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Sunday, April 27, 2008

My Toyota Prius Test Drive Experience

The other day I got to test drive a 2008 Toyota Prius at the Block Party for the Planet celebration in Mt Lebanon. I will say that I was impressed with a number of things that the Prius had to offer, including a surprisingly peppy acceleration, a neat display terminal, and a decent amount of storage space.

The following is my honest, objective review of my experience with the Prius:

  • Good acceleration, but it comes at a cost. When I had to pass a car or accelerate up a hill it was much easier and the car was more responsive than any 4 cylinder car I have driven in the past. I did notice that anytime you accelerate your MPG goes down to zero. Ouch. The goal is to get from point A to point B though, and the Prius gets the job done in terms of getting you to your destination safely without burning too much fossil fuel. I wouldn't expect to race a Porche while driving a Prius but I would expect to grin as his 0 to 60 in 4 seconds gets gives him an average fuel efficiency of 12 MPG while I am getting closer to 40. Holla!
  • Leg room - I am 6'3" and found the driver's leg room was barely enough. The drivers seat had plenty of room to slide back further but it was limited by the mechanism that keeps the seat in place. I could see long road trips being painful for tall folks driving the current Prius model. An extra inch would go a long way here.
  • Storage Space was plentiful. I often tell people that my wife and I had to drive SUVs because our two dogs were 175lb English Mastiffs. One has since passed away, and we downsized recently, so I think we could get away with hauling our dogs in the Prius. The back seats would have to be folded down but with exception to the height I think the overall space is very close to the small SUV that I am currently driving. Of course, we do not have kids, so a family of four may find the Prius a bit too small to be the family vehicle. My suggestion to them is to look into the new Saturn Vue two mode hybrid.

  • Fuel efficiency was a let down. Maybe it's because I was driving in the burbs, but I couldn't see how the Prius could get me stellar fuel efficiency unless you drive it primarily in congestion during commutes to and from downtown. After driving for slightly more than 6 miles around the South Hills, my final MPG was 37. That is great compared to what I get now, but I could purchase a gas powered VW Gulf that gets about the same fuel efficiency.
  • The price was a little steep. The base price of the Prius was around $23,000. After accounting for options the retail price was around $28,000. The car was equipped with a $5,000 package that included DVD navigation and a camera that shows you what is behind you when you are driving in reverse. These are extras that some people do not mind paying for but I'm trying to keep my monthly payments low. I'll take the free map and rear view mirror for $0, thank you very much.
  • The performance display was neat. I was able to see if the battery or the engine was running the car - and also able to see how the power from my acceleration or braking was recharging the battery. I was also able to watch how my MPG changed, both overall MPG and current MPG, which allowed me to change my driving style to obtain better fuel efficiency. Of course, the downside to this is that driving becomes a game. It's kind of neat in a way - I made sure to coast down hills and on straight aways in order to boost my MPG, but I could see this becoming a big distraction from actually driving safely. I thought that it was mainly because it was my first time driving a Prius and my lack of attention to the road was due to the novelty of it all, but when I returned I talked to a current Prius owner who explained to me how neat it was to drive the car a certain way to maximize fuel efficiency. It sounded like he was explaining a video game experience. Yikes.

    Final Verdict - I will wait for the 2009 Prius. As I said in previous posts here at Green is Good, driving a Prius is not enough. I would prefer to have a plug-in hybrid or a car that runs on fossil free fuel like vegetable oil, so if I am going to go the hybrid route I want a car that will truly make a difference. In other words, I want to use as little gasoline as possible in my next vehicle. 40 mpg is not the game changer that people make it out to be, but the next generation Prius could be a step in that direction. The rumor is that the 2009 model would have a huge increase in fuel efficiency (rumors have city MPG at 80), and I think that is easy to achieve considering that the '08 Prius weighs close to 3,000lbs. By using lighter materials and enhancing the battery technology, 80 mpg should be a cinch. My lease expires at the end of this year and I am going on record to state that my next car will be either a hybrid or a diesel that I will convert to run off of vegetable oil.

