Leading the Charge With Electric Cars

As a concept, the gas-powered automobile engine is dead, though its funeral is taking so long that the public hasn't caught on yet.The delay is being masterminded by automobile manufacturers and oil companies, all of whom, for their own reasons, don't want to admit there's a corpse in the coffin.But with the world's supply of affordable oil expected to run out in 25 to 60 years, depending on whose estimates you believe, any car owner or dealer who thinks about the long haul needs to think about electric cars or the so-called "hybrids," cars with two or more energy sources (usually combinations of gas and electricity).In Europe, a growing number of city streets are off limits to nonelectric vehicles, and Peugeot, Fiat, Renault and many other car makers offer electric options. Every major Japanese auto manufacturer makes electric and hybrid cars designed to conform to California's emissions requirements, which are the strictest in the U.S.California already has more than 100 charging stations, some of them solar-powered, for electric vehicles. In Massachusetts, Mass Electric and other utilities are working with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority on plans to build 11 charging stations along the Turnpike's right of way.And if you bought an electric car right now, you could get a federal income tax credit worth 10 percent of the purchase price -- up to $4,000. Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld also has proposed state tax credits for electric vehicle purchases.More and more, the U.S. Department of Energy -- an institution that historically stood poles apart from the environmental movement -- is supporting alternative transportation. That's because its officials see dependence on foreign oil as a threat to national security and to the U.S.'s trade balance. The Greenfield, Mass.-based Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, which started as a grassroots group in Brattleboro, Vt. 20 years ago, is becoming a major conduit for DOE money and support flowing into the fledgling alternative transportation industry.NESEA is a clearinghouse for information about a wide range of alternative energy applications; in March, for example, it held a conference at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston on the integration of photovoltaic elements in roofing material and window glass. But its most widely publicized role is that of organizer of the American Tour de Sol, one of the leading alternative vehicle races in the world. Since it started up in 1989, this race has provided a focus for the development of electric cars powered by solar and other alternative sources.Nonpolluting cars powered with clean fuels -- ideally, by solar power rather than petroleum-based fuels -- are the dream of the staff at NESEA.It's no secret that American auto manufacturers haven't liked the idea of switching from gas-powered to electric vehicles. But the people at NESEA have avoided getting into a shouting match with Detroit. They haven't said the auto makers were lying when they claimed the technical problems of mass-producing alternative vehicles were insuperable. They have just plugged away, waiting for the day when the results of their annual race would say more than confrontational words ever could.This year's Tour de Sol, which ran from New York to Washington, D.C. May 10-17, did just that. It took solar-powered and hybrid electric cars out of the wonderland of science fiction. It proved that fuel-efficient, nonpolluting automobiles no longer have to resemble giant grasshoppers or UFOs with fanatics in their cockpits -- that they can look normal, even smart, and carry passengers comfortably.It showcased a number of vehicles with maximum speeds of 80 to 110 miles per hour, a far cry from the low cruising speeds of the early models. It proved that the problem of range -- the distance a car can travel without having to be recharged -- can be solved, and has virtually been solved already. In eight years the range of electric and hybrid vehicles has leaped from 35 to 373 miles.Nancy Hazard, who organizes the Tour de Sol for NESEA, explained more about the "huge technical learning curve" alternative vehicle development has traversed since 1989."Since the race began seven years ago, General Motors put out an electric van, the G-Van, that used 1,000 watt-hours per mile," Hazard pointed out. "The Solectria Sunrise [which won this year's Tour de Sol by going 373 miles on a single charge] uses about 100 watt-hours per mile. We see that the lead-acid batteries have improved, and we see more sophisticated energy storage systems, including flywheels, batteries, energy cells, systems that enable us to get the kind of range the Sunrise got in this race."Given that many of the technological problems with electric vehicles are fundamentally solved, it's not scientific obstacles that are holding up the mass marketing of emission-free cars. It is, apparently, a political pushing and shoving match as the auto makers position themselves to control the introduction of electric vehicles and maximize their market share.In 1990, partly through the efforts of then State Sen., now U.S. Rep. John Olver (D-Amherst), Massachusetts joined New York in passing legislation that would have replicated the tough emissions regulations developed earlier in California, where the end of the line for the gas-powered car was written in the smog over Los Angeles.California had mandated that 2 percent of new vehicles sold in the state in 1998 be zero-emissions vehicles, or ZEVs, which in practical terms usually means electric, though there are other ZEV technologies (Chrysler, for example, is mounting a big promotional campaign for cars powered by natural gas). The quota would rise to 5 percent in 2001, and 10 percent in 2003. Meanwhile, the federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 requires that businesses and public agencies with fleets of 10 or more vehicles begin switching to low- or zero-emission vehicles next year.But Massachusetts' and New York's emissions programs were set back earlier this year when California Gov. Pete Wilson yielded to pressure from auto makers and dealers and eliminated the 2 percent mandate for 1998. Wilson substituted a requirement that the car companies put a total of 3,750 nonpolluting cars on the market between 1998 and 2002 to help get the infrastructure and the public ready for the 10 percent mandate that will go into effect in 2003.Wilson's change had implications for Massachusetts and New York because the federal Clean Air Act says that no state may institute tougher emissions regulations than California's. So far New York has insisted on sticking to the original California program. In Massachusetts, the Department of Environmental Protection has proposed to copy the modified California program.But to the auto makers, government mandates at any level are castor oil. Gov. Wilson's modification of the California program, which changed the timetable for the introduction of electric cars before 2003 to a quota based on