Turn off your engine!

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As we read about yet another military experiment with biofuels, one associated with the Navy’s Pacific fleet, it seems as if waste is never going to be curbed. What has been termed a $12 million cocktail of biofuels has brought congressional scrutiny and the ire of at least some lawmakers who ignore the fact that this program was undertaken under the Bush administration.

Should the military pioneer the use of alternatives to conventional fuel? Should the Navy take the lead with its Great Green Fleet even though the cost is about $27 a gallon as compared with as little as $4 a gallon for regular fuel?

Instead of worrying about this national approach, we may consider another program just one state away from us that in fact has proved to save energy costs. The only thing they did was stop idling their engines! It’s that simple, and quite amazing in its effectiveness.

The Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah experimented with this novel idea in the past three years. This is the second-largest copper mine in the U.S., and the largest open-pit mine in the world. The experiment included 442 light and heavy trucks.

During a three-year period, 2,281,917 gallons were saved with a price tag of $7,148,637. So, even if you don’t care about emission reduction, how about saving more than $7 million without affecting your productivity?

Modern engines don’t require warming up as they did some 50 years ago for optimal functioning. When idling an engine, it burns fuel at lower temperature than when fully engaged, thereby not burning fuel in the same fashion and leaving some residue in the engine’s chamber. These residues build up and lower efficiency over time, requiring increased fuel consumption.

When idling, so claim maintenance workers at the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company, the engine requires maintenance work twice as often as otherwise. They routinely double odometer readings of their trucks and heavy equipment for warranty work, according to Sarah Martin, coordinator of the Southern Colorado Clean Cities Coalition in Colorado Springs (sarah@cleancitiescolorado.org). She’s spearheading an effort to educate large-fleet managers about the benefits of reducing idling.

The Department of Energy estimates 6.7 percent of all fuel used annually is wasted by idling — around 2.5 billion gallons. At $4 a gallon, we are talking about saving some $10 billion. Imagine if we taught drivers not to press the gas pedal too hard when accelerating?

There are difficult-to-implement solutions to our energy needs, such as less reliance on foreign imports. According to the Energy Information Administration, we imported about 11.4 million barrels per day of petroleum in 2011, about 45 percent of our usage. Any reduction would be a great relief for our national security.

Then there are difficult choices about how to extract the billions of gallons of oil and natural gas found on and off our shores. Should we stop fracking? Should we license Alaska drilling? How about drilling off the Gulf coast? These choices are complex because we must balance short-term needs with long-term costs to the environment.

Compared to these looming issues that experts continue to debate, and compared to Navy experiments, the “stop the idle” program seems like a simple, rational, financially brilliant and environmentally friendly solution. Why won’t everyone sign up?

We can start with our city and county governments, approach Utilities, and focus on every school district we fund through property taxes. Unfortunately these organizations don’t release their budgets with proper details — how much they spend on gas, how often they maintain their fleets and at what cost, and how often they replace their fleets and at what cost.

Have you ever seen two police cruisers whose officers chat for a long time while their engines idle? How often have we seen utility trucks idling while their drivers stand beside them? Let’s not focus on the drivers but on the vehicles, prolonging their lives, reducing our costs by millions — without reducing services!

Most economic models measure costs and benefits to discover the advisability of a proposal. This idea seems so simple and reasonable, it should have our support.

This reminds me of a relative who 20 years ago suggested we shut the water when brushing teeth or shaving, each one of us saving a gallon a day. In drought-ridden Colorado, this could mean some 5 million gallons daily. Dual-flush toilets would do wonders, too, for water conservation.

Just as we can contribute to water conservation at our sinks, so we can conserve energy by remembering “stop the idle,” saving billions along the way.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com.