Any colour as long as it's green

The significant other and I found ourselves owning two cars with a combined engine capacity of 7,2 litres. Bought before 2000 when oil was below $20 a barrel, these beasts were hardly fuel-efficient or modest about contributing to a warming planet.

After some research we bought a 2,5-litre Subaru Forrester, but delayed selling one or both of the beasts as I probed our best option.

I have investigated greener options available to Johannesburg motorists. These include cheaper or alternative technologies, using renewables and offering greater energy efficiency.

Small is beautiful

An obvious place to start is with small cars, which can be much more efficient than larger, heavier models.

These include the one-litre Citroën C1 (5,5 litres per 100km), which retails at R90 000, and the 1,2-litre Fiat Uno, which sells for R70 000 and also uses 5,5 litres per 100km.

If we all drove small cars we wouldn’t need to plan new oil-refining capacity or Sasol 4, but I was keen to find out my options beyond the showroom floor.

Clean diesel

The Gauteng fuel market is akin to Henry Ford’s Model T offering: anything as long as it is black.
For much of our inland fuel market it’s anything as long as it is Sasol.

Sasol is best known for coal to liquid (CTL) technology, but it is a market leader in gas to liquids (GTL), which is relatively efficient compared with the more energy-intensive CTL.

I asked Sasol if its GTL fuels were available in Gauteng, thinking perhaps that it could use GTL to process natural gas, which it pipes from Mozambique. Sasol is proud of the quality of its diesel fuels, so I thought I might be able to run on “clean” diesel.

But, no. The natural gas goes into the general gas pool at Secunda before being turned into the fuel we buy at the pumps.

LPG

There are fleets of cars in Johannesburg that run off LPG, the kind of gas that is a by-product of the refining process. Any standard car will do and the conversion cost, mostly to put a gas tank in the boot, is about R6 000.

I spoke to a Jo’burg security company, which runs its fleet this way, but LPG, an unregulated product, has rocketed in price in recent years and the company no longer converts the new cars it buys to run on LPG.

Natural gas

Any number of cars in Mozambique run on natural gas. Egoli Gas, which gets natural gas from Mozambique via Secunda, has a pilot to run cars in Jo’burg on gas.

Supporters of natural gas as a fuel source say emissions are reduced by up to 95% and that the car needs to be serviced infrequently and lasts much longer. Cities such as Delhi converted public transport to natural gas with a dramatic improvement in air quality.

I have natural gas piped to my home. Some motorists in the United States and Canada use a pump in their homes to pressurise natural gas and fill up their tanks.

One of these products is the Phill. In California you are given a Phill if you buy the Honda Civic, which runs on natural gas. You also get tax credits to help reduce the $5 000 cost (including installation).

One company is looking at developing the natural gas transport market locally, targeting large users such as the Jo’burg municipality and its bus fleet. Switching to natural gas promises savings of about 25% on fuel bills and cleaner air for Jo’burg’s citizens.

A Honda Civic sedan costs about R170 000. The conversion, plus a Phill, will add about R40 000 to the price, meaning this green car will cost about R210 000.

Ethanol

Government is pushing biofuels as part of its growth strategy and to increase the use of renewable energy sources.

A Fiat Uno made in Brazil, which can run on petrol or ethanol, was shown locally at car exhibitions. Fiat said the car will sell locally at a premium of R2 000 to R3 000 on top of the listed price. An entry-level Uno costs R70 000.

Biofuels are controversial internationally because they push up food prices and increase deforestation. Depending on the crop source, the energy equation can be negative, as more energy is used to produce the fuel than it actually contains.

Government is pursuing a modest pro-biofuels policy, aiming for 2% of the market. Biofuels will be available as E8, meaning that the fuel will contain 8% ethanol.

So, pitching up at a service station and requesting your flex-fuel Uno be filled up with E85 (85% ethanol), as is the case in leading markets such as Brazil, might not get you very far.

The international ethanol price is about R5 a litre. Delivery adds 50c. There is no fuel levy of R1,21 a litre because government has scrapped this to boost biofuels. Assuming you can find someone to provide E85 for your Uno, you will save about R1 a litre compared with petrol.

Veggiemobile

There is really no need to get your biofuel from a fuel filling station. Many older model diesel cars, those without electronic fuel injection systems, can run happily on vegetable oil. You can trundle off to your Pick n Pay and stock up; but, at R16 a litre for sunflower oil, this will be a costly exercise.

