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Driving Technology Forward

Author: Beth Galleto
August, 2009 Issue

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NorthBay biz heads out on the highway to explore the North Bay’s burgeoning electric vehicle movement.

 
Since the first automobiles rolled off U.S. assembly lines in the early 1900s, Americans have had an
ongoing love affair with cars. To us, it’s so much more than wheels and a motor—it’s adventure, freedom and individuality. These days, however, the romance has hit a rough spot. How can we continue to speed toward our dreams when fuel prices limit our destination? How can we carelessly enjoy the wind in our hair when each mile we drive impairs our planet’s future? Something has to give.
 
A growing grassroots movement in the North Bay is dedicated to popularizing the electric vehicle. Chris Jones of Santa Rosa, president of the North Bay Electric Auto Association (NBEAA), attests to the movement’s increasing vigor and says what he hears most often is a desire for the United States to stop relying on distant, sometimes unfriendly, countries for fuel: “Nobody likes the fact we import 60 percent of our oil and then burn it.”

Further, most people in the North Bay believe gasoline engines are a major factor in climate change. The third motivating factor, he says, is pollution. In the North Bay, Jones explains, “The average person here cares about these problems more than people in other places. It’s a really progressive area.”

Mark Schiess, sales representative and spokesperson for ThunderStruck Motors in Sebastopol, agrees. “We have a big support base of people dedicated to alternative energy and alternative means of transportation, even though they have many different motives,” he says. “It used to be environmental. But since the Gulf War, I’ve seen more and more support for political reasons.” He also notes the electricity used to power a vehicle in Sonoma County is likely to come from a geothermal plant—a clean-generating source.

The NBEAA’s first priority is to educate the public about these issues, says Jones, who converted his 1966 Ford Mustang to a full electric car in 2006 and loves to show it off in hopes of winning others to the movement. The car runs on a dozen 12.8-volt lithium-ion batteries. It can be charged in five hours and has a range of 40 miles. Its top speed, he says, is 70 mph, with zero to 60 mph acceleration in 23 seconds (“Just enough,” he says).  The conversion cost $29,449 for state-of-the-art electric vehicle parts after a $755 rebate from the federal government. He also spent about $3,000 in wheel, brake and steering upgrades. The work took him “690 hours so far and still having fun.” This is a hobby for Jones, who works as an engineer at Agilent Technologies in Santa Rosa.

Showing off

Jones spent about 80 hours at the Marin County Fair last year showing off his Mustang and talking to people about electric vehicles. He kept track of their questions and used them to compose the “FAQ” section of the NBEAA website.

The website differentiates the types of electric vehicles and their acronyms as follows: “A BEV is a Battery Electric Vehicle. BEVs have batteries on board that power an electric motor via a motor controller. The batteries are charged by electricity from an energy source that’s not a part of the vehicle. The BEV’s battery charger can either be onboard or off-board. Onboard chargers provide a means of charging at more places while away from base, extending their effective range. BEVs are different from other electric vehicles, including Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), which carry a liquid fuel source, and Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs), which typically carry a gas energy storage medium.”

The difference between a PHEV and a traditional HEV is that a PHEV has batteries that can be recharged by plugging into an electric power source. The traditional hybrid recharges its electric motor while running on a gasoline motor.

At the Marin County Fair, Jones charged his Mustang from a solar trailer. At home, he uses the solar panels on his house. One argument sometimes advanced against plug-in vehicles is the electricity used to power the cars is generated by coal burning or similar sources that simply move the pollution one step back. The answer to this, says Jones, is to rely on solar energy. “I have a 1.8-kilowatt photovoltaic array on my house,” he says. “My solar panels turn my meter backward when it’s sunny. I used to pay $500 per year for electricity; now I pay about $100.” Jones envisions a time when solar panels will be manufactured in factories that are solar powered. Then, he says, no carbon emissions will be created and the entire process becomes guilt-free.

A second chance

The electric car industry in California had an abrupt reversal a few years ago after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) set targets mandating zero emission vehicles to be a percentage of cars sold each year starting in the late 1990s. The story, told in the 2006 documentary film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is a sad one. From 1996 to 2000, General Motors leased 800 BEVs to California drivers. Called the EV 1, these hand-built vehicles were too expensive for most people to buy. However, it seemed reasonable to assume that, as the cars’ popularity grew, they’d be mass-produced and would eventually achieve an economy of scale in pricing.

