Nonprofit, local leaders urge electric car adoption

06/22/10 Kate Bradshaw
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For many, the Gulf crisis is concrete evidence of the urgent need to change the way America powers itself. And the Tampa Bay area may be taking the lead in becoming electric car-friendly.

The day after dubbed Tampa one of America’s most plug-in ready cities, local leaders met at St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field to kick off an effort to bring electric cars into the mainstream. The effort is part of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s multi-city Get Ready Campaign. Project Manager Matt Mattila says the Tampa Bay area is an ideal place to launch such a campaign.

"Tampa Bay's a great region. I mean right now what we're seeing is fourteen gallons a year per person wasted, just sitting in traffic. So lots of cars; lots of drivers; progressive utilities in a city that's commited to doing something much cleaner and giving people a new option."

Lining the walkway that leads to the Tropicana’s main entrance was an array of electric and hybrid models. These ranged from a fully electric hotrod originally built in the thirties to a hybrid Ford Escape. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster test drove the latter.

"Really around twenty, twenty-five miles an hour it was still in electric mode so very, very effective."

Also on display was an electric car charging station, which is narrower than a gas pump and about as tall. You won’t see any around today, but Foster said these may start cropping up in the city’s parking garages by early next year.

"Well I mean we're going to put our money where our mouth is and invest in some of these vehicles, part vehicles, some of our equipment and things like that. But I think most important we're going to make sure we accommodate our electric vehicles in our parking garages and with energy stations, so they can recharge during a work day. And quite frankly if I have my way they'll have a priority space."

One of the problems in the past was the lack of consistency in plug and charger designs. Get Ready Project Manager Matt Mattila said electric car manufacturers have adopted a universal charging system, and most units would only differ by strength of charge.

"One of the challenges we had with some of the earlier roll outs was that it was like VCR beta max. If you had a Ford you could only plug into certain things, and if you had a Toyota Rav 4 you couldn't use their outlets. And so what we've seen is that the society of automotive engineers and lots of people active in the space got together and said we need one standard so that everyone can plug into any plug they find, and that's actually been ruled out."

Among the cars on display was the Chevy Volt, which, like the Nissan Leaf, is a low-emissions car that is expected to be on the market by the end of this year. From the outside it didn’t look much different from any other midsize car on the road. Britta Gross, who is manager of hydrogen and electrical infrastructure development at General Motors, said the Volt can go up to a hundred miles an hour, and stays charged for a distance of forty miles. Gross said the cars are easy to charge at home.

"Simple as finding the wall socket in your home; in your garage; outside where you plug in the chirstmans lights; plug in the car and in a short amount of time, like eight hours, the vehicle is fully charged."

Gross said she thinks cost is a major factor inhibiting widespread adoption of electric cars. Still, she says the auto industry is finally taking hybrid and electric cars seriously.

"When you look at sort of the infrastructure for the vehicle development itself and the battery plants for building; the motive drive plants; the vehicle assembly plants; the battery assembly plants; all the stuff acting together suggests and actually demonstrates this is actually a very different time. We've designed a vehicle that is not targeting just early adopter niches. This is something we really, really want to see moving to mainstream."

George Keramas is director of business for Rebirth Auto, a local company specializing in electric vehicle conversions. He brought a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle that’s powered solely by electricity. He says he’s seen increased interest in the technology since the oil disaster began, but the troubled economy is making it tough for electric cars to catch on.

"So it's sort of a waiting game right now, everyone is looking for funding to make this happen. Everyone's excited about it but with the economy the way it is, the money to do it is somewhat limited. So we're hoping the federal government will step forward and come out with a new bill this year that will help to support cities, counties, states, individuals and companies that are trying to help us move to the electric area."

According to a Tampa Electric Company pamphlet, the annual fuel cost for an electric car is less than $400, compared with $1,400, the yearly damage of fueling a conventional car. While critics point out that electric vehicles aren’t entirely green since power companies use fossil fuels at power plants, plug-in vehicle advocates say going electric reduces a driver’s CO2 emissions by 70%.

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