Story last updated at 6/20/2012 - 2:02 pm
Do electric cars make sense in Southeast Alaska? Angel Drobnica, the energy coordinator for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is in the process of finding out. SEACC sponsored a one-credit class offered by the University of Alaska Southeast the first week of June that focused on the process of converting a vehicle from an internal combustion system to an electric one.
SEACC has led efforts in other community outreach programs focusing on the use of wind and solar power.
"Part of what we do is initiate these small scale renewable energy technologies, looking at their potential to decrease regional fossil fuel consumption," said Drobnica.
With little road to drive and the relatively inexpensive and renewable energy source of hydropower, a vehicle that is powered by electricity, but has a limited amount of mileage before it needs to be recharged, does seem like a logical transportation method in the area. The problem is that there is a small amount of exposure to electric cars.
"Running electric vehicles is a pretty direct and immediate way to reduce your fossil fuel use," said Drobnica. "It is a proven technology down south; it just hasn't caught on here. It's just not common yet. I think people need to see it more on the roads to see that it can work."
The principle of converting a vehicle run on fuel into one that uses electricity is relatively simple: remove the fuel-related components of the vehicle and replace them with a system that can be plugged into an outlet. No more gas tank, no more exhaust, no more oil changes.
At first, Drobnica looked for a donor, someone who might be interested in donating a car for use in the class. The attempt was unsuccessful, so Drobnica found a Jeep in Sitka with a busted engine. Passionate about providing the class, Drobnica invested her own money. For $500, a tow from the vehicle's home in Sitka to the ferry terminal and a round trip ferry ticket, a 1983 CJ8 gray Jeep made it to the UAS's Regional Vocational Technical School.
Michael Golub, a University of Alaska Fairbanks mechanical engineering graduate student who has taught electric vehicle conversion classes all over the state, flew down to teach the five-day class.
"I knew it would be a tight schedule," said Drobnica. In order to prepare, she assisted in removing the unnecessary components of the car: the engine, radiator, gas tank and exhaust system. She also had to order the components the class would be assembling and/or installing into the Jeep.
A simplified list of the necessary components includes a speed controller, motor, a battery management system (BMS), batteries and wiring. Easy? Not so much. First, Golub has taught a lot of classes, so he wanted to mix it up.
"A lot of the technology is about 100 years old. To keep it interesting for myself," Golub explained, he had the class use more "innovative parts. We could by a controller for an extra $2,000. The controller used in this class is $600. We [had] to put it together in class."
The class could also have used a pre-made BMS, but since one of the goals was to truly understand the process of electrical conversion, as well as to highlight the potential cost-effectiveness of electric vehicles, Golub had the class attempt to assemble a BMS.
"We found one that we could build ourselves that has more functionality at half the price," said Golub.
There was also the motor to select. Every component of the conversion had multiple choices, based on the needs of the driver.
Then there were the batteries to address. There are two main types of batteries used in electric cars: lead and lithium. Lead batteries are often cheaper and more readily available. In some places you can buy them right off a shelf. But lead batteries are heavier (thus they use more electricity), and they cannot be drained as much before they have to be recharged as lithium batteries.
Drobnica consulted with Golub, her pocket book and interest in conservation and decided on lithium batteries. Her decision was partly because lead batteries just weren't as cheap and accessible in Juneau as they are in other locations. In addition, lithium batteries have a higher longevity, thus boosting the conservation component of the conversion process. She bought 45 3.3-volt batteries to total a 144-volt system. The batteries, which came to around $6,000, were half of her operating budget.
On day one of the class, the 12 students were broken into five teams, each of which addressed a different component of the conversion process. One group was in charge of designing and welding the battery bank, which basically determined where all the other parts would be placed. Another group worked on assembling the motor, which had arrived in two parts. This group also had the assignment of attaching the motor to a new clutch. The third group was assigned the task of working with the Jeep's existing electrical system, essentially ensuring that when a key is turned, a circuit is closed, like a light switch, and the entire system can begin a coherent electrical dialogue. The fourth group assembled the speed controller, ("Analogous to a throttle," Golub explained), and the last group worked on building the BMS, which regulates the battery charging activity.
The class began with a lecture by Golub, about the various tasks the groups were to complete. Then the participants rolled up their sleeves. At the beginning of subsequent classes, the groups would report to the class as a whole with status updates. It was the responsibility of each participant to take some time and walk around during class, to get an understanding of what other groups were doing.
The challenge, Golub said, while he was working on the BMS before the start of the fourth day of the course, was that it was a short class.
"Some people will have more of a comprehensive understanding," he said.
On June 4th, the last evening of the class, participant Houston Laws was sitting at a table working on the operator interface of the BMS. "It tells the volts, amps, how the [battery cells] are doing," Laws said. He picked this particular part of the project because he had little experience with what it entailed.
"It's tedious. I have no soldering experience. It was the thing that scared me the most, so I thought I'd try it," said Laws.
At a table next to Laws, classmate Andrew Keith was working on another component of the BMS, attaching small wires to 45 different nodes that will each be hooked to one of the 45 batteries, that had, at that point, all been wired together to act as one 144-volt battery.
"It's sort of like knitting, I imagine," said Keith. "Very meticulous, and lots of counting."
Several students commented on how there were so many different ways to construct and place every component, it was dizzying.
"Sometimes you come to a consensus, sometimes you get 'analysis paralysis,'" said participant Steve Lanwermeyer. "You get tired of talking about it. Then someone just has to do something."
With two hours left in the class, the rest of the participants were milling around trying to assemble the components they had built.
"Battery controller guy - where's the battery controller guy?" asked participant Lanwermeyer. Lanwermeyer took a minute out of the hecticness to explain, "The controller controls the amount of current. It makes sure the amperage and voltage regulate the current so your car safely and steadily accelerates. Instead of dumping more gas, you dump more electrons. Literally. It's the number of electrons that affect the motor spin. As the current increases, speed and RPMs increase, which is why the controller is important. If you let all the amperage in it at once, it would break the axel."
Like many of the other participants, Lanwermeyer explained, "I've been wanting to do a conversion for years."
"I have friends with shops and a yard full of vehicles," said participant Rachael Juzeler. "Doesn't that sound perfect?"
Around 10:30 p.m. that night, 10 heads were huddled around the hood of the Jeep, loaded with the 45 batteries, and too many wires to count. Laws and Keith were still at their tables. The participants all seemed to know what still had to be done; there just wasn't quite enough time.
When you have a project the scale of this electric conversion process that includes separate components that need to be assembled, "It saves money, not time," said Golub.
Though the Jeep was not running by the end of class (Golub returned to Fairbanks with the controller and the BMS to give them some extra attention), Drobnica is confident she has the knowledge to complete the conversion of her car; the overall objective was obtained.
"The goal of the class is to expose you to process of converting," said Golub.
And expose it did. But an electric car conversion can be completed without so many hours of labor or under the guidance of a seasoned instructor. You don't have to be an electrical engineer. There are pre-manufactured components readily available on the Internet, as well as instructional manuals and video guides. With gasoline prices between $4.50 and $4.80 a gallon, electric cars can often be a huge cost-saver, in addition to being more environmentally friendly.
Someday soon, if you're on the streets of Juneau, and you spy a quiet gray Jeep creeping by or plugged into an outlet, you will be looking at a machine with hundreds of hours of local hands-on work, and hopefully be inspired to ask for a peek under the hood.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.