the itinerary and links to the diary pages as a route map, as a calendar, or as a straight list of schedule and stops if your browser doesn't like image maps or tables. This journey was not sponsored by anyone, including my employer, though people at several stops refilled my tanks for free; I used vacation time.

The Clean Cities Program

Developing a viable alternative-fuel transportation market, with buyers and sellers of both vehicles and fuel, is a very tough task. There's a big chicken-or-egg problem: it is uneconomical to build refueling stations if there aren't vehicles there to buy the fuel and make the stations pay for themselves, but few people will want to buy alternative-fueled vehicles until they are sure they can find stations to refuel them conveniently. (Of course, battery electric vehicles are most conveniently refueled (recharged) at home overnight, and flex-fuel or bi-fuel vehicles can burn gasoline as well as an alternative fuel; but still, users will generally want to be able to refuel at public stations while out on a day's driving.)

To help bring together a "critical mass" of fuel providers, vehicle manufacturers, fleet vehicle buyers, local air quality regulators, and other stakeholders in an alternative-fuel transportation system, all of whom must work together to make each other's efforts successful, the United States Department of Energy created the Clean Cities program. This is an effort to support grass-roots development of alternative-fuel transportation systems, in individual cities or regions; the idea is that each Clean Cities Coalition, as a group of local stakeholders is called, can share ideas and solutions with other Coalitions so that all can benefit from the experience of each.

It has been an extremely successful program: if you look at maps of alternative-fuel refueling stations nationwide, the highest concentrations tend to be in areas with Clean Cities Coalitions. They really know how to get things together, and so I planned this journey to stop in as many individual Clean Cities Coalitions' territories as I could, to help draw some additional attention to their efforts. I have benefited greatly in availability of refueling stations from the efforts of the Clean Cities Coalitions in Southern California, and I hope there's a Coalition in place or forming where you live!

Those Who Have Gone Before

This was not the first coast-to-coast journey powered by alternative fuels; for one thing, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and vehicles converted to burn it instead of gasoline have been around long enough that many people have doubtless driven such vehicles on such trips! Only recently, however, has it become possible to use public refueling stations and a non-petroleum-based fuel for long-distance journeys. In the early 1990's a caravan of alternative-fueled vehicles drove coast to coast, calling the journey "Clean Across America", but they had to carry a lot of their own fuel on (petroleum-powered) support vehicles because the refueling infrastructure was not in place--they wanted to draw attention to the vehicles, not to the (as yet largely nonexistent) infrastructure.

In June 1996 another CLEAN Across America took place; this time it was a caravan of advanced school buses, many powered by CNG, that were driven from Georgia where they were built to their purchasers in California. By this time enough refueling stations had been built along their route that they were able to dispense with support vehicles carrying extra fuel. I had planned to take my first CNG interstate trip, to Phoenix, Arizona from Los Angeles, California, even before this (Christmas 1995), which tells you about when public CNG refueling infrastructure development really took off, but I had to cancel that trip because of an unrelated problem. Actually, CNG buses have been driving across the country at least since 1991, though until a few years ago they had to refuel at the private fleet yards of local natural gas utility companies because of the dearth of public refueling stations; a range of around 600 miles between refuelings on the open road also lets them drive through areas with much sparser refueling infrastructure than I could get away with! In particular, Carl Cramer of Orion Bus Industries told me that they have driven around 400 CNG buses (and counting...) from their factory in Oriskany, New York to buyers on the west coast, at destinations from Tacoma, Washingon to southern California, and they have driven others east as far as Florida.

I finally did drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix and back at Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1997; 1998, however, has turned out to be the big year for this kind of trip. While I was sending out feelers in May, 1998 to arrange fueling station access and publicity for Clean Across America And Back, I found out that two long-distance alternative-fueled journeys were already about to start! Kris Trexler, a lessee of a General Motors EV1 electric vehicle, drove one-way from Los Angeles, California to Troy, Michigan in his three-week Charge Across America, and Bill Fairbairn, communications director of the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition and a strong supporter of the American Lung Association, drove a CNG-powered Honda Civic GX (borrowed from American Honda) one-way from Sacramento, California to the Clean Cities Stakeholders' Conference in Washington, DC, calling his one-week journey Cleanest Across America because the Civic GX is the cleanest internal-combustion-engine vehicle ever tested by the EPA. Then in June Ed Begley, Jr. (yes, that Ed Begley, Jr., the actor; he's prominent among the early EV1 lessees, among other environmental credentials) drove a bi-fuel CNG Ford Contour from Los Angeles to the east coast and back, using mostly CNG plus about 7.5 gallons of gasoline (this was not a publicity-generating trip like the others and mine--it was only announced to the press after the fact). Finally, just before my journey, Ron Keeling and Patrick McConnell of the General Services Administration and Larry Thompson of the Federal Aviation Adminstration drove a CNG-powered Ford Crown Victoria from Washington, DC to the FedFleet '98 meeting in Scottsdale, AZ in July, calling their trip GSA Drives Green Across the USA.

Because the EV1 was not designed to travel interstate distances, and because public electric-vehicle recharging stations are still concentrated in only a few cities (there are dozens in the Los Angeles area, for example), Kris Trexler took the 220-volt wall-mounted charger out of his garage and carried it in his trunk, and stopped often to recharge. He refueled by plugging into 110-volt sockets where necessary, or 220-volt appliance outlets where possible (fire stations were particularly helpful!), and in a couple of instances he got a local electric utility to drop a line from a power pole in the middle of nowhere. Like that of the original Clean Across America caravan, his emphasis was on the vehicle, not on the (still largely nonexistent, for electricity) interstate refueling infrastructure. I credit him with giving me the model for a website and daily diary; I hope mine proves to be as entertaining and educational as his were for me!

If I'd had my druthers, I'd have been driving right along with Bill Fairbairn to the Clean Cities Stakeholders' Conference, but I had to plan my trip for later in the year because of my day job. His trip coincided with the American Lung Association's Clean Air Week, and he raised several thousand dollars for them from sponsors of his journey! I took three weeks rather than one, which enabled me to make a round trip and to stop at more Clean Cities locations than he had time for. I hope that my journey Clean Across America And Back helps to draw further attention to the fact that alternative fuels in general, and compressed natural gas in particular, are "ready for prime time" as replacements for petroleum-based fuels in the transportation market. Give them some thought when you're ready to get your next car or truck!

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new 4 July 1998, revised 5 December 1999