Instead, claiming inadequate customer demand, GM recalled all the cars and sent them to the crusher, despite a fervent group of enthusiasts who protested their destruction. In 2003, CARB killed the zero emissions mandate. The documentary points the finger at the oil industry, state and federal government, hydrogen cell vehicles, consumers and the auto industry itself.

Conditions seem more positive now. According to R. L. Polk & Co., a provider of marketing information to the automotive industry, the State of California registered 91,417 new HEVs in 2007—the largest number of any state—making up 26.1 percent of such registrations in the United States that year. The San Francisco metro area was the second highest market, with more than 27,000 hybrid vehicle registrations. Only the Los Angeles metro area was higher, with more than 40,000.

That same year, a comprehensive assessment released by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) demonstrated that increased use of PHEVs in the United States between 2010 and 2050 could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. The study found that widespread adoption of PHEVs would be equivalent to removing 82.5 million passenger cars from the road and could reduce petroleum consumption by 3 to 4 million barrels per day by 2050. It also found that the U.S. electricity grid is adequate to support this use.

In 2008, Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which provides substantial tax credits for purchases of PHEVs under certain conditions.

Blue Sky from now on

The stage is now set for the entry of electric vehicle entrepreneurs, who are betting on the future of EV technology. Many of these visionaries came from the computer industry. They followed the dot com boom to its end and are now ready for a new challenge.

Examples are Peter Oliver, owner of Make Mine Electric, and Brian Hall, owner of ThunderStruck Motors, who recently partnered to open the Blue Sky Center in a former Ford dealership in Sebastopol. They see the center as a kind of incubator for electric vehicle entrepreneurs. Two other businesses have already joined them, and they’re hoping for more.

Make Mine Electric builds and converts replica versions of classic cars into EVs. “Picture yourself in a Porsche speedster, Mercedes gull-wing, Cobra or Corvette. We build fun, fast performance cars that are environmentally responsible,” says the company website.

Hall started ThunderStruck Motors a decade ago in Santa Rosa. The company is a small research, development and manufacturing company that also retails electric vehicles and components. The majority of its business consists of selling components and parts to do-it-yourself builders of electric two- and four-wheel vehicles. The company also does vehicle conversions, specializing in higher performance vehicles. ThunderStruck Motors has developed electric drag race and off-road motorcycles, go-carts, electric-assist bicycle trailers, a junior dragster, cars and boats.

Sales to do-it-yourselfers are building, according to Schiess. “It’s like going back to those days in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s with all the weekend hot rod mechanics,” he says. People who like the idea of electric vehicles and who are mechanically inclined are realizing that converting a vehicle to a PEV “is fairly inexpensive and doesn’t require a gigantic shop. All you need is a driveway or half a garage.” A vehicle that’s completely battery-driven is a lot simpler than one driven by a gasoline engine, he points out. “There aren’t emission controls. You don’t have heat, exhaust, oil, mufflers or oil reserve.”

Hall is also a founding member of the National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA). Its purpose is to use competition to increase public awareness of EV performance and advances in electric vehicle technology.

Schiess says Hall wanted to shake old impressions that EVs were slow, so ThunderStruck Motors built an electric bike that ran a quarter of a mile in 11.1 seconds in competition. The world record for an electric bike is a quarter mile in 7.89 seconds, which translates to about 168 miles per hour.

Also sharing the Blue Sky Center are K-Tech Automotive and E-Motors, the latter of which sells electric Vespa-style scooters, motorcycles and four-wheeled vehicles for vineyard or beach use.

It isn’t enough to provide the materials alone. This core group of early adopters is also teaching others to do their own vehicle conversions. Oliver teaches a class at Santa Rosa Junior College that covers the fundamentals of EV theory, conversion, construction, restoration and maintenance, and he’s planning to teach classes at the Blue Sky Center as well. He says interest in these classes is high. Usually about 24 sign up for the junior college classes, and more than half persist through their conclusion.

“There’s always a fringe element that likes this sort of thing. Even when they can go buy one, some want a car custom-made for them,” says Oliver.

Also starting in Sebastopol, Zap Motors, now headquartered in Santa Rosa, began in 1994 as an electric bicycle kit manufacturer. It’s grown into a leading global distributor of alternative fuel technology vehicles and has delivered more than 100,000 electric vehicles in more than 75 countries, according to the company website.

