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Built for green, not for speed 

Local transportation options are expanding

With gas at a premium, conventional wisdom says more drivers are concerned about fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly ways of getting around.

Sales of the Toyota Prius are on a four- to five-month backlog, and Vespa of Charlotte scooter sales are up.

Mom-and-pop businesses devoted to green transportation are also reaping the benefits of higher gas prices. "Every time they go up, people start calling, because they want more information," said Paula Moore, co-owner of Ampmobile Conversions, a Lake Wylie business that converts gas-powered cars to electric-powered ones.

Still, Mark Englander, owner of Charlotte Energy Solutions (and 2007 Creative Loafing Local Hero), said he hasn't seen the uptick one might expect. "People have got to get used to a new way of thinking about traveling, about commuting," Englander said.

In addition to cost-saving strategies like hypermiling, options for fuel-efficient transport are expanding.

CharlotteTowne Motor Bikes, which opened about two weeks ago at 1016 Charlottetown Avenue, puts engines on bicycles that allow them to go between 30 and 35 miles per hour. The engines are gas powered, but they get about 100 miles per gallon, said John Alsop, an owner. Most customers, so far, are looking for a cheaper way to get around locally,

Gas-powered bicycles have been around since the early 1900s, but that's a surprise to many customers. "Most of the time people are amazed," Alsop said. "They didn't realize things like this were available."

Moore and her husband, Mike, have been converting cars to battery power for more than two years. He's already devoted full time to the business; she hopes to be soon.

Moore said many people think they need a car that can run 100 miles on a charge, though federal statistics indicate most people drive fewer than 40 miles a day, which most battery powered cars can easily provide.

The standard cost to convert to electric power, not including the cost of the car itself, starts at about $16,000. She expects prices to decline -- or at least hold steady -- as more people want electric cars. "Right now, the prices have risen a little bit because of the demand for the components, but as supply increases, the manufacturers are starting to produce more," she said.

Englander plans to sell battery packs for the Toyota Prius that allows the hybrid car to get 100 miles per gallon. Englander has one already; last week it was being outfitted for use. The battery packs cost start at about $5,000.

At the cheaper end of the spectrum, Englander has a 1981 Mercedes for sale at $1,500 that can be converted so it runs on cooking oil -- a fuel method that earned Englander attention. Like the Mercedes, any diesel car can be converted or between $600 and $6,000. Mercedes models 1981 to 1989 are the cheapest to convert.

He also has Segways, electric motor scooters, and bicycles that fold for easy carry when, say, on Lynx or riding the city bus. And he expects to soon have electric motors that fit on bicycles. Englander's customers can't be pigeonholed; a recent customer was, in fact, an IRS employee. "Half the people who come into this store are here for green and ecology reasons," he said. "The other half [come] for monetary reasons."

Metrolina Biofuels, a cooperative group of people who make the alterative fuel, are providing the product to musicians who come through Charlotte on tour, including Maroon 5 and John Mayer. "That's important to their tour, and they advertise it on their vehicles," said Englander, a co-op board member.

The co-op last will soon open a fueling station at 3100 Miranda Road. "It's a totally off-the-grid station with solar panels to power the pump," Englander said.

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