The 2009 Toyota Prius:

Friday, April 25, 2008

Further evidence that Pittsburgh region is becoming a player in biofuels industry

Earlier today Governor Ed Rendell announced the development of an ethanol plant in Westmoreland County that will produce ethanol fuel from a number of non-food sources such as municipal waste. Coskata, a company that is a partner with GM, says that it will produce a pilot plant that will be capable of producing 40,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, with the goal of producing 40 million to 400 million gallons once the plant is fully scaled. Some benefits of Coskata's technology and this demonstration plant include the following:

1. Coskata's patented process can produce ethanol $1 cheaper per gallon than corn based ethanol
2. Coskata's process yields 100 gallons of fuel from 1 ton of feedstock (waste, biomass, switchgrass, etc) compared to 67 gallons from a ton of corn
3. The E85 blended fuel produced by the plant will result in an 84% reduction in CO2 emissions when compared to conventional gasoline fuel
4. The demonstration plant will employ 20 workers while a full scale plant would employ 100 to 150 workers

So what has to happen next? GM is going to leverage their partnership with Coskata to use this fuel to expand their flex fuel vehicle line. For Southwestern PA to capitalize on the emergence of biofuels startups in this region we must start looking towards investing in an infrastructure that will allow us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil. I am in favor of going 100% fossil free with our automobiles but 85% would be a step in the right direction.

The Governor's energy independence strategy calls for 1 billion gallons of biofuels to be produced and consumed within the commonwealth by the year 2017. This is great, especially if we don't have to use corn or other food crops to get to that magic number. It is good to see the Governor is back to work after the last month and a half of seeing him on all the news shows and campaign events for Senator Clinton. If Senator Clinton ends up being elected President I could see Rendell's hard work rewarded with the post of Energy Secretary.

A Block Party for the Planet - Earth Day Celebration in Mt Lebanon this Saturday

Are you interested in learning more about recycling? How about Green Building? Ever want to test driving a Toyota Prius? If you answered yes to any of these questions you should try to attend "A Block Party for the Planet" tomorrow in Mt Lebanon. Details are below and you can find more on the event website.

Are you an “earth” mover or shaker? Do you care about what happens to the planet you live on? Do you want to know how you can make a difference? Then join us for the first annual Earth Day Celebration in Mt. Lebanon!

This event will take place on Saturday, April 26th 2008 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills, better known as Sunnyhill between the hours of 10 – 5. The atmosphere will be akin to a block party to honor the Earth; a chance for Mount Lebanon residents and their guests to learn, experience, and celebrate with us. There will be healthy snacks, entertainment, and “green” art to make and enjoy. Attendees will learn how to support local farms, become familiar with Mount Lebanon’s numerous parks and recycling efforts, learn about environmentally safe and energy efficient living, and just have fun.

List of events and exhibitors:
  • Tree Raffle (one gallon native shrubs and trees) Tickets $1.00 each on the day of the event
  • Oxygen Bar
  • Rain Barrels
  • Vegetarian Cafe
  • Vermicomposting
  • Earth-Friendly Vendors
  • Environmental Speakers
  • Toyota Prius Test Drives
  • Solar Panel Demonstrations
  • Earth Friendly Organizations
  • High School Green Building Projects
  • Green Art
  • Sun Prints
  • Earth Cinema
  • Recycled Crafts
  • Nature Photography
  • Pine Cone Bird Treats
  • Recycled Doggie Coats
  • Recycleapolooza Can Toss
  • Rusted Threads Tie-Dying
  • Poetry Readings & Workshop

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Green is the way to economic growth here in Pittsburgh

Over at technology + politics I posted about today's post-gazette column by CMU's Harold Miller titled "Regional Insights: What can keep people from leaving Pittsburgh?" Mr. Miller's post wasn't really about people leaving Pittsburgh - it was more about how to attract the types of people from other regions and countries who will make Pittsburgh's economy more diverse, attractive, and dynamic than the one we have today. In my response over at t + p I proposed five initiatives that we need here to solve this conundrum. Several of them involve making Pittsburgh a leader in the green economy and showcase for world class transit oriented development. Here are my remarks from t + p:

