LIANE HANSEN, host:
Oil prices have been flirting with $100 a barrel and you're now spending more than $3 for a gallon of gasoline. No wonder business is booming for a fellow in Wichita, Kansas named Jonathan Goodwin. Goodwin converts SUVs to run on biodiesel fuel. The conversions cost a lot, but they're worth a lot. They double fuel efficiency, boost power and cut emissions. It makes you wonder why the big automakers can't do in Detroit what a high school dropout can do in Wichita.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN: On a side street in Wichita, Jonathan Goodwin, behind the wheel of the wheel of a 2007 Cadillac Escalade. The SUV has just come out of the car wash in the mid-day sun glistens off its black paint and chrome wheels. Goodwin swapped the Escalade's gas engine for one that burns biodiesel. He's added an ethanol fuel injection system and boosted the power of the SUV from 450 horsepower to more than a thousandth.
Mr. JONATHAN GOODWIN (Co-Founder, SAE Energy): The ironic thing is you can have a 1,000-horsepowered vehicle and you can get 25 miles a gallon.
BEAUBIEN: And it's fast. Goodwin demonstrates how quickly his eco-friendly SUV can do a zero to sixty, starting right now.
(Soundbite of car speeding off)
Mr. GOODWIN: Just use to accelerate car.
(Soundbite of car passing)
Mr. GOODWIN: You know, I just filled the 60 now - it's actually 70, so, you know, it's day time.
BEAUBIEN: Goodwin might not seem like an environmental visionary, but that's what he is. The 37-year-old is finding new ways to make big cars run cleaner and go farther on renewable fuels. In his store-front garage, Goodwin has an H1 Hummer that he's converted to run on what he calls on menu of fuels that can burn propane, natural gas, hydrogen, ethanol, diesel fuel. But primarily, he puts biodiesel into it.
Mr. GOODWIN: This vehicle is even equipped with a vegetable oil system. So worst-case scenario, if I wanted to, you know, go through McDonald's and get a happy meal, and go back and fill up on the grease(ph) and I can do that as well.
BEAUBIEN: The bulk of Goodwin's business is converting Hummers to run on bio or conventional diesel. He charges $25,000 for the conversion and does about four of them a month. Goodwin is a self-taught mechanic and tinkerer. He didn't even graduate from high school, but with his seven-day diesel conversion, he can do to an SUV what Detroit has been unable to do for years - boost its fuel efficiency dramatically.
Mr. GOODWIN: The technology to increase fuel economy hugely and to make a difference in emissions is simple.
BEAUBIEN: The diesel engines and turbo chargers he uses are stocked General Motors parts. Europe already uses diesels in passenger cars, many of which get 40 to 50 miles to the gallon. Detroit automakers say, however, that they'd face regulatory hurdles around emissions if they try to rule out diesels on a large scale. Goodwin, however, argues that these problems could be worked out. If the vehicles run on biodiesel, he says, emissions wouldn't be a problem at all.
Next to his flex-fuel H1 Hummer flex-fuel H1 Hummer, in Goodwin's garage, is a low-slung, somewhat beat-up looking 1960 Lincoln Continental. Goodwin plans to convert this two-and-a-half-ton Coupe from a gas hog into an environmentally friendly vehicle.
Mr. GOODWIN: My target is to achieve a 100 miles to the gallon, long range, of this vehicle.
BEAUBIEN: This is a project he's doing for the singer Neil Young. He's been developing a diesel electric hybrid to go into the Lincoln. One benefit in this car, he notes, is its original 30-gallon tank.
Mr. GOODWIN: We'll be able to fill this up and take it across country and, you know, turn around and start coming back before we have to stop via, you know, biodiesel. So…
BEAUBIEN: As fuel prices have gone up, Goodwin says interest in his business has sky-rocketed. He says he has more people wanting conversions than his four-man garage could ever accommodate.
Steve Howell, who runs a small renewable energy consulting firm just north of Kansas City, agrees that interest in biodiesel has never been higher.
Mr. STEVE HOWELL (President and Founder, MARC-IV: Technical Director, National Biodiesel Board): You know, we've been trying for years and years and years to develop renewable fuels, and fossil fuels had been so cheap that it just really hasn't taken hold.
Mr. GOODWIN: Howell, who also serves as the technical director for the National Biodiesel Board, says that's changing now. Between 2005 and 2006, the volume of biodiesel sales in the U.S. tripled and new plants that could provide biodiesel for Jonathan Goodwin's eco-friendly monster SUVs are being built at a record phase.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.