contracts between the state and the large auto makers, has allowed Detroit to save face by telling the public that its compliance with the California program is voluntary.In addition, when 10 other Northeastern states three years ago developed a plan to replicate the California program, the auto makers responded by coming up with a proposal to introduce electric cars on their own terms in 49 states. In what Sheila Lynch of the Northeast Alternative Vehicle Association describes as a "divide and conquer strategy," their next move was to tell the states that planned to stick to the California program that if they wanted to participate in the industry's so-called 49-state program, they couldn't have state emissions mandates."Our interest is in having both Massachusetts and New York do away with their zero-emissions mandates," said Jay Hyde, a spokesman for the Association of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington. "That's been the stumbling block to the adoption and implementation of the national low-emission vehicle program [the so-called 49-state program] that the industry has volunteered. The industry's view is that you can't have it both ways."That wasn't the view of EPA spokeswoman Martha Casey, whom Hyde said would support his point that state emissions programs are counterproductive."Everyone knows how the auto makers feel about electric cars," Casey said. "This agency has not said one program is better than another. State programs can be a major incentive for research and development of nonpolluting vehicles."Hyde acknowledged that a dislike of government mandates as hostile to free enterprise is "part of the reason" the auto industry is fighting state emissions programs tooth and nail. Massachusetts State Rep. David Cohen (D-Newton), who put Massachusetts' emissions program into legislative form, said it is just not true that state mandates conflict with the 49-state program."The 49-state program could be implemented by the manufacturers tomorrow," he said. "The auto manufacturers are exhibiting the same pattern they exhibited in the fights about seat belts, air bags, the Clean Air Act. In the 1920s they even opposed safety glass. And they took credit for all these things afterward."So far Gov. Weld has supported tough emissions programs. Before California modified its regulations, Weld made a public appeal to Wilson, whose abortive presidential campaign he had supported, not to make the changes the auto manufacturers were calling for.If it seems paradoxical that Weld, a Republican who generally plays his party's pro-business game, is supporting a low-emissions regimen for Massachusetts, it really isn't. After all, the big auto makers are in another state. Solectria, which could develop a sizable number of new jobs if alternative vehicles become big business, is in Weld's state, Massachusetts. The Wilmington-based company has some surprisingly prominent business partners, too, including Boston Edison, General Electric, United Technologies and Textron Automotive Technology Center.And since Washington is giving Massachusetts no choice about cleaning up its air, it's cheaper and easier to do that by cleaning up cars than by cracking down on businesses that emit pollution -- businesses that are located here in Massachusetts and run by the people Weld hopes will vote him into the U.S. Senate this fall.On June 7 the Massachusetts DEP held a hearing on its proposal to continue with a pollution control program modeled after California's new, less strict one. Weld asked the auto makers to put 3,750 electric cars on the market between model years 1998 and 2002, the same number they will be required to sell in California. Representatives of GM and six other car companies refused, claiming the technology involved is not well enough developed to make such a quota feasible.In that very hearing, however, General Motors promised to offer electric Chevrolet S-10 pickup trucks in Massachusetts in 1997. Ford Motor Company said its electric Rangers would be available here in 1998.Also present at the DEP hearing was Mark Dockser, vice president of Solectria. Dockser said that if Solectria could identify a market for 500 of its four-door Forces, it could sell them for a price that would add up to only $26,000 after tax credits. At the moment, the Solectria Force costs $34,875.Inside and outside Massachusetts, the evidence that alternative vehicle technology works is closing in on GM and its colleagues. For two years the Massachusetts Department of Energy has run a commuter leasing program that puts Boston area residents at the wheels of electric Solectria Forces that they can recharge at the Alewife and Braintree commuter rail stations.In Westchester County, N.Y., IBM uses Solectria Forces to get employees from the North White Plains train station, which has six chargers, to company headquarters.Solectria has been quick to move into openings created by the Energy Policy Act mandate for state and local governments and utilities to use zero-emissions vehicles. Its Forces are on the roads in 25 states, in fleets operated by the New York Power Authority, New England Electric Systems, Arizona Public Service, Potomac Electric Power Company, Southern California Edison, and other utilities and public agencies.And while the big manufacturers speak skeptically about alternative vehicle technology to some audiences, they're puffing it to others as they reach out for their share of tomorrow's market. For example, the Energy Policy Act sets this Sept. 1 as the starting date for the rule that 10 percent of all cars in government and fuel provider fleets must use alternative power sources. With fall sales in view, GM, Chrysler and other large auto manufacturers have been promoting their own electric vehicles to specialized markets targeted by the federal law.It's all increasingly isolating for the National Petroleum Council, which in angry testimony to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection at the June 7 hearing insisted that "the 1999 gasoline car will be 99 percent emissions-free."As the Massachusetts DEP studies testimony from the June 7 hearing before announcing whether it will keep the state's zero-emissions program moving on California's timetable, the big auto makers and their allies are using their protests to gain time -- apparently not because they don't see the handwriting on the wall, but because delays increase their chances of dominating the alternative vehicle market and the market for supporting technologies such as batteries and electrical circuitry."We've certainly seen evidence from the various large companies that they have some terrific electric vehicle technology," said Mark Thidemann, marketing director for Solectria. "It does appear at times that they're speaking out of both sides of their mouths, talking about how great it can be but slowing down the process that will get the technology on the market. I wouldn't call it a conspiracy. I don't think you can become large and remain large by not controlling market share."

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