Would you buy a Chevy Impala that can run on food scraps, sewage or beer?
This is no fantasy. It’s a real car: the 2015 Bi-fuel Impala, announced Oct. 20. You can buy it later this year for $38,210.
These days 57 percent of Chevrolet Impalas go into rental fleets and it’s the most popular car on those lots. It’s not known as a green car, but this new model is a good place to start — if it actually runs on renewable fuel, that is. Most of today’s millions of “flex-fuel” cars can run on E85 ethanol, but seldom actually do because there are not a lot of stations around. You may have one and not even know it. Is your GM car’s gas cap yellow? Bingo.
"Gassing up" the bi-fuel Impala. The infrastructure is limited. (Photo: GM)
The new Impala doesn’t run on the 13 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol we produced last year. It’s a “biogas” car. You can make biogas from methane by breaking down almost any kind of organic material, including the aforementioned food waste. The resulting fuel is very similar to compressed natural gas (CNG), which the Impala can run on, too.
Celebrating the opening of a new CNG station down south. (Photo: Piedmont Natural Gas)
A Cleveland company called Quasar Energy Group is busily producing biogas (as any number of European outfits and American “cow power” dairies do) from waste, including the food leftovers from Progressive Field (home of the Cleveland Indians). It’s a fairly cheap fuel, says Quasar president Mel Kurtz, and can sell for as little as the equivalent of $1.95 a gallon.
Other biogas sources for Quasar are Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Columbus (waste grain) and sewage from the city of Columbus’ Department of Public Utilities. Progressive Field’s biogas work is part of an aggressive waste-reduction effort. It produced 1,261 tons of waste in 2007, and that was down to 923 as early as 2008.
GM doesn’t have a formal relationship with Quasar, which runs its own fleet (half GM-made) on biogas.
A few caveats: Most states don’t have a biogas infrastructure as robust as Ohio’s, though America’s sports teams are greening rapidly and attempting to go zero waste. Turning all those scraps into renewable fuel makes a lot of sense. There are only 767 public stations selling CNG. Find one near you here.
Chevy's bi-fuel Impala complements the only other production car, the 2014 Honda Civic Natural Gas. (Photo: Honda)
The energy content of methane/biogas isn’t as high as gasoline, and the tank on the Impala holds the equivalent of 7.8 gallons, yielding an electric car-like range of 150 miles on the fuel. But remember it’s a bifuel car, so you can just seamlessly switch to gasoline and get 500 miles combined.
Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst at Navigant Research, says the bi-fuel Chevy is "largely window dressing at this point." But it can grow. He points out that fleet operators (who already love the Impala) could easily run large numbers of bi-fuel vehicles with their own CNG pumping stations. He added that BMW captures biogas from a nearby landfill and burns it at the factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Volkswagen looked into a similar relationship in Chattanooga, but ultimately went with solar because the landfill was too far away. For municipal fleets, "this could actually be a very viable solution that also reduces their own methane emissions," he said.
This is a regular factory-built Chevrolet, not a conversion, so it has all the regular warranties. Ford and GM offer a variety of converted trucks, but until now the Honda Natural Gas was the only choice for a showroom-ready car.
GM admits the Bi-fuel car is likely to be less than one percent of Impala sales, but the new green car will be available nationwide. It’s practical wherever biogas or CNG is sold.
Here's a closer look at the bi-fuel Impala on video:
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