Out of Energy?

Artvoice | October 7, 2005
“Where the hell’s the improvement?!” Tony Fini, a retired Blasdell schoolteacher, is standing in his Mundy Street driveway, eyes wide and shoulders shrugged. His frustration is palpable as he compares the fuel efficiency of two cars for me—a 2000 Mercury Grand Marquis (“the same as a 2005,” he says, “they didn’t change ’em”) and a 1973 Pontiac GTO. The difference—21.5 mpg to 18.5 mpg, respectively—is only three miles per gallon. “You mean to tell me in thirty years,” he says, disbelieving, “that they really couldn’t have done better than three miles per gallon?”

Fini’s question is the same one that millions of Americans are asking themselves in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, whose destructive winds wiped out strategic oil refineries and raised the average price of gasoline to an all-time high across the country. Fini’s is more than just a passing interest in automotive fuel-efficiency, though. In fact, he’s spent the past 30 years hunched over the bulky machines in his garage—a vertical milling machine, a belt sander, a band saw, an arc welder, a MAG welder and a drill press—constructing cars that can achieve up to 100 miles per gallon of gasoline. Fini is convinced that one or more of his designs (he’s made eight vehicles, including a hybrid go-kart) could be the future of cheap, efficient automotive travel in the United States, but only if he gets a boost from the right people in the auto industry or government. But it seems like the only event that will prompt genuine interest in his fuel-sipping efforts is a serious change in the federal energy policy. Or, perhaps, a hurricane.


Fini has always tinkered with engines, an obsession that began when he was a child and built over 100 gasoline-powered model airplanes. In high school, his favorite subjects were math and industrial arts. He took industrial arts classes at Buff State, earning his BS in 1970 and a master’s by 1973. That year, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut off oil to the United States, sparking an energy crisis. Forty percent of the country’s consumer oil vanished in an instant, sending gas prices skyrocketing. While everyday motorists grew frustrated with long lines at filling stations and exorbitant prices at the pumps, Fini saw something else—the opportunity to make money. “The government said there was an energy crisis, so I answered the call.” Using inventive transmission designs (he has 10 patents) and lightweight chassis, Fini hatched several fuel-efficient vehicles that not only look good, but work well, too.

In the late morning sunshine, Fini shows me around his cars. The designs range widely, from a utilitarian jeep to a futuristic solar car to a curvy sports car. The jeep is styled roughly after a CJ-3B Army jeep, with an airy, open cab that closes with a detachable roof. Its 23-horsepower engine gets 60 mpg and can reach a top speed of 57 mph (a figure that can be increased at the price of some fuel efficiency). Despite its relatively weak engine, Fini insists that it can handle any weather, because he engineered it so that each tire receives an equal amount of the vehicle’s weight. In fact, he used it to commute to Frontier High School year-round for 15 years.

“Everybody likes this one,” Fini says next, his hand resting gingerly on his sleek red sports car, “it’s sort of a junior Corvette.” And that’s exactly what the “Auto Di Fini” calls to mind. Its 83-mpg fuel efficiency far outstrips the meatier Corvette, though. With a tiny 16-hp Kohler engine, the “Car of Fini” tops out around 57 mph. Like the Jeep, though, an upgraded engine could make it more appealing to everyday consumers. “With a 23-horsepower engine, this car could probably get 70 mpg and go 70 mph,” Fini says. It’s this 70-70 formula that Fini thinks could sell if it was put into production, but for now his cars sit in a shed collecting dust.

It’s not that he hasn’t tried to get financial help with his cars. In fact, he applied numerous times for grants through the Department of Energy, the Army and the Postal Service. But thirty years later, the only recognition Fini has received for his work are two $300 grants from NYSEG, and the admiration of Saturday mechanics. “I don’t see a penny from it, nothing,” he says.

Fini is fed up with the lack of support from the government and auto industry. All they know how to do, he says, is put stumbling blocks in the way of innovative individuals. “These people need a kick in the head,” he says. One example he cites is how he lost one of his patents. The US Patent Office requires exorbitant maintenance fees—$450 per patent after three and a half years, $1,150 after eight years and $1,900 after 11 and a half years—so inventors can hold onto their intellectual property. A few years ago, Fini missed a payment on one of his patents, because he was in the hospital recovering from a thyroid surgery. When he realized his error, he sent in the payment, but they refused it. “So now I’ve lost a perfectly good design for no reason other than a late payment.”

If he manages to find some financial support down the road, Fini would like to open a non-polluting automobile factory on the old Bethlehem Steel site that produces “a couple of lines of energy-efficient” Finis. While the economic benefit for Fini, himself, is obvious, he also points out that thousands of WNYers could be employed there and an attractive new low-cost, fuel-efficient vehicle would be available to American consumers. But he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “I quit, really,” he says, and then trails off, “I’ve spent enough time...”

