Rybak rides in plug-in hybrid-electric style

The mayor’s converted Toyota Prius can drive up to 80 miles per gallon of gas.

by Devin Henry

When Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak decides to go for a drive, he makes sure it’s environmentally friendly.

In September, Rybak converted his city car, a gas-electric Toyota Prius Hybrid, to plug-in technology after he attended a summit discussing what he calls the “climate crisis.”

He can now drive the Prius 70 to 80 miles per gallon of gasoline, as opposed to the 40 mpg before the switch.

“I think it’s demonstrating there is technology available today to make a major dent in the climate crisis,” Rybak said.

Plug-in technology allows drivers to plug in their hybrids and charge the battery overnight, which Rybak now does.

“If you don’t plug it in, it works like a typical hybrid,” he said. “You drive down the road and the car alternates between gas and battery.”

The city used a Ford Crown Victoria as the mayor’s city car before Rybak’s term began in 2002, when he began driving a Prius.

“It became clear to me that the two big things we had to do were convert to plug-in hybrids and find a way to have them use electricity from non-coal sources,” he said.

To do this, the city of Minneapolis applied for a state grant to put solar panels on maintenance facilities around the city. The plug-in cars would then charge off the solar power.

“I become very frustrated with people saying we need to do years of research on all these issues,” Rybak said. “Research is great, but the technology is there right now.”

Rybak said he has talked with the University about finding ways to get it involved in the green movement.

Director of University of Minnesota Fleet Services Bill Roberts said the University’s car fleet is already taking on environmental issues.

Of the University’s 850 cars, 110 run on either hybrid technology or E-85, a fuel consisting of 85 percent ethanol. The University also owns a number of Toyota Prius hybrids.

“We’ve been very happy,” he said. “People seem to like them, and ask for them. They’ve been great.”

Not everyone agrees with the Mayor’s mission to “green the fleet.” Political science junior Doug Gardner said he thinks global warming is a good theory, but the government shouldn’t be spending money to take action against it.

“I think it has become more politicized and based more off ideology rather than fact,” he said, “which isn’t to say it’s not happening; I just don’t think there is enough evidence to say it’s destroying the planet.”

Gardner said the Mayor’s new car seems “foolish.”

“If he’s doing it just to say, ‘Hey, look, I’m environmentally friendly,’ then that’s wrong,” he said. “I don’t see the point other than trying to make some absurd statement.”

Rybak said the $10,000 price tag to convert a hybrid car to plug-in technology makes it unpractical to switch the rest of Minneapolis’ fleet right now, but said he hopes the price will go down.

“This is one example of how climate change is creating potentially great economic opportunity,” he said.

Marketing manager for University Parking and Transportation Services Mary Sienko said the University wants to update its campus shuttle bus fleet as early as next year to make it more environmentally friendly.

The Metropolitan Council, which runs the city’s Metro Transit, is looking to buy hybrid buses next year, Sienko said.

In the Council’s purchasing proposal, which will be presented Wednesday, the University is slated to receive one hybrid bus.

“We have to look at fulfilling (University) President (Bob) Bruininks’ sustainability initiatives, but we also have to be fiscally responsible,” Sienko said. “We have always tried to encourage folks to get out of their single car and use other modes of transportation.”

Rybak said he hopes others will follow his example.

“We need key businesses, especially automakers, to open their eyes and we need other political leaders to join me,” he said. “We just need to step up to the plate and get it done.”