Local company looks to reinvent electric vehicle technology, boost green industry
For many, the word “motorcycle” conjures up the sounds and smells of roaring engines and the kind of mechanical monsters known for startling unsuspecting pedestrians with a mere flick of the wrist. But Zero Motorcycles, a local developer and manufacturer of 100 percent electric motorcycles, is hoping to change that perception—one green bike at a time.
Zero began in the garage of Neal Saiki, a local mountain bike designer and aeronautical engineer. While working for NASA, Saiki was able to directly see the extent of ozone depletion and grew committed to addressing the problem. A lifelong enthusiast of motorcycles and designer of award-winning bike frames, he founded Zero Motorcycles with his wife in 2006 with the goals of redeveloping not only the designs of electric motorcycles, but also what is possible using only electric power.
Until now, the company’s operations were limited to its headquarters in the mountains of Scotts Valley. But with the California Energy Commission (CEC) opening up grant opportunities to manufacturers of electric vehicles and their components (an attempt to inject developers of electric transportation with funds to create more efficient and practical designs), Zero is looking to expand its operations into Santa Cruz.
The Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency (RDA) approved providing a $175,000 forgivable loan and $25,000 in staff and resources to help Zero meet the $800,000 of matching funds required for the grant. In exchange, Zero is committing to expand its development, manufacturing and dealership to within the Santa Cruz City limits, providing projected sales tax revenues for the city of $29,500 in 2011 and $61,000 in 2012. They also plan to create 21 to 25 jobs over the next year.
Peter Koht, economic development coordinator for the RDA, says the loan is a good investment for the city during tough economic times. “It seemed like a good match between job generation, sales tax generation, and also an industry that we hope will take hold here,” he says.
City Councilmember Don Lane also sees the move as an exciting opportunity for both parties. “For the community and city, [Zero] will bring good jobs, which we really need, and tax revenues, which we [also] need,” he says. “It also fits the city’s efforts to stop climate change and reduce energy use.”
Gene Banman, CEO of Zero, believes that if Zero is awarded the grant by the CEC, they will be able to develop technologies capable of competing with combustion-engine motorcycles, thereby changing the way people look at electric vehicle technologies.
“We plan to build a better motorcycle with this technology,” says Banman. “We think that the battery-electric powertrain has the potential to surpass the internal combustion engine in many factors, not just in terms of greenhouse gas emissions [GHG], for which of course it’s a huge advantage, but also in terms of performance, safety, ease of riding and maintenance.”
For a company trying to advance the engineering of battery-powered electric motors, Santa Cruz County also has the distinct advantage of being near some of the greatest expertise in the field. Several years ago, Seagate Technologies, a manufacturer of laptop disc drives, brought together an international team of engineers to design the first disc drives. These disc drives, designed mostly for use in laptop computers, needed to be lightweight, highly efficient and robust against shock and vibration—exactly the kind of qualities Zero is hoping to develop, but for motorcycles.
“If you want to go design a new motor for electric vehicles, this is one of the key places in the world where that expertise exists,” says Banman. “This is the perfect place for this kind of development.”
And with Santa Cruz unemployment at 15.3 percent according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, a boost of tax revenue and well-paying jobs from a burgeoning local company is a welcome relief.
Moving Toward Zero Emissions
Zero’s potential expansion into Santa Cruz is the latest in a long line of city efforts to foster green business and practices. In 2007, the city hired its own Climate Action Coordinator to address increased GHG emissions and create a plan for returning to 1990 levels by 2020.
The effort has seen some successes already: CO2 emissions from the transportation sector have been reduced from 2005 levels of 109,655 tons annually to 97,759 tons in 2008. The Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project’s 2009 Report found that daily miles driven in the county went from 5.7 million in 2004 to 5.4 million in 2009 (although some of that may be attributed to losses in jobs and, hence, less commuting). Use of the Highway 17 Express, a bus that takes passengers from Downtown Santa Cruz to San Jose, has also shown a marked increase in ridership with 143,000 riders in 2003-2004 growing to 270,000 riders in 2007-2008.
City programs like the Mandatory Green Building Program, which requires all new residential building or remodeling to incorporate a certain number of sustainable designs or practices, and the Santa Cruz Energy Efficiency Program, which finances the installation of solar power and solar heat systems for homeowners, are making eco-progress in construction practices as well.
Additionally, the private sector is increasing educational efforts about alternative transportation and making its uses more practical. One example is Zipcar, which allows members to rent cars as needed for a monthly membership and usage fee, reducing dependency on owning when a car is only needed occasionally.
Ecology Action, a non-profit specializing in environmental and community concerns, does public transportation outreach, provides emergency rides home for individuals who ride their bike to work, provides bicycle training programs for children, and much more.
Piet Canin, program director of the Transportation Group for Ecology Action, says for many, moving to alternative transportation is just a matter of breaking old habits. “I think the greatest obstacle is that people’s lives are so busy and the car is kind of a default, convenient way of getting around,” he says. “I think that if people do change their habits they will find that it saves them a lot of money, and, health-wise, active transportation like biking or walking makes them feel better.”
For many, a reliance on combustion-engine cars also comes down to an absence of practical alternatives. Most mainstream electric vehicles are severely limited in range and look more like golf carts than sedans. When one’s livelihood, personal freedom and family are considered, environmental ideals are usually trumped by day-to-day pragmatism.
However, breakthrough technologies changing those limitations are on the horizon with mainstream automakers like Chevy and Nissan releasing electric models at the end of the year. Those models, coupled with efforts in development from companies like Zero, should spur a rise in availability, use, and infrastructure for electric vehicles over the next decade.
According to IDTechEx, an independent research group, roughly 29 million electric vehicles will be sold in 2010. That number is projected to rise by 69 percent in 2020.
This trend suggests that what’s best for the environment may finally be what’s best for the bottom line, and, if Zero receives the grant from the CEC, what is best for Santa Cruz, as well.