Electric cars are more popular than ever with people choosing alternative vehicles
By Jana J. Monji 04/19/2012
I’ve hardly noticed that the price of gasoline is nearing $5 a gallon.
Maybe that’s because I haven’t worried about gas for nearly two years — not with my electric-powered Solectria Force.
It’s not as though electric vehicles, or EVs, are anything new. My car, which amounts to a converted GEO Metro, is nearly 17 years old, and the idea of electric-powered cars is much older than that.
On a blustery Saturday in March, San Marino resident Lew Miller had his 1904 Baker two-seater on display at an EV fair held at Pasadena City Hall. There were a number of other newer vehicles parked on Garfield Avenue, between Holly and Union streets, but chilly temperatures and threatening skies drove people off the street and into City Hall, where a workshop on EVs was being held.
Though foot traffic outdoors totaled about 60 people, some of the 90 attendees of the workshop put on by California Center for Sustainable Energy had an opportunity to drive some newer versions of this more than 100-year-old concept, among them a Nissan LEAF, a CODA and a Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
Miller, unimpressed with the event’s turnout, wondered if this recent wave of enthusiasm will last, even with the promise of state-funded charging stations by the city of Pasadena.
“I was a little disappointed in the [lack of a] crowd,” Miller said. But, he said, “I am always hopeful. I think the fair was a good step.”
In 2006, Chris Paine’s documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” pushed the green political agenda, cheerleading for EVs and painting major car companies — particularly General Motors — as dastardly saboteurs of a brilliant idea whose time had come.
That’s because, between 1996 to 1999, GM had led the EV revolution with its EV1, producing a little more than 1,000 models, which GM then leased in selected locations like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson. Stars like Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson and Danny DeVito, as well as Chris Yoder, manager of Fundraising Systems at Caltech and a leading figure in the EV movement, all signed leases for their own vehicles. But then, GM abruptly ended the program, saying there was no profit in the vehicles, and reclaimed the cars.
Electric vehicle technology today is being engineered in the San Gabriel Valley at companies like AC Propulsion in San Dimas and by scientists such as Caltech alum Wally Rippel. Rippel, who won the first cross-country EV race in 1968, was one of Paine’s expert talking heads featured in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” or “WKTEC?” as it is known by hardcore fans.
After a brief stint at the Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors, Rippel came back to Southern California and is now chief technology officer at AC Propulsion, where he is working on the fourth generation of EV drive systems.
In recent phone interviews, Yoder and Rippel said they both felt EVs are the future. Others, however, would argue that there is still room for biodiesel technology and hydrogen- and natural gas-powered vehicles, something Honda is currently working on. In addition, Toyota, building on the success of its hybrid Prius, is tinkering with its own solar-powered vehicles.
Rippel commented that while GM was the heavy in “WKTEC?” these days “GM is now being the good guy and not the bad guy.” It might be more accurate to say GM is really the sad guy. That’s because by dropping the EV1, GM delayed the development of the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, first offered for sale mid-December 2010, by nearly a decade.
According to Paine’s 2011 follow-up documentary “Revenge of the Electric Car,” Bob Lutz, former GM board vice chair, pushed the Volt’s development, but by 2009 he was out of a job. Former GM CEO Rick Wagoner, who backed the gas-guzzling monster Hummer H2, is also featured in the film and admits that closing down the EV1 project was a mistake. Under Wagoner, who left the company in 2009, GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June of that year.
But what if a Hummer didn’t need gas? After killing the EV1, GM, along with other car companies, began pushing hydrogen power. Then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even posed for photos with his own hydrogen-powered GM Hummer H2H at hydrogen filling stations in 2004. About 200 hydrogen-powered cars still exist, mostly in California. In fact, Los Angeles has 16 hydrogen fueling stations. But today, only Honda has a leasing program for its FCX Clarity. Honda of Pasadena isn’t involved in that program, but the company projects mass production of hydrogen cars by 2020.