Fini refers often to what he calls his “three enemies”: oil companies, automobile companies and the federal government. In his mind, they are enemies of innovation and of the enterprising individual, mostly because they profit from inefficient automobiles (especially the oil companies and politicians) while everyday consumers suffer. Tony’s inability to generate interest from the car companies is really a symptom of a much more deeply rooted, complicated problem: a lackluster energy policy geared toward short-term profit and, more importantly, long-term collapse.


America’s current energy policy is foolhardy at best. Nowhere is this more clear than in the transportation sector, which accounts for a full 65 percent of our energy consumption. We’ve been lagging behind our European counterparts in infrastructure and new, clean technologies for nearly 30 years, and Bush’s new $14.5 million energy policy indicates that we won’t be catching up anytime soon.

America is Big Car Land when compared to the rest of the world. The nation roared out of WW2, riding an economic boom. The federal government built a national interstate system and gave out housing loan guarantees, allowing people to leave the crowded inner cities for the new suburbia. The burgeoning middle class bought cars en masse and began commuting to work and going on road trips. As trips became longer, cars got bigger and more comfortable. They grew in importance and size across the board throughout the ’50s. However, a few hiccups—namely the environmental movement in the 1960s and temporary oil shortages in 1973 and 1979—put the brakes on behemoths.

The 1973 shortage, created by an OPEC embargo, ushered in an era of change for most industrialized nations. European car companies, with help from government agencies, began producing smaller vehicles and developing alternative fuels. America initially made some promising changes, creating the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, setting Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards on cars and trucks and passing 55 mph speed limits nationwide. Despite these actions, Asian car companies were finally able to get a foothold in the American marketplace. Toyota, Nissan and Honda produced small, reliable, efficient cars that Detroit coudn’t compete with. In the mid-1980s, however, oil prices collapsed and consumer myopia set in as Americans again asked for larger, safer, more powerful vehicles. Detroit had lost its hold over the small car market, so it was happy to accomodate the new demand for bigger vehicles by refocusing its efforts on high-margin trucks and SUVs. While the bigger, more powerful gas-hungry vehicles became the norm here, small, diesel-powered cars grew fashionable and affordable in Europe.

What most people don’t realize is that these sorts of changes don’t start with the automakers. European carmakers didn’t make smaller, fuel-efficient fleets because they were concerned about the environment. They did it because they were forced to. The governments changed their energy policies, including raising taxes on gasoline to reduce consumption. Europeans became conservation-minded, and decided they really couldn’t afford to fuel big vehicles. It’s as simple as that, and it’s sound energy policy, accepted by the rest of the world.

In Britain, for instance, where about two-thirds of gas prices are taxes, they’ve got it down to a formula—raising fuel prices by 10 percent reduces fuel consumption by seven percent, as consumers start using fuel more efficiently. Currently, Europeans pay an average of $6 per gallon for gasoline, and about $4 of that is government taxes. All that tax money is then reinvested in transportation infrastructure and alternative fuels research.

A love of big cars is not an intrinsic value for Americans. The British didn’t arrive here and try to trade in their horses for moose. The simple difference is that, unlike other countries, our government has given neither the auto industry nor consumers any reason to make cars smaller or more efficient. Detroit certainly isn’t going to change its tune without a government-induced change in the marketplace. Quite frankly, Detroit’s Big Three couldn’t afford to invest in new programs if they wanted to right now. They are rapidly losing ground in the only market in which they have any substantial hold: trucks and SUVs. That’s because foreign companies have jumped head-first into the SUV market in the past five years. Audi, Hyundai, BMW, Lexus and Nissan are among those companies currently offering SUVs (Toyota and Nissan are also doing well in the truck market). As a result, Detroit has been forced to offer unheard-of incentives to buyers (0% APR or $6,000 cash back, employee discounts to the public), rendering the once huge margins they made on these vehicles paper-thin.

Linda Hardie, director of Clean Communities of WNY, agrees that car companies aren’t entirely at fault for the gas-guzzling status of the American automobile fleet. She says that the Bush administration pulled the plug on companies that were previously working to develop alternative fuels. “In the 1990s, the auto industry started developing alternative fuel options using federal funds, because none of them knew which would capture the imagination of the marketplace,” she says. Some of these options included compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, electric vehicles and FFVs for ethanol users. “When George W.’s administration stepped in, it wanted to look at fuel cells that would be implemented 30 years out,” Hardie says. “As a result, they cut funding for technologies that they thought would be rendered obsolete as soon as fuel cells became available.” So American manufacturers simply stopped working on alternative fuels. According to Hardie, it’s hard to blame them. “Every time they want to make 100 of this or 500 of that, they’ve got to stop an entire line and re-tool it. They can’t build an entire plant until they’ve got a market for it.” And without government incentives, it doesn’t pay to stop a line.

