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Know the West

Changing the world, one car at a time


NAME Greg Rock

VOCATION Inventor, owner and co-founder of the Green Car Company


HE SAYS "If we go the green route, I think the world will follow us. If we don't, hopefully the world won't!"

WHAT HE'S READING NOW The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook


When he speaks about energy, which is just about all the time, Greg Rock stares with goofy intensity; his head tilts backward and his hands float up to his sides. "We went right underneath the turbines to hear the WHOOM!" he says, remembering a visit to a wind farm. "We wanted to feel the power, the energy being harnessed."

Rock's fascination with energy bloomed when he was an undergraduate engineer and became obsessed with peak oil, the ultimate plateau in oil production. Now 26, he is co-founder of Seattle's 2-year-old Green Car Company, which deals in biodiesel and electric cars and is expanding to other West Coast cities. He also advises the motor fleets of King County, the city of Tacoma and Puget Sound Energy on fuel efficiency.

But underneath the bright-eyed optimism of this eco-friendly car salesman lies a certain foreboding. That darkness emerged one recent night in a crowded bar in Seattle after Rock had quaffed a few too many beers (only locally brewed; he disdains imports, which waste too much fuel).

"Nothing. Nothing can keep up with exponential growth in energy demand," he shouted. "I ran a calculation once: If we continue our current growth in energy demand, in 250 years we'll be consuming all the solar energy that's hitting the earth. All of the solar energy that's hitting the earth." His face tightened, and he conceded: "It's hard to be an optimist."

These glimmers of angst, though, are usually overridden by an inherent belief that a little ingenuity can better the world. The previous afternoon, after navigating the beer-bottle-strewn, Pink Floyd poster-decorated basement of the North Seattle home he shares with five people, Rock showed off some improvements to the house: Rain buckets that feed into the plumbing, a biofueled furnace, a heat-absorbing sunroom, a driveway of permeable pavers and an electricity port to charge his electric vehicles. Back when he was just 13, Rock invented and marketed the Goose Getter, a solar-powered motion sensor and sprinkler meant to discourage geese from soiling the local docks.

Rock drives a Volkswagen Golf TDI, whose license plate reads OILPEAK (PEAKOIL had apparently been taken). According to Rock's "Green Fleet Simulation Tool," the VW, fueled with 85 percent biodiesel, is greener than any non-electric car available, even conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Rock's company features the former, but not the latter, because it's widely available elsewhere.

Rock used the Mercedes Smart Car to explain how his company's role goes far beyond just selling a few cars to enviro-friendly Seattleites. The 50-miles-to-the-gallon Smart Car is popular in Europe, but Mercedes hasn't even bothered trying to market it in the U.S. So Green Car Co. sells imported Smart Cars that have been made highway legal in the U.S. through an $8,000 conversion. So far, they have sold 120, thus showing Mercedes that there may actually be a market for a miniature car in the SUV-friendly U.S., and thereby tempting them to manufacture Smart Cars for Americans and sell them at a cheaper price. Green Car's success with plug-in hybrids, he said, might similarly entice U.S. automakers.

"When they start selling the plug-in hybrids, we're going to stop selling the plug-in hybrids," he said. "But the idea there is that we've really made a significant change, because we've moved the majors."

At the Seattle bar, I asked Rock whether he wouldn't better spend his energy doing something else — after all, he seemed to be saying that the world is on the brink of doom, whether we all drive efficient cars or not.

He pondered this for a moment. Then his head tilted and his stare ramped up a notch.

"What I think is the great unknown is how quickly humanity can change," he said. And he believes his company proves that the marketplace will provide the catalyst for change.

"This is really the first time I embraced capitalism," he added. "The entire system can change overnight."

The author is a Seattle native now living in Las Vegas, where he does groundwater research.