There is a keen group of motorists worldwide who run their cars on used chip oil. They add methanol and sodium hydroxide to create bio-diesel, which can be used by many diesel engines without modification.

Alternatively, they install a second fuel tank to house the veggie oil and modify the fuel system to heat up the veggie oil before it goes into the engine. The cost is about R5 500, most of which is for the extra tank.

Veggie oil, once the solids are sieved out, is an excellent lubricant for a diesel engine, but is thicker than diesel, making the engine hard to start on cold mornings. So you use diesel to start the car and drive for a kilometre or so before switching to French fries.

At your destination you switch back to diesel and run the engine for a few minutes to clean out the veggie oil.

The oil costs nothing from your local fast food supplier or R2 a litre if you source from recyclers who sell the oil to add to everything from animal feedstock to paint.

The real issue is getting the oil. You might proudly show your buddy your veggiemobile only to have him convert his car and start competing in your used-oil market, jeopardising your supply.

Stephen Forder, an enthusiast in Cape Town, has been using bio-diesel, but now intends running the Mercedes he bought for R20 000 on used veggie oil.

Forder says a veggiemobile is “a hobbyist kind of thing” because sourcing the oil can be both messy and difficult. Recyclers have a lot of the stuff, but sell in bulk and have little interest in supplying individual users.

The car has the same emission profile as if it was using diesel only, but you can count the emissions used to produce the fuel as zero because you are recycling a waste product.

You have to be careful, Forder says, that no water, such as from frozen French fries, makes it into your tank.

From the accounts of the enthusiasts, veggiemobiles are low-cost and little-fuss green transport. The best thing, says Forder, is that “the car smells wonderful”.

The hybrid

A fuel-efficient car, the Toyota Prius, is available in the local market. This hybrid, which has both an electric and conventional motor, typically gives 30% greater fuel efficiency than comparable cars.

But, at R270 000, it is well-priced and at about five litres per 100km on the open road (four litres in the city), is relatively fuel-efficient, even though some cheaper, smaller cars match it in this department.

Plug-in hybrids

Electric motors operate at much higher levels of energy efficiency, about 90%, compared with the internal combustion engine, which typically achieves only about 25% efficiency. With the plug-in, you might choose to use only the electric motor and keep the petrol engine switched off.

The makers of hybrid cars have been criticised for not offering plug-ins as standard. Plug-in hybrids are particularly attractive where green power is available or where low night-time tariffs encourage the use of under-utilised infrastructure.

Big manufacturers, such as Toyota and General Motors, say they will soon make plug-in hybrids. In the meantime enthusiasts can buy a plug-in kit at about $10 000, meaning that you can make your own plug-in hybrid for about R350 000.

The electric vehicle

But if green-car enthusiasts get together and salivate about the future, it is not about cars running on natural gas, ethanol, cleaner fuels or used chip oil. They drool over the electric car because it offers far greater efficiency than its internal-combustion rivals.

To be accurate, they also drool over cars running on hydrogen fuel cells. There is even a string of re-filling stations up and running in at least one northern European country, but our government, motor and fuel industry looks Neanderthal by comparison, and it could be more than a while before such technology is available here.

You can sign up in the United States to buy the very sexy Tesla, with its Lotus good looks and Porsche performance but, at $100 000 and with production delays, you will need both time and money to get one.

At the other end of the scale you can buy India’s Reva, which is sold in the United Kingdom as the G-Wiz for about R45 000.

For some years Eskom ran a now-dormant programme which showed that EVs could be successfully used in Joburg for most commuting needs. I took a fancy to one of their converted cars, an Opel Corsa bakkie, which went like a bomb.

A company called e-motion is setting up shop in Joburg to make its own EVs and to import a rather funny-looking one from China. The company is part-time while it gets its investment ducks in a row, but already has the kit required for a conversion.

The quote, excluding the donor vehicle, is R97 000. This includes 25 lead-acid batteries with a projected lifespan of about five years. The design is for a range of 100km on a single charge and a top speed of 100km an hour. The quote excludes labour costs, as I would be the company’s guinea pig.

The motor, interestingly, is not the most expensive part of the quote. It is just R5 000, while the 25 batteries cost R35 000.

These batteries have to be replaced after five years, a big expense to be met. It is a safe bet, though, that the replacements will be cheaper, lighter and pack more punch.

I reckon the donor vehicle (as they are called) would cost about R50 000, after I had sold the engine which I would not need, so this green car would cost about R150 000.

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote. Read more from Kevin Davie

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