However, the Big Three have shown that they are willing to be innovative if the market demands it. General Motors, a company known here for making some of the world’s biggest autos—Hummers, Chevy Suburbans and GMC Yukons—is making a splash in China by building a tiny minivan called the Wuling Sunshine (a joint venture with Chinese car companies S.A.I.C. and Liuzhou Wuling). The Sunshine, which averages 43 mpg city driving, sells for the equivalent of $5,000 USD. While it’s short on creature comforts, with seats only a third as thick as those in Western models, a quarter the horsepower of American mini-vans and a top speed of 81 mph, the Sunshine is a wildly popular model in China. That makes perfect sense in a country that has only recently become industrialized. Small business owners and relatively affluent peasants are forming a middle class there—one that has enough money to afford automobiles, but only inexpensive models. The other determining factors are strict government policy regarding fuel-economy regulations and taxes on gasoline. All these things have added up to the Wuling Sunshine vaulting GM to number one in the world’s fastest growing market. What could they do here with the right incentives?

But Bush’s new energy bill does little more than maintain the status quo. It casts our lot wholly with hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that won’t be readily available for at least 15 years, and it does almost nothing to promote alternative fuels in the meantime. Huge tax breaks are still available on Hummers, even as federal tax breaks have been reduced for those buying hybrids. The bill only suggests that CAFE standards (currently 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.5 mpg for light trucks and SUVs) be raised, something which hasn’t happened for 20 years! Meanwhile, the European Union recently committed to making its passenger cars get an average of 39 mpg by 2008. Even China, which hasn’t generally developed an environmental sensibility, is working on CAFE standards that are more strict than ours. On top of it all, the new energy bill gives $8.1 billion of its $14.5 billion in tax breaks to none other than the oil companies, whose profits are up nearly 50 percent already. I guess one hand washes the other, right?

David Garman, the U.S. Energy Department Under Secretary, summed it up pretty well in a recent interview with BusinessWeek: “We have not begun to turn the corner. We are utterly dependent on oil.”


On August 28, while Hurricane Katrina was whirling just off the Gulf Coast, very few Americans were thinking seriously about conserving gas. Sure, gas prices had been steadily rising for about three years, but we weren’t about to cancel our vacations because we had to pay a few extra bucks at the pump. But then the storm swept over the Gulf’s oil and gas refineries, halting their production and sending the average price of gas to over $3 per gallon.

Conservation was suddenly on the lips of every American. Commuters took public transportation and rode bicycles to work. And those who had neither option suffered economically. Prices rose on everything from produce to steel as the price of transporting goods climbed. In a single day, I overheard three separate people (one of whom owned a hot rod) say they were considering a hybrid for their next vehicle. Our only fuel source—gasoline—was priced out of our reach, and the vulnerability of our energy policy was laid bare practically overnight.

While the idea of a nation’s energy policy is abstract, it is easy to understand when you have to fork over an exta fifteen bucks everytime you fill your SUV. Katrina was a catalyst, of sorts, fast-forwarding us to a time when gasoline will no longer be a cost-effective energy source, showing us what happens when you don’t have alternatives built into your infrastructure.

All of the comparisons to the oil shortages of the ’70s revealed what environmentalists and inventors like Tony Fini have been screaming for years: Our energy policy hasn’t changed in 30 years, and we need to do more.

In short, Katrina served as a wake-up call to a country that badly needed one. It caused consumers to change some of their consumption habits, and to call for more fuel efficient vehicles. Unfortunately, though, as gas prices slide back down to around $2.80, people are already settling back into their routines. Katrina came close to forcing change, but it will be impossible without help from the government.



Fortunately, despite our government’s failure to earnestly promote alternative fuels, there are many people, both entrepreneurs and environmentalists, who are working locally to bring alternative fuels to your vehicles.

The current nationwide alternative fuel craze is biodiesel, a completely renewable fuel that can be made from a variety of sources, including soy, canola and plain old restaurant grease (that’s right, the stuff they make your fries in). It burns as efficiently as petroleum diesel, or petrodiesel, but much cleaner because of its higher oxygen content. And the best thing about it is that when it’s properly refined, it can be used in almost any diesel engine without any modifications.

While such grassroots efforts usually fail to take off, some local entrepreneurs are looking to establish a long-term market here in WNY.

