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green highway

The first pre-production Chevrolet Volt rolls off the line at the Detroit-Hamtramck manufacturing plant in Detroit March 31, 2010.HO

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is suggesting a new format for the stickers on windshields that describe a new car or truck's environmental performance. Following the KISS Principle - Keep It Simple Stupid - the agency proposes a letter grade to make it easy for customers to compare at a glance the comparable fuel economy of various vehicles.

It seems like a good idea to me, but the auto industry and large parts of the American media are having a fit about this sensible suggestion.

Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal calls the letter grades "obnoxious." It reported that "the proposal is unnecessary and degrading to consumers who already have the information they need." The president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers heaped scorn on the idea saying, "The proposed letter grade falls short because it is imbued with school-yard memories of passing and failing."

However, my favourite denunciation comes from blogger Peter De Lorenzo (AutoExtremist) who says the grade proposal is "the latest sign that The End is near."

De Lorenzo writes that "our government regulators plan on shaming us into buying a better grade of transportation - at least in their minds anyway - then we'd normally opt for. Because we are, after all, too stupid to figure it out for ourselves. Next thing you know, they'll be requiring the manufacturers to actually add the grade as a decal on the vehicle somewhere, which will be followed by decal grades on our garage doors - like scarlet letters for all the world to see."

You see, it's hard to offer a little encouragement to the Green Highway when the industry and media get on your case.

As well as new technologies, the Green Highway requires biofuels to make a cleaner world and a string of commercial-scale advanced biofuels plants is now being rolled out in North America. Last week, the Quebec-based company Enerkem started construction of an $80-million plant in Edmonton designed to convert 100,000 tonnes of household trash a year into ethanol.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Enerkem's gasification process that converts garbage into synthesis gas (mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen) which is then converted into ethanol. The Edmonton plant will have an annual production capacity of 36 million litres of ethanol and is claimed to be the world's first industrial-scale biofuels project to use municipal solid waste as feedstock. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel said, "As a result of this facility, we will become the first major city in North America to see 90 per cent of residential waste diverted from landfill by 2013."

The final price per litre of ethanol produced hasn't been announced but the economics of such a plant only work if it is paid a fee per tonne of garbage by the municipality comparable to what it would cost to landfill the trash. "Alberta is an energy province," said Premier Ed Stelmach. "This project is another example of how our government is helping develop leading-edge renewable and non-renewable energy technology."

The Texas-based biofuel company KiOR has received approval for a $75-million loan from Mississippi to build plants in that state to convert wood chips into a petroleum replacement.

KiOR is different from most biofuels companies in that it is making a petroleum replacement rather than ethanol. That means its product, named Re-Crude, can be shipped in pipelines and treated in existing refineries to make gasoline or diesel equivalents. The company creates the petroleum substitute from biomass using a proprietary catalyst in a "fluid catalytic cracking process."

KiOR plans to convert woodchips and agriculture residue. The process also yields gases that can be burned to make electricity to power the equipment. KiOR, a privately owned company with funding from Khosla Ventures, is pledging to invest $500-million of its own money to build its first three processing plants in timber areas of Mississippi.

Michael Vaughan is co-host with Jeremy Cato of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 2 p.m. on CTV.

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