Vacaville Fights to Retain Electric Car Capital Title

As an electric-vehicle revolution stalls in Vacaville, some fans are blaming oil interests.

Published: 13-Jun-2005

lass=bodyText>VACAVILLE - In 2002, when 100 electric vehicles cruised the streets of Vacaville - not counting the city's complete fleet of them - it looked like the Solano County town was at the forefront of a technological and ecological revolution.

Today, Vacaville is still known for having the highest number of electric vehicles per capita in the nation, but the honor lost its edge as electric car numbers dwindle and enthusiasts struggle to keep their cars.

When they were leased and sold, electric vehicles turned out to be very popular. But auto manufacturers took the cars back when leases expired and stopped building new ones altogether.

Electric enthusiasts were left high and dry, and Vacaville's media title "Voltageville" became dubious.

'Voltageville'

A limited number of zero-emissions electric vehicles were offered to interested consumers starting in 1997, but when the leases were up, companies such as GM and Toyota refused to renew contracts, took the cars back and crushed them in the Arizona desert.

The cars' drivers felt crushed, too.

"When the EVs were recalled and taken to Arizona to be crushed, there was a funeral in Vacaville," said Ed Huestis.

Huestis, a management analyst for Public Works, also runs the city's Electric Vehicle Program is responsible for putting Vacaville on the map as "Voltageville." An incentive program offering $6,000 to defray the costs of electric cars was the reason 100 of the vehicles cruised the city and were used in commutes either to or from the city.

Since then, many leases have expired and others are about to.

Although people who leased their Toyota RAV4 EVs have an option to buy, Toyota is pressuring them to give up their cars, said Mike Brocato, who leases a RAV4 EV through the incentive program.

Scarfed up

In a statement, Toyota said that sales of the RAV4 EV proved disappointing.

"In order to have a positive environmental impact, a large number of consumers must embrace the technology," the statement said.

For those who bought their RAV4 EVs outright and others who languished on a waiting list to receive the cars and others who still pay a premium price if the RAV4 EV shows up on eBay, Toyota's statement doesn't make much sense.

"It is amazing, because they'll say there's no demand, but every single one that was available for lease or purchase were scarfed up," Huestis said.

EVs boast quicker acceleration than gas-powered cars, can cruise at about 80 mph, go 200 miles per charge, are silent and, of course, have zero emissions.

They also require little upkeep.

That means no oil changes, no coolant system changes, no replacing mufflers, no catalytic converters to worry about and no tuneups. That takes a toll on the after-market auto industry. And, of course, by using no gasoline, oil companies are being cut out of the bargain, too.

This, EV enthusiasts say, is the real reason auto manufacturers stopped production.

Electric pioneering

Huestis bought his RAV4 EV outright in 2002, but it wasn't his first electric car.

The self-proclaimed conservative Republican Catholic signed a lease in 1998 for a GM EV1 and quickly became a fan.

"I'm not a tree-hugger, I'm not an extremist," Huestis said. "I voted for Bush, but really, what is he doing with the environment?"

For Huestis, the numbers make sense, not the politics.

"If you think about it, let's average 10,000 miles per year times 100 vehicles in Vacaville," he said. "That's 1 million non-emission miles."

Electric vehicles aren't meant for long distances, but to help electric's reputation and raise awareness, Huestis pushed the little car and his later EVs to make trips as far away as Los Angeles, armed with a map of charging stations and a portable battery for the long stretches in between.

A major drawback of electric vehicles is the length of time needed to recharge the battery, which can take up to four hours.

Huestis views charging time as a benefit, however.

Formerly a white-knuckled, no-stops kind of driver, he now appreciates seeing the towns he blasted through so many times before.

"It really changed my attitude about driving," he said. "It was a lot more refreshing."

But most people used their EVs as a second car for daily commutes or short trips around town.

"Almost everybody has two cars," Brocato said.

Darrell Dickey and Kim Lee of Davis also have a RAV4 EV, which they bought as a second car.

But while they drive the electric car everywhere, the "stinky old gas car," as their 4-year-old daughter Kyra calls it, sits in the garage losing battery power.

EV drivers do their charging at night in the garage, using a standard 220-volt outlet, but even charging on the go isn't much of a hassle.

"You know what it takes, it takes planning," Janet Brocato said.

"Five extra minutes before the trip to think about where you need to charge up and what you'll do during the wait."

Leading the charge

Although there are no major manufacturers making electric cars anymore, some smaller companies are hoping to benefit in the wide-open market.

AC Propulsion in San Dimas built three electric sports cars that have been clocked at 140 mph and accelerate faster than a Ferrari.

The company is working to convert Toyota Scions to pure electric vehicles.

"We're building the first two prototypes right now," president Tom Gage said.

The cars will be available late this year, but will cost about twice what a gas car does.

Nonetheless, Gage has received hundreds of calls from people clamoring for electric vehicles, he said.

Hybrid mania

People are also clamoring for hybrids, vehicles powered by fuel and electricity that don't need to be charged.

"Generally, we have a waiting list," said Phillip Colwell, Prius Manager at Hanlees Chevrolet-Toyota in Davis. Colwell said his customers usually cite environmental awareness and a desire to get higher gas mileage as reasons for buying hybrids.

But Vacaville's incentive program doesn't cover hybrids because they pollute, and they don't eliminate the United States' dependency on oil, a problem that concerns Americans across the political spectrum.

"We're not interested in hybrids because they're gas vehicles," Huestis said. "You can't plug them in."

The cars go to "stealth mode" or full battery at stop signs and at low speeds. At higher speeds, the gas kicks in, charging the battery while giving the car power, just like a conventional car.

Although many hybrid ads state proudly that there's no need to plug them in, many people view a plug-in hybrid - one that would run on batteries more than gas - as the best alternative to pollution-causing gas vehicles and long-charging electric vehicles.

"We could make the biggest impact on foreign oil dependencies if we had plug-in hybrids," Huestis said.

A team at University of California, Davis, built some plug-in hybrids, and Energy CS, a Monrovia company, has kits that can turn a Prius hybrid into a plug-in hybrid.

The kits aren't yet for sale.

A road to ruin

Another concept getting a lot of attention is a hydrogen car, which would mix hydrogen with water to create electricity powering a battery. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made it a goal to have a "Hydrogen Highway" by 2010, pushing the electric vehicle right off the proverbial cliff.

Gage called Schwarzenegger's "Hydrogen Highway" the road to ruin.

"You can argue the merits of fuel cell cars - it's a new technology, they're making good progress - all of that is secondary to the fact that hydrogen is a terrible fuel for cars."

Hydrogen is about twice as expensive to produce as gasoline, and converting gas stations to hydrogen stations would cost about $1 million per pump.

"Electricity and natural gas are much better fuels than hydrogen in terms of efficiency," Gage said. "If you start with a kilowatt of electricity, which is what your house uses in an hour on average, you can take an electric vehicle four or five miles. A hydrogen car would go less than a mile."

Schwarzenegger press assistant Darrel Ng said the Hydrogen Highway is meant to be a long-range plan.

Ready and Waiting

Even if hydrogen is the future of California, electric vehicles can make a lot of changes in the meantime, Huestis said.

"In general, one of the things that has changed over the last 15 years is that is was all about air quality and emissions," Gage said.

"Now, gas cars are a lot more clean and efficient, but a lot of other problems have arisen, like global warming and dependency on foreign oil.

"For each of these problems, electric vehicles are ready and waiting."

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