Honda also has the compressed natural gas (CNG) Civic GX. CNG is often called the cleanest fossil fuel, but it is not easy to store or transport. In 2009, the United States had about 114, 270 CNG-powered vehicles, most of them buses. According to Honda sales associate Brycen Deters, the Civic GX is only available in California, New York, Utah and Oklahoma for retail sales (in all 50 states for fleet sales), with limited refueling stations, including one in Pasadena. A full tank of CNG will take a driver 300 miles for roughly $10.
The green thing
In 2006, there were other alternative fuel sources being proposed. Remember ethanol? “Ethanol sounded good, but many times you have to look at the capabilities and the consequences, the sometimes unintended consequences,” Rippel said. One problem was that when people turned to ethanol as a fuel source, food prices went up.
What about cars that run on recycled vegetable oil? Jeff Phillips, who opened Los Angeles Bio Cars in Pasadena, recently recalled how that year, 2006, “The green thing was really big. A lot of people had just watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” he said of former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary on global climate change.
Phillips got a lot of attention in 2007, when gas prices started shooting up. “CNN came and shot a story,” Phillips said of his converting pre-1976 gasoline-driven cars to biodiesel. But soon the green boom started going bust. “I only get busy when gas prices are high. People call me out of necessity,” says Phillips.
With wars raging, a foundering economy and gas prices shooting higher than ever, Phillips, who moved his business to the San Fernando Valley in 2010, still gets phone calls, but they are mostly inquiries and not actual customers.
As might be expected, Phillips has criticisms of his competitors, particularly EVs. “The problem with electric cars and hybrids is they have five times the environmental impact than a regular car — from the manufacturing to disposal of the batteries,” he said.
Do the math
Caltech’s Yoder has tried both EVs and biodiesel cars. As he explains, if biodiesel isn’t available, drivers must use diesel fuel on the road, and “regular diesel is much nastier than gasoline,” he said, whereas, “biodiesel is just like a bit of olive oil on your hands.”
But the truth is, for comfort and cutting-edge technology, EVs win out. Yoder currently drives a red Nissan LEAF, which features power steering, air conditioning, GPS navigation and a 100-mile range (my EV has power steering but no luxuries).
Of course, Toyota, which led the way in the hybrid market, is looking for ways to improve its winning formula. The 2012 Prius comes with a solar roof option to power its ventilation system and remote air conditioning and has plug-in capability, where drivers can charge by plugging into a charge station or an ordinary electrical outlet. While Solar Electric Vehicles in Westlake Village (founded in 2005) installs solar panels to hybrid Priuses to increase electric driving time, no high-volume car manufacturer has a full-solar car on the market.
Currently, Pasadena is building up its electric infrastructure, and this time it will include options for older EVs, like Miller’s Baker or my Solectria Force. Charge stations built in the 1990s offered different sized paddle chargers for specific car models. This time, according to Pasadena Transportation Development Manager Mike Bagheri, the city is using federal grant funds to install 20 new charging stations and upgrade 24 existing charging stations on public and private sites over the next three years.
Naturally, people plugging their cars into an electric charger creates a greater demand for electricity. Pasadena Water and Power Public Benefits Administrator John Hoffner said PWP plans to offer two experimental rates to work with customers charging their EVs, because “we suspect there might be issues, and we may have to upgrade particular transformers” in order to avoid possible brownouts or blackouts.
Private companies like Texas-based national Consolidated Electrical Distributors and ChargePoint America — part of the California-based Coulomb Technologies program that links a network of independently owned charging stations across 10 selected regions in the US — are offering charge station installation for residential homes and businesses.
What’s more important, however, “We need a national vision,” Rippel said. “We seem to be very fractured when it comes to energy, especially with the right-wing thinking that we just need to keep drilling for oil.”
What everyone seems to agree on is that we can’t depend upon oil forever.
“At the present rate, it will all be gone in 30 years,” Rippel said. “The math is simple.”