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01.02.08

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Plug 'n' Play: Electro's auto conversion kits cost around $8,000.

Power to the People

After 30 years, Ben Lomond's Electro Automotive is finally getting some notice

By Brian Kennedy


By now we've all heard about the oil industry's long history of keeping Americans dependent on oil for transportation. From lobbying Congress year after year for fewer fuel economy regulations to companies buying and shutting down land where railroad tracks lie, big oil companies have systematically resisted anything that would potentially get in the way of their profits. As the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? points out, both oil and car companies fear losing oil's monopoly on transportation fuel and have fought long and hard to keep the status quo. Recently, though, things look to be moving in a more environmentally friendly route with the growing popularity of hybrid cars and increases in government funding for green technologies. According to J.D. Power & Associates, 2007's total hybrid sales are projected to be 35 percent higher than in 2006. By 2010 there are expected to be around 65 different models of hybrids on the market in the United States, according to the company's August report.

But hybrids aren't the only option for green travelers in Santa Cruz County. Since 1979, Ben Lomond-based Electro Automotive has been selling kits to convert gas-powered vehicles into electric-powered cars to anyone willing to gut their car engine and turn it into a battery collection.

Unlike hybrids, electric cars do not use any oil to power their engines. Instead, under the hood are 16 to 24 batteries, depending on the size and weight of the vehicle. Most vehicles get from 60 to 100 miles range before needing to be recharged. Many can be recharged through a normal 110-volt outlet.

Run by husband and wife Mike Brown and Shari Prange, Electro Automotive provides everything needed to convert any manual transmission car to electric. With the help of electric car enthusiast Bill Lentfer, the company took off as a pioneer in the small but impassioned electric car industry almost 30 years ago. Lentfer wanted to meet the people working on environmentally friendly vehicles and was eventually introduced to Brown, who with Prange authored the step-by-step gas to electric conversion manual called Convert It.

Lentfer explains what first attracted him to the idea of electric cars.

"I like unique things. I like to be different from everybody else," he says. But Lentfer thinks that the niche market for electrics expanding in recent years and may not be so unique in the coming years.

"There still aren't that many out on the road ... and I think that's changing."

And it's not just Lentfer's positive outlook that predicts this increase of electrics. Sales for conversion kits have steadily risen over the years.

"In the old days a lot of customers were retired guys that were looking for new projects," Shari Prange recalls. Today, Electro's buyers are people who are more likely to drive the cars on a regular basis as opposed to taking more interest in the project of converting the car. People concerned with their own carbon footprint have become the latest wave of electric car customers. There have also been jumps in sales with the release of Who Killed the Electric Car? and most recently with an Electro Auto feature on NPR's Marketplace in early December.

"I really believe in electric cars. I think that's where things will be going, but it can be done today," Brown says. He's quick to point out that if the discovery of cheap petroleum didn't occur when it did, it is very likely that we would all be driving electrics today.

Since that time, large oil and automobile-manufacturing companies have chosen to market gas-powered cars over other alternatively powered vehicles. Since General Motors' EV-1 electric car was introduced in 1996, most models that were built have either been destroyed or recalled. GM actually stopped production of the EV-1 after only 1,150 had been even manufactured. Brown believes that GM and other manufacturers never viewed electrics as a viable and expanding market of automobile consumers. "It wasn't in their DNA. It goes that deep," Brown very frankly states, referring to the auto manufacturers.

Manufacturers in recent years have banked on hybrids as the choice to fill the growing demand for greener cars. "Well, manufacturers treated them [hybrids] like real cars," Prange adds.

In part because electrics are not necessarily as versatile as other cars, manufacturers feared consumers would be too skeptical about their viability and convenience. Electrics do need to plug in and do not have nearly the mileage range of a gas-powered motor. But for those of us who use our cars to just to drive to work and the grocery store, the environmental savings may outweigh these inconveniences. "A hybrid car is still a gas car. It's on its way, but it's not there yet," Brown explains.

If the goal of buying a hybrid is to reduce emissions, why not reduce them even more by going electric? There are a few hurdles to converting, starting with the initial cost of $8,000 at the cheapest. Automatic transmissions require too much power for an electric car's batteries to handle, among other technical difficulties. The process of converting a car can be another obstacle. Electro has special conversion kits for the VW Rabbit and Porsche 914, and all other car models use a universal kit. It should also be noted that converting a car cannot happen overnight. It usually takes more than a week's labor to complete.

Electro does offer some help with these possible detractions. There are occasional workshops held by Brown and Prange, and every customer receives a free conversion video to answer inevitable questions that arise when converting a car. If the cost is the biggest issue, then it would be wise to consider the costs of maintaining a gas-powered car over the years that an electric doesn't have. Think about all the fill-ups, oil changes, smog checks and tune-ups that would not be an issue with an electric-powered car.

Lentfer sees this kind of reasoning as missing the whole point of going electric. "To me it's like a no-brainer. When people start nitpicking about stuff like that, it's like, 'You just don't get it, do you?''" Lentfer says. To him, the environmental gains should be enough to justify the other costs.

A common criticism Electro often receives is that plugging in a car has a hidden environmental cost because the electricity required to charge the batteries is generated at polluting power plants. Prange has a counterclaim ready for this point.

"The electric car is 85 to 95 percent cleaner than a gas car," she says, "even if you include the pollution from the power plant." She adds that pollution from a single source is also a lot easier to regulate and control than pollution from thousands of cars on the road. A practical solution that is actually being done by some customers is plugging into a renewable energy source such as wind or solar.

There is most definitely a growing buzz around green technologies. With the energy bill that recently passed in Congress last month that would set new fuel economy standards for the first time since Gerald Ford was president, there is a renewed hope that electric cars were not killed but merely wounded. The bill is on President Bush's desk awaiting his promised veto. The energy bill would require automakers to raise the average fuel economy of all cars to 35 miles per gallon. Despite the president's lack of support, there is hope for the future of electric cars as long as passionate and knowledgeable people like Brown, Prange and Lentfer are around to help re-energize the electric car movement.

Lentfer remains excited and hopeful about the prospects for converting cars to electric. "This technology is available now, it's been available and you can do it right now."

ELECTRO AUTOMOTIVE can be contacted at electro@cruzio.com, www.electroauto.com or 831.429.1989.


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