People like Mark Kubiniec, owner of the Sunoco station at the corner of Elmwood and Amherst, and Tonawanda’s Noco Energy Corp. have long been working to create inroads for biodiesel. Kubiniec wants to add a biodiesel pump at his station, a $50-60,000 investment. He’s counting on a government grant to help cover the costs, though. “I’m looking to devise a way to afford it,” Kubiniec says, “it’s not going to be lucrative. It will probably be a break-even scenario, at least until it catches on.” And that’s the key, really. As Kubiniec says, “It’s a chicken and egg situation.” What he means is that lower prices are necessary to create a demand, but until there’s a market, prices are generally high. So which will come first, the demand or low prices?

Kubiniec says he has commitments from a number of small fleets, but “they’re not going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts.” In other words, it has to be priced competitively with petrodiesel.

Noco is encountering the same problem. The energy company has been importing biodiesel to WNY for three years and selling it to local fleets (Town of Tonawanda’s municipal truck fleet, regionally headquartered NYS vehicles). It costs about 20 cents more per gallon than petrodiesel, making it a hard sell for high-volume customers. In 2003, they ran a demonstration program with the NFTA, where the NFTA used 168,000 gallons of biodiesel to power 140 of its buses for six months. As soon as the grant money from NYSERDA ran out, though, the NFTA dropped the program. Noco also sells biodiesel to individuals, but it has to be purchased in expensive 55-gallon drums. So how can Buffalo establish a biodiesel market? Enter Tara Mancini and Linda Hardie.

Tara Mancini is the president of Blue Sky Optimum Energy, a young company that is in the process of building a biodiesel production facility here in Buffalo. Mancini claims that her company can manufacture biodiesel so efficiently as to make it competitive with petrodiesel.

A native of the Boston Hills area of Orchard Park, Mancini discovered biodiesel while working at Rich Products. One day three years ago, while listening to NPR’s “Science Friday,” Mancini heard a report about biodiesel. “They were saying all these wonderful things about biodiesel,” she says. “But they had one problem: they couldn’t get the cost down.” As it turns out, that’s what Mancini was doing for a living. Her job was to redesign processing lines (in Rich’s vegetable oil processing plant) to make them more cost effective. Mancini saw her opportunity to run a green business, and she jumped at it.

Mancini spent the first couple of years on R&D, finding the best ways to process different types of vegetable oil, and then built a pilot plant at the University of Texas. All the reseach had paid off, and Mancini says that her company can produce the “green” fuel for ten cents cheaper than petrodiesel. The new production facility will employ about 20 people over the next couple of years, and its doors should open by Jan. 1. The plant will have a capacity of about two million gallons per year, all of which have already been sold to a buyer. That buyer will sell the fuel across the state. But there will also be some sold locally, Mancini says. “I’ve been speaking to a couple of local gas stations that would like to put in biodiesel pumps.”

“The ultimate goal is to develop an alternative energy cluster of companies and universities working together to create a new economy and market for Buffalo,” Mancini says. Now we are onto something—a “green” economy for WNY. Another great feature of biodiesel is that soy, one of the main base products for biodiesel, can be and already is grown in WNY. The byproduct of turning soy into biodiesel is livestock feed. As Linda Hardie points out, “Now it’s a sustainable cycle.”

Linda Hardie’s Clean Communities of WNY grew out of the Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program. When funding was lost three years ago, she started it up as a non-profit organization. Now she obtains government grants to improve alternative fuel infrastructure and to educate local fleet managers about alternative fuels.

Hardie thinks that the ultimate solution to America’s energy dependence is a crazy quilt of alternative fuels. “There is no magic bullet. We must learn to niche, where appropriate, in whatever form of alternative fuel or energy resources make sense.” She thinks that New York will have to better develop compressed natural gas (CNG) and biodiesel, since we sit on top of a lot of natural gas and already grow soy. She also points out that, contrary to the national energy policy, our state has been progressive regarding alternative fuels. The Senate is currently reworking some incentives for biodiesel and ethanol that Pataki put into his latest budget. She thinks that we will see those incentives appear in legislation by early 2006. Also, the state has set up biodiesel pumps along the Thruway to fuel its own fleet and is currently studying the possibility of alternative fuel pumps at Thruway plazas.

A greener WNY does seem within reach. One can picture local famers growing soy that Tara Mancini will make into clean, affordable biodiesel. She will sell it to Noco and gas station owners like Mark Kubiniec, who, in turn, can pass the savings onto customers, both individuals and fleets. Linda Hardie will educate the scores of eager new biodiesel customers and WNY will be a bonafide, sustainable market for alternative energy. As far-fetched and distant as it all sounds, fuel alternatives like biodiesel might ultimately be the only route to long-term sustainability for WNY and the United States as a whole. If the Bush administration is any indicator, I’ll put my money on it.

And as for Tony Fini, if he can’t get the current incarnation of the “Auto Di Fini” off the ground, maybe he can start tinkering with diesel engines, instead.


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