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Power Drive

EVermont's uphill road to promote the electric auto


Published August 9, 2006 at 2:07 p.m.

Never mind the recent lethal heat wave and its possible link to global warming. Harold Garabedian looks cool as an organic cucumber behind the wheel of a vehicle that emits no carbon dioxide. Equally admirable while navigating a busy Waterbury thoroughfare on this humid August afternoon, he has made no pain-at-the-pump contribution to blood-for-oil in the Mid East. That's because Garabedian, research director of the nonprofit, alternative-technology enterprise EVermont, is out for a spin in an electric car. Though his Solectria Force is nearly 10 years old, it still rides like a dream.

Now that automobiles addicted to fossil fuel have become a nightmare, innovators like EVermont -- in the vanguard since 1993 -- are trying to prevent a planetary meltdown. But kicking the gasoline habit hasn't always been the sole provenance of industry outsiders.

During the mid-1990s, General Motors put out the nice, clean little EV1. The big-three automaker manufactured and leased a few thousand of the cars, which ran about 70 miles on a fully charged battery pack and were ideal for cruising around town. Like all electrics, they had no spark plugs, no radiators, no air filters, and no oil to change. Mechanical problems were rare. So where are they now?

The cruel fate of the EV1 is the subject of Who Killed the Electric Car? which opens Friday at the Roxy in Burlington. Chris Paine's 92-minute documentary gives moviegoers yet another inconvenient truth to contemplate: the economic, political and psychological factors behind GM's decision to crush every existing EV1 despite growing consumer demand.

Narrated by Martin Sheen, the film focuses on smog-ridden California, where stringent 1990 state emission standards required that electric cars account for a percentage of all new auto sales. The EV1 was never marketed with much pizzazz -- GM ran a rather spooky TV commercial about pollution. Although in the doc an actress named Colette Divine describes her EV1 as "cool, fast and sexy," it wasn't enough, apparently, for carmakers and oil companies. They began pressuring California to lower its groundbreaking emission rules, and the Bush administration joined corporate lobbyists in a 2003 lawsuit that spelled doom for the EV1.

By then, GM had switched its allegiance to the Hummer, which became all the rage among Hollywood stars. Today, ads for this fashionable gas-guzzler promise that owning one will help you "get your girl on," or become so manly you'll never eat tofu again.

In Who Killed the Electric Car?, the EV1's many West Coast fans hold a mock funeral to mark its demise. But the spirit of this environmentally sound vehicle lives on 3000 miles away. EVermont plans to surpass the Solectria this fall with an even more advanced prototype: the Evergreen.

"We're here to say that the electric car is not dead," proclaims John Kassel, a Burlington attorney and chairman of EVermont's board. "We've been keeping them alive. The big automakers should be doing it, too, because the cost goes down when you mass produce."

GM claimed the EV1 wouldn't work in cooler regions, and in fact there were some challenges; a technology developed primarily for a warm climate and flat, urban roads had to survive cold weather and rugged, rural terrain. But, says Garabedian, "We saw it as an engineering issue, not a fundamental barrier."

"General Motors thought the electric car could only go 11 miles in winter," adds Stephen Miracle, EVermont's technical director and, essentially, master builder. "Harold is a very tenacious guy. He set out to disprove that idea."

Garabedian, who is also deputy director for air quality at the state's Agency of Natural Resources, welcomed the challenge. "In the Northeast