"Moon Buggies" Quietly Cruise the Roads at Craters of the Moon

The new electric vehicles are certainly distinctive-looking. NPS photo.

At Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, adding a couple of electric vehicles to the fleet adds an interesting facet to the park's greening program. The tiny vehicles offer big advantages.

Shifting to sustainable systems that are less polluting and less wasteful of energy and matter resources is the focal concept of the National Park Service's "greening" strategy for our national parks. While it's a given that the shift to sustainability cannot be completed quickly, easily, or cheaply, there are huge economic, environmental, and cultural payoffs in the long run.

Evidence of greening, such as recycling programs and energy-efficient building design, can be seen throughout the National Park System. Since greening is a process, not an event, it is measured -- and celebrated -- incrementally.

At Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, which preserves vast areas of backcountry and wilderness in southwestern Idaho's Snake River Plain region, greening is proceeding across a broad front and taking many forms. For example, new water conservation practices and water lines installed in 2009 have cut annual water use in half, and a 50 KW photovoltaic solar array currently under construction is designed to supply almost a third of the park's electricity requirements while taking care of almost all space heating needs.

Because conventional motor vehicles pollute the air and consume nonrenewable fossil fuels, replacing them with clean-energy vehicles is an important goal for the greening program at Craters of the Moon. The park recently took a small but significant step in that direction with the acquisition of two passenger vehicles powered by electric motors instead of fuel-burning engines.

The park's electric vehicle of choice is the GEM e2. Sporting an MSRP that starts around $7,400, this little car (curb weight 1,140 pounds) carries two passengers on a bench seat and has a maximum payload of 710 pounds. Like other electrics, the GEM e2 is very quiet, and that is a major plus in a place where natural sound is so highly prized. It can also be considered a zero-emissions mode of transportation -- at least in the context of the park roads (see the Postscript).

The GEM e2's DC motor, which is powered by six standard 12-volt flooded electrolyte batteries, has a continuous 5 horsepower rating that can be boosted to a 12 horsepower peak for acceleration and hill climbing. The vehicle's top speed of 25 miles per hour coincidentally matches the speed limit on the park roads.

The GEM e2 can go up to 35 miles on a single charge. Its on-board 72-volt DC charger plugs into a standard 110-volt AC 15-amp outlet.

The two new vehicles began plying the park roads In October 2010. Interpreters use one of them to present interpretive programs at sites on the tour road. Visitor use assistants with the fee program use the other one to access the entrance station and campground.

Employees have dubbed the odd-looking cars "moon buggies." Regardless of what they may be called, they have been well received and will be carefully evaluated.

For further information about the "moon buggies" and other green initiatives at Craters of the Moon, contact the park's Chief of Resources Management John Apel, at (208) 527-1350.

Postscript: Critics of electric vehicles insist that their users should acknowledge the trade-offs involved in operating them. For all the good things that may be said about "zero emission" or "clean energy" vehicles like the GEM e2, it remains that they are most emphatically not a zero-pollution transportation choice where the environment at large is concerned. Pollution arising from the production and transmission of the required electricity -- not to mention the production (and ultimate disposal) of the car and its batteries -- has to be factored in to establish whether there is actually a net reduction in environmental pollution.

Comments

As the park has a total of seven miles of roads in one loop, the range issues of electric cars are of no real concern here. No, serious: Parks with only little roads are perfect for the introduction of zero-emission vehicles. Thanks to CRMO for the decision.

A park with a lengthy road system could also use electric vehicles effectively by having a large enough fleet and an array of properly-spaced recharge stations. Think "Pony Express." If you can turn in one tired horse and gallop off on a fresh one, you can do essentially the same thing with electric cars.