One thing we have not heard are some specifics how to address these challenges. Credit is due to Mr. Miller for pointing out a study released by the American Assembly last fall titled "Retooling for Growth" and for discussing the need to make our region more entrepreneur friendly. Also worth checking out is the Brooking report titled "Restoring Prosperity: The State Role in Revitalizing America's Older Industrial Cities." These reports are well written and I recommend reading them, however, not all challenges faced by the regions covered in these reports can be solved by a one size fits all strategy.

So what should we do for Pittsburgh? Well, first, we need someone at the helm of local government who realizes that economic development and growth in startups could be a "rising tide to lift all boats." We missed out when the citizens of Pittsburgh voted against their economic interest by electing boy blunder Luke Ravenstahl as mayor over local entrepreneur and public policy professor Mark DeSantis this past November. Additional ideas, in no particular order, include the following:

  1. Aggressively expand our light rail throughout Allegheny County with the goal of attracting Transit Oriented Development
  2. Make up for the risk averse venture capital community by creating more entrepreneurial support programs and competitions like Tech Stars and the Pittsburgh Tech Council's EnterPrize competition.
  3. Create zones or districts where people will shop, dine, work, and live. The key will be placing these districts near public transportation and areas that have parking.
  4. Decide on which segment of the green economy to focus on as a region. Right now it looks like the Pittsburgh region is building a strong concentration of biofuels companies (Steel City biofuels, United Oil, GTECH, Thar, Fossil Free Fuels, CCI).
  5. Our local leaders, officials, and celebrities need to step up to address the lack of diversity issue as well as the racism and xenophobia that exists throughout our region. As Senator Barack Obama demonstrated, an honest and real dialog about this complicated and controversial issue can be achieved - but not without the critics over analyzing the remarks and turning the debate into an issue of the speech itself instead of the actual problem.
Here are some more details on these initiatives:

1. Extend commuter rail lines throughout the region to spur Transit Oriented Development. If planned properly, new rail and additional light rail lines like the one we have here in the South Hills could lead to revitalization of business districts and the development of new employment centers. Here in Mt Lebanon, where I was recently appointed to the Economic Development Council, we are working to create a world class transit oriented development zone that should serve as the blueprint for not only the rest of Allegheny County but other struggling rest belt cities. Cleveland is well ahead of Pittsburgh in this regard and seems to have turned the corner on leveraging Transit oriented development.

2. Make more capital available to new entrepreneurs through the fostering of a risk taking culture. This past week I participated in the first phase of the Pittsburgh Technology Council's EnterPrize competition. EnterPrize has been around for a while and has a whole list of past winners who have achieved success following their participation in the competition. As someone who has worked for startups in the past and is currently a founder in a new startup here in Pittsburgh, it seems that securing investment in this town is much more difficult than others. One solution is having more competitions like EnterPrize in Pittsburgh, but I think the root of the problem is the risk averse culture that is present in not just the general population but also the investment community.

The best way to get around this is to make sure that we don't let our Google's move away to regions like DC (Clearspring Technologies) or the west coast. It is sort of a chicken and egg problem. VCs like their investments to be close to them, so when investors here in Pittsburgh are reluctant to give up the cash, someone else on the east or west coast is. If we can convince more startups to stay home or come here from other regions then we will eventually have more Freemarkets and Fore Systems in Pittsburgh, which will give us more Glen Meachems types, entrepreneurs who make Pittsburgh their permanent home while putting their new wealth to use through angel investments in the next potential

So how do we deal with this problem effectively? We have a lot of vacant office space around town. Why not turn some of these spaces into shared work spaces for startups? Innovation Works has already initiated their new AlphaLabs program which, along with a $25k investment, will offer 6 months of consultation, mentoring, and office space for soon to be announced startups in the Pittsburgh region. We have applied to this program and I hope to report on it's effectiveness if we are accepted and choose to participate.

