April 11, 2012

Erin student promotes benefits of plug-in cars

As published in The Erin Advocate

Kyle Pinto is part of a green wave of university graduates, trained to help businesses and consumers who want to make energy conservation a way of life.

He is on the University of Waterloo team for "EcoCAR 2: Plugging In to the Future" a three-year student competition focusing on electric vehicle technology. Teams from 15 universities across North America will strive to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles by lowering emissions and consumption of fuel (especially petroleum) – without compromising performance, safety and consumer acceptability.

Electric vehicles are on the market, but improvements are needed for large-scale penetration – from reducing battery weight and charging time, to designing practical back-up power and persuading people to charge up their cars like they charge up their cell phones.

"The public should give it a chance – it's about changing your habits," said Pinto. The three-year competition is in its first year, with modeling and simulation work, but Pinto is contributing as he is about to graduate in May with a Bachelor of Environmental Studies.

His work with the EcoCAR team is in the Outreach Program, raising awareness about the benefits of advanced vehicle technologies and how they reduce the impact of transportation on our environment and economy.

(Celebrity scientist David Suzuki dropped by to learn about the EcoCAR 2 project, at the EcoBuzz Conference at David Suzuki High School in Brampton last November. Hosting the display are Mark Goody, Director of Outreach with the Alternative Fuels Team at the University of Waterloo, and student Kyle Pinto at right.)

Of course, just driving an electric car will not save the environment. It is part of a huge puzzle that will include new technologies, a pervasive conservation attitude and a shift in consumer expectations.

"If you talk to most people, they are concerned about the environment," said Pinto. "But that doesn't always translate into purchasing habits. We're working to make it acceptable to consumers. We're judged on the utility of it."

While attending Erin District High School, Pinto participated in environment-related club activities. He chose Waterloo because it allowed him to combine interests in Environment and Business, which he has been doing for five years now, including co-op placements.

"Being young and idealistic, you think you can change things, but then you see what happens in the real world," he said. A career in environmental consulting is his goal, helping businesses reduce emissions and the carbon footprint of their buildings and operations.

Waterloo and the University of Victoria are the only two Canadian schools in the EcoCAR 2 competition. It is sponsored by the US Department of Energy (which has sponsored vehicle technology competitions for 23 years), GM (which provides a Chevy Malibu for each team to use), Natural Resources Canada and corporations such as Snap-on, Magna, Bosch and Siemens.

For the time being, hybrids come with a relatively high price tag, offset somewhat by government financial incentives. Surveys show that people who buy them were likely to have chosen a relatively expensive vehicle anyway, said Pinto.

Plug-in hybrids require a second fuel to kick in when battery power runs low, extending the usable range of the vehicles. This could be hydrogen, biodiesel, or the one chosen by the Waterloo team – ethanol.

"More infrastructure is needed to buy ethanol conveniently, but you just need a regular socket for battery charging," said Pinto.

There are issues with ethanol, since it uses crops as an energy source and takes considerable energy to produce. Still, it is considered a useful secondary fuel in some of the combinations being tried in new car designs.

The Volvo C30, for example, has a 272 kg battery pack, but to maximize that power source, especially in cold weather, the car heater is powered by ethanol. A 15-litre tank of ethanol could heat the vehicle during regular use for about three weeks.