Bonny Doon company wants people to go electric
“About the most disgusting thing in the world,” Mike Brown says conversationally, “is to be parked in traffic, and have one of those Dodge Ram trucks with a huge exhaust pipe sticking in your window. Most of them don’t even have enough class to use biodiesel.”
Given Brown’s distaste for the stink of fuel, he’s in the right business. He and his wife Shari Prange have been selling kits to convert gas cars to electric vehicles for 30 years at their Bonny Doon shop, Electro Automotive. On a recent sunny afternoon, he took me out for a spin in two different electric cars, a black Volkswagen and a zippy little orange Porsche. Along the way he talked about charge and volts and mileage, and I focused on keeping my lunch where it belonged. Electric cars, contrary to popular belief, go plenty fast. We got up to 50 mph on the dizzying hairpin turns and hills of Bonny Doon, and he says many electric vehicles will reach 75 mph on a flat road.
About 110 years before our afternoon drive, electric cars were extremely popular, Prange explains. Seated at her long dining room table, she keeps one eye on the work progressing on a vehicle outside – the couple’s home and shop are connected, and they head a tiny staff of just eight people.
“In the early 1900s, there were more electric cars on the road than gas, and it looked like the electric car was probably the way it was going to go,” she says. “They were considered cars for doctors or ladies, because they didn’t rattle and stink. You didn’t have to get out and crank them to start them, and they were more reliable.” The advent of the self-starter, which made cranking obsolete, combined with the low cost of gas, eventually made the gas car a more popular choice. The electric car, as Prange puts it, “faded out completely outside of the fringe hobbyist element.”
This state of affairs lasted in the United Sates until 1990, when the California Air Resources Board passed a ruling that was supposed to gradually increase the number of zero emissions vehicles made by major car manufacturers like General Motors and Honda. In a now-infamous move, the companies built fewer than 1,000 of these cars, and leased them to consumers instead of selling them outright. As Prange explains, “Basically…they made a few hundred vehicles so they could say, ‘We’re making an effort.’ In the meantime, they hired tons of lobbyists and got the mandate watered down and finally got it pretty much gutted. But it took them a few years, so they bought themselves some time with putting out electric cars.” When the lease was up, they repossessed the cars, destroyed them, and declared the “experiment” a failure.
This legal finagling by the major companies goes part of the way toward explaining the dearth of electric cars. But there is another issue with both the electric cars of the turn of the century and today: they have a fairly short “range” – if you plug one in overnight, it can typically go only about fifty miles before needing another charge. But Prange points out that statistically, “Most cars go less than 25 miles a day with one person in them,” and are generally used for getting to work or running basic, local errands. “Most households also have more than one car,” she continues, “so there can be an electric car that’s designated for your everyday local use, and then you’ve got another car for long trips.”
Prange says that many people have expressed interest in making the switch and converting their own vehicles – Brown converted his first car in 1979, at the request of a customer at the automotive shop in Ben Lomond where he was working. Electro Automotive sells both custom and universal conversion kits and offers repairs and guidance, though they can’t do full conversions on every car themselves. Their most valuable tool for educating the public are their workshops, which cover a variety of issues relating to gas-to-electric conversion, including choosing an appropriate car to convert, basic components, performance, maintenance, driving tips, and troubleshooting. The next one will be held on July 18 at the University Inn, and is meant for any skill level: “We’ve had high school kids do conversions, and we get people who are professional mechanics,” Prange says.
Some people claim that even after conversion, electric cars aren’t any more environmentally friendly overall, especially when you factor in the pollution created at the electric power plants which make the batteries. Not so, Prange counters.
“It’s still 85 to 97 percent cleaner, even when you include pollution from the power plant,” and certainly cleaner than gas refineries, which she says are one of the main sources of pollution throughout the Bay Area. “There’s also the efficiency. If you take two barrels of oil out of the ground, and you refine one barrel into gasoline and you burn it in a gas car, by the time it goes through refining, you only get 11 percent of it converted into actual energy. Converting a second barrel into electricity, you get 18 percent of the energy from the original barrel into the actual wheels of the car. The oil goes a lot further. And then of course you can even use solar or wind power instead of oil to get your electricity.”
These all seem like fairly persuasive reasons for a lot of people to consider going electric, but Prange and Brown are only cautiously optimistic. They’ve experienced minor booms in business before, which tend to fade away as soon as the economy brightens or gas prices drop. But Prange thinks things might be different now.
“I don’t think it’ll fade away this time,” she says. “Because, it’s not just gas prices anymore. It’s peak oil, global warming, Iraq, lots of things. I think people have tipped over a certain level of consciousness. They know that we have to do something different.”