Working together

Local government support is helping to push the grassroots movement forward. Amy Bolten, spokesperson for the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), says the county has filed grant applications asking for funding to purchase EVs (when they hit the market), convert a number of HEVs to PHEVs and install countywide charging stations. “Sonoma County was built out in a car-dependent manner,” Bolten says. “The electric vehicle seems a practical way of addressing part of the transportation issue.”

The County, in partnership with the SCWA, the Open Space District and eight cities, is looking at bringing in 1,000 EVs by the end of next year through fleet replacement and employee purchases, and has discussed this idea with Nissan Motors. Bolten says Nissan approached them a year ago, wanting to work toward their electric vehicle goals. “At the time, no other manufacturer approached us,” she remembers. “We’re open to all manufacturers, however, and our infrastructure will support all EVs that have the ‘Society of Automotive Engineers’ standard plugs.”

A second goal is to develop a network of 200 EV charging stations throughout the county. To accomplish these goals, the County has put together a partnership that includes the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and Open Space District, local cities and larger employers including Medtronic, Agilent Technologies, Kaiser Permanente and Santa Rosa Junior College. Together, these entities employ more than 5,000 people. Some of these employers already use HEVs, and there are a few charging stations already in place. The water agency, for example, has many hybrid vehicles and six converted PHEVs in its fleet; there are nine charging stations at its main office near the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport.

Marin County, too, has applied for grants to build solar shade structures in parking lots at eight different locations, according to Sustainability Planner Dawn Weisz. These structures, which resemble a carport with solar panels on top, will be used to charge EVs and will be available for public use.

Larry Laino, supervisor of the garage for the Marin Department of Public Works, says the county already has about 50 hybrid vehicles among its fleet of more than 500 vehicles. “We’re definitely going in that direction as the technology becomes available,” he says, but so far “we’ve never had good luck with retrofits.” He wants to wait a while for the technology to advance.

It may not take long, because battery technology is improving, says Schiess. “There are a lot of things on the horizon.” One improvement already here is the lithium iron phosphate (LiFePo4) battery, which will last the life of the car, according to proponents.

High performance retrofit

Robb Protheroe, president of Plug-In Supply in Petaluma, does engineering and sales locally and has products made by a contract manufacturer elsewhere (mostly in the Bay Area). The company’s product is a kit that converts an HEV such as a Prius into a PHEV. It consists of a large battery pack, a charger and a wiring harness. Using a 4-kilowatt LiFePo4 battery, such a converted vehicle can go 20 or more miles on a charge. Recharging takes six hours and is usually done at night. Using a more powerful battery, it’s possible to go 35 to 40 miles on a charge. “We displace gas with household electricity,” he says.

Plug-In Supply also sells complete conversion components with extended life lead-acid battery packs for about $5,000. The kit is designed so the batteries can be upgraded to lithium-phosphate. In a Prius, Protheroe’s battery pack fits in the tool tray in the back, which is a standard-but-hidden storage compartment. It weighs about 140 pounds, he says.

“The basic problem with an HEV car is the battery packs are very small,” Protheroe says. “They’re not designed for a pure electric car. Our product adds a bigger battery and gives the car a split personality—it’s an HEV and an electric car on demand.”

According to Protheroe, electric cars don’t wear out. He says the LiFePo4 battery would outlast the car if it didn’t get destroyed, for example, in a crash. His batteries have a life expectancy of 6,000 cycles. If a car is charged during the day in addition to being plugged in at night, it could power through two cycles per day. That gives it a lifetime of at least 10 years. “It should outlast the car,” he says.

Improving the technology of electric vehicles may be good news for other types of sustainable energy as well. “Solar energy is nearly free and abundant. Down the road, if we had a way to store the energy, we could use solar at night,” says Oliver. This is where the improved batteries, originally developed for EVs, come in. “The battery pack in my car is large enough to run my house for a month. I can charge it during the day and plug it in and run my house at night,” Oliver says.

He notes that the amount of storage in electric car batteries is extremely large—and getting larger—and daily use is usually low. This brings up the prospect of vehicle-to-grid electricity transfer. Oliver foresees a world in which individual solar generators feed power back into the grid at night. Power companies like PG&E won’t primarily be generators, but rather energy delivery companies.

Such a bright vision is flourishing among residents of the North Bay. “We’re driving the technology,” says Protheroe. “There are a lot of innovative people here.”

So could the North Bay become to the electric vehicle what Silicon Valley was to the computer? It’s too soon to say for sure, but Sonoma County has the means, the motive and the opportunity to push the technology of the plug-in hybrid and the electric vehicle forward to new destinations.


 

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