3. Create more places where people can live, work, play, AND get around. In conjunction to #1 above, green houses and town homes near public transportation, parks, bike trails, or the workplace is the key to creating that entrepreneurial culture and buzz that attracts the types who are going to move to Pittsburgh. We need something besides strip malls and lifestyle center developments. New green or even LEED certified offices close to new urban housing developments and mass transit, like the TRID project in Mt Lebanon, will attract folks from outside the region who are looking for something new and cutting edge.

4. Focus on a niche in the green energy economy and then run with it. Pittsburgh is becoming a haven for biofuels companies. Here is a list of the companies that are here:

Steel City Biofuels
United Oil
GTECH Strategies
Thar Technologies
Fossil Free Fuels

It is great that we are building a concentration of biofuels companies in Pittsburgh. The key question is this though - what is our local government doing to assist these businesses and utilize their existence? Another thing we talked about on the DeSantis campaign policy team was a commitment on the behalf of city government to collaborate with private technology startups in an effort to both reduce the costs of government while simultaneously stimulating economic growth and job creation. GTECH Strategies has been doing work with the local government on cleaning up brown field sites and rehabilitating blighted urban neighborhoods, but more has to be done with regards to taking advantage of our concentration of biofuel companies. In my mind, this is a perfect opportunity for Pittsburgh to become a model for the rest of the world through the creation of infrastructure that will allow all of the dirty fuel burning diesel trucks and buses in our region to burn cleaner and cheaper fuels produced and refined right here in our own backyard. Now that is sustainability everyone could appreciate.

5. So last but not least, what can we do to attract more international immigrants? Our universities already attract a large number of international students but the problem is keeping more of them here. Why are they leaving? Part of the problem has been mentioned above - they are going to places where there are more startups and good paying jobs, but I believe the core problem is the racism and xenophobia that makes parts of Pittsburgh seem like you are back in 1960 rather than the 21st century. There is indeed racism here in Pittsburgh, and its not just among whites and blacks. The further you travel from the city's east end the less welcoming the residents are of foreigners.

A typical example of what I am talking about here is when a Spanish firm bought local amusement park and icon Kennywood last year. The xenophobia that came out in the post-gazette comments was ridiculous. I thought I was reading comments from 1907 rather than 2007. Our local leaders and celebrities need to step up here. It is fine to highlight the mayor's hiring of minorities but until our leaders address the issue and give foreigners a seat at the table, the majority of citizens of this region will continue to be closed minded One of the few bright spots in the region was the election of D. Raja, or "RAJA", as one of Mt Lebanon's five commissioners this past fall. In an area that has as little diversity as Mt Lebanon (one person on Blog Lebo bothered to ask "whats the big deal about diversity?") this was a promising development.

Also, instead of ignoring areas where the influx of foreign immigrants are moving to in our region, like my old neighborhood of Beechview, we need to embrace these trends and capitalize off of the influx of new citizens. Beechview looks like many of Pittsburgh's other eighty something neighborhoods on the outside but in it's core is a unique neighborhood with a growing concentration of Mexican immigrants. The city and county need to invest in these neighborhoods by, for example, making them centers for international culture through encouraging and incentivizing foreign born business owners to locate there.

There is more to come but I hope you will leave your thoughts as this has to be a collective and collaborative effort from all of us, the bloggers, entrepreneurs, academics, and those in government.

Friday, April 11, 2008

More Inconvenient Truths from Al Gore at TED

"In order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the democracy crisis"

In Al Gore's brand-new slideshow (premiering exclusively on TED.com), he presents evidence that the pace of climate change may be even worse than scientists were recently predicting, and challenges us to act with a sense of "generational mission" -- the kind of feeling that brought forth the civil rights movement -- to set it right. Gore's stirring presentation is followed by a brief Q&A in which he is asked for his verdict on the current political candidates' climate policies and on what role he himself might play in future