Story last updated at 12/17/2008 - 3:45 pm
SITKA - Affordable electric cars may be just a few years away from hitting the markets, but some Southeast Alaskans don't want to wait.
With the self-sufficient mindset common to many Alaskans, a small but passionate number of people have decided to do the conversions themselves. By getting more electric cars on the road, they are hoping to develop a market for cars running on the clean, renewable hydro-powered electricity available to many Southeast communities.
A Sitka Community Schools class converted two vehicles to electric in June. The now electric Chevy pickup truck is being used by the Sitka Recycling Center. Michelle Putz, a member of the Sitka Global Warming Group, also offered her Geo Metro as a test subject for conversion.
"I really wanted to have an impact on the climate by not burning fossil fuels," she said. "I was interested and willing to put the money toward (the conversion)."
Converting a car from gasoline to electric propulsion involves removing the internal combustion engine and replacing it with an electric motor and additional batteries.
Putz spent about $4,000 on the parts and batteries to convert her vehicle, and said the truck conversion cost around $7,000. The difference is that Putz opted for a lower-powered electric system. With her 48-volt system, her Metro can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour and travel 25 to 30 miles between charges. The converted truck has a 120-volt system and can travel at 65 miles an hour.
"If you want more power, you're going to have to pay more for it," she said, adding that the conversion costs about as much as replacing a dead motor.
For Putz, decreased speed and decreased cargo space in her car is less important than living a carbon-neutral life.
"The biggest thing for me is that because we have renewable power I had no carbon footprint," Putz said. "In a way, that makes me feel so much better about how I live my life."
The Sitka Global Warming Group is discussing ways to drastically decrease the greenhouse gases produced by their community within the next decade, and many see switching to electric vehicles as a significant part of their approach, along with conserving electricity and switching from oil heating to wood or electric.
Another class is being planned for next summer. Putz already has a list of people who are interested in participating and hopes to get others excited about electric conversions as well.
"This could be something that Southeast could take as its own and do as a business and get people involved and interested," Putz said. "It would really be a great business for someone who likes to do (mechanical and electrical) stuff."
Turbo-charged business idea
A young couple in Juneau has been thinking the exact same thing. Mountain Rymon and Zelda Layne are planning to start a business in Juneau similar to what Putz envisions for Sitka, and are currently looking for vehicles and parts for conversions.
Layne has a background in electrical engineering and Rymon has a degree in design and experience with mechanics. Both are dedicated to finding ways to live without depending on limited resources.
They want their first conversion to represent a range of vehicles, from compact to heavy-duty and inexpensive to luxury. Their first conversion will be a pickup truck that will become the business' work truck.
"What (we) want to do is show Alaskans that they don't have to give up their trucks," Layne said. "We want to get the best batteries, the best motors, make the best vehicles, so when people see it, they can say, 'Oh, we can have whatever we want.'"
Not every car is suitable for conversion, Rymon said. A junker will be converted into an electric junker, and automatic transmission vehicles often need to be converted to manual before they can become electric.
"Manual transmission cars are the easiest conversion," Rymon said. "The best conversions are already good cars."
Rymon and Layne see the conversions as something they can do right away to cut down on the use of fossil fuels in their own life, and hopefully in the lives of others.
"We're going to run out (of fossil fuels)," Rymon said. "It's going to happen soon. People should be really interested in electric now."
Even Layne and Rymon's daughter, Pearl Elektra, who is just learning to talk, seems to be interested. She's already mastered some key phrase, like "Turbo-charged!" and "AC-DC."
solution to transportation emissions?
Electric cars are not a new idea, and though the conversions may be gaining in popularity in recent years they are not new to Southeast either.
Fifteen years ago, Juneau resident Bill Leighty and his sons converted a Honda CRX to electric propulsion. It was a father-son project that resulted in a car for the boys to drive when they got their licenses.
Yet Leighty, an electrical engineer who has devoted himself to the study of renewable resources as director of the philanthropic Leighty Foundation, also paid attention to the numbers. With the help of Alaska Electric Light and Power Vice President Scott Willis, he calculated the electricity used by the car and whether it
would be feasible for the whole community to convert their vehicles to electric.
But the numbers don't add up. If everyone converted their vehicles to electric right now, there would not be enough hydropower available to power them all, Leighty said.
"While converting a car to run on electricity rather than gasoline will make individuals feel good, ... it's not the panacea that will solve our personal vehicle transportation problem in Juneau, Southeast Alaska, or the world," he said.
Still, he wouldn't discourage individuals from going ahead with their conversions for the time being. And as electric vehicles become better and better designed, they may require less electricity to function.
And in the meantime, converting a number of vehicles to electric could make a dent in the internal energy economy of a Southeast town. Leighty also thinks that those who convert vehicles to electric are likely to take other steps to reduce their carbon footprint as well.
"It gives people a sense of taking responsibility and going out of their way and changing the way they do things," he said. "If they do it there, they're likely to propagate that sense of responsibility to everything (they) do... which could add up to much more than (just) personal transportation."
Sitkans interested in getting their cars converted or taking a conversion class can contact Michelle Putz at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about efforts to convert vehicles to electric in Juneau, contact Zelda Layne email@example.com.