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WVU program teaches about alternative-fuel cars


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A plain, white building in a business park off Bakers Ridge Road houses a key component in America’s transportation future.

This is the home of WVU’s National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) — the nation’s epicenter for training and promotional programs for alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles — electric, natural gas and hydrogen.

The building itself is unremarkable — outside it’s a white box. Inside are an administrative area, a few classrooms — one small and one large — a lab and a five-bay shop.

What goes on inside is what sets it apart.

NAFTC’s goal is to promote and foster energy independence through four areas of emphasis: Curriculum development, training courses and workshops, education outreach; and program management.

It was founded in 1992 as WVU worked with the natural gas industry to develop its program, but has since expanded to include other alternative-fuel transportation.

The NAFTC offers more than 25 courses and workshops, Assistant Director Judy Moore said. More than 30,000 technicians have taken 1,600 courses — people from the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Energy, NASA, Disney, city metro departments, public utilities and more.

More than 650,000 people have attended more than 1,500 workshops and awareness events.

What’s under the hood — and inside the trunk — of an electric car is far different from what’s inside a gasoline-powered one. Emergency responders take courses to learn how to rescue people from electric cars without harming themselves or the people they’re rescuing.

The training isn’t all done at NAFTC headquarters, Moore said. The consortium has 50 sites across the country: National training centers at community colleges and universities, and associate training centers at secondary schools and tech-ed schools that focus on auto tech students.

NAFTC also has a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop materials for its Clean Cities Coalition program.

Every even-numbered year since 2002, NAFTC has coordinated National Alternative Fuel Vehicle Day Odyssey. The 10-year anniversary 2012 Odyssey is set for Oct. 19.

Odyssey is aimed at the general public, Moore said, and offers ride-and-drives, vehicle displays, workshops, demonstrations, trivia contests, lab and garage tours, and more.

The 2002 Odyssey drew 17,000 people to 51 sites in 31 states. It has grown over the years — 2010 drew 230,000 people to 131 sites, including schools and higher education facilities, across the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s a pretty significant event and we do it all from right here,” Moore said.

This year’s goal is to attract 250,000 people to 150 sites. The kickoff event is set for Indianapolis; they may also go to Washington, D.C.

Although NAFTC operates under the WVU Research Corp., it isn’t devoted to research. Reflecting on Odyssey, Executive Director Al Ebron said, “Our primary focus is to truly educate the public about the vehicles.”

In one shop sits the consortium’s 2011 Chevy Volt, received last August through a federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program.

They use it for transportation and training.

The Volt is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. It travels about 35 miles on pure battery power, then switches to gasoline power — the engine acts as a generator to run the electric motor, giving a total range of about 375 miles.

Ebron liked it so much he bought one himself.

Asked about fuel usage, he said, “I will never have to put gas in it in Morgantown.”

Visible on the wall, just past the Volt, is a biodiesel vat to make biodiesel fuel. Biodiesel is a petroleum alternative made from fat or oil, and is generally blended with petroleum diesel. B-20, for instance, is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel.

Another bay holds a cutaway Toyota Prius — a regular hybrid that uses battery power at low speeds — that shows the car’s innards.

Among its uses, first responders learn how to approach one safely. They can scan barcodes on various components to learn about the car’s mechanisms.

Auto technicians learn how to diagnose problems on the Prius. There’s a “bug box” computer in the back. The teacher can flip a bug switch, and the trainees have to figure out what’s wrong.

On this spring day, several NAFTC staffers are gathered around the Prius, learning the ins and outs, so they can explain it to others at a Pittsburgh conference.

A working Prius sits outside — used, like the Volt, for transportation and training — along with two Chinese-made electric cars that are smaller, less comfortable, less powerful and with less driving range than their American and Japanese counterparts.