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Conference focuses on sustainability

September 16, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Six students from Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., sat in a circle with Bob Swaim Friday afternoon discussing the operation of a ConferenceBike as they pedaled it around a Wilson College parking lot.

"It's a piece of art. It's a piece of engineering," Swaim said of the cycle for seven. Its practicality can be argued, but the design's attention-grabbing quality is beyond doubt.

Swaim, of Coopersburg, Pa., brought examples from his collection of 200 unusual people-powered vehicles to Wilson for the second biennial Richard Alsina Fulton Conference on Sustainability, the theme of which is "Life After Cheap Oil: Sustainable Solutions to Global Crises."

Parked a few yards away was a General Motors flex fuel van, one of three alternative-fuel vehicles the automaker brought to the two-day event. Brad Beauchamp of GM said a hydrogen cell-powered vehicle and a hybrid electric also were demonstrated.

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Fred Burgess of Lancaster, Pa., was converting a 1986 Volkswagen Jetta nearby to run on diesel and waste vegetable oil. His kits, which include a heated fuel tank, fuel line and filter, and a fuel selector valve, sell for $565.

The vegetable oil must be heated to 170 degrees to achieve the same viscosity as diesel oil, Burgess said.

Whether the fuel is E85 - a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, hydrogen or biodiesel - the big question for consumers is availability. Beauchamp said there is just one hydrogen fueling station on the East Coast, in Washington, D.C.

E85 also is hard to get, but GM, in partnership with Sheetz, recently opened a few pumps in the Pittsburgh area, and a few others are scattered across Pennsylvania, Beauchamp said.

Jerry Clever, who brought a trailer with tanks of both E85 and biodiesel to the conference, said many area motorists already fill their tanks with E10, which is 10 percent ethanol.

"You find an independent restaurant, a mom-and-pop operation," Burgess said of how biodiesel drivers get fuel. Those businesses otherwise would pay someone to take the oil away, he said.

"I have a Chinese restaurant I go to," Burgess said.

Creating the infrastructure to fuel these vehicles "is going to depend on economic and political forces," Clever said.

Despite falling gasoline prices in recent weeks, the conference was sold out, with more than 350 people attending, Wilson College spokeswoman Cathy Mentzer said. The conference, which concludes today, also featured speakers and demonstrations on solar power, energy-saving home designs and alternatives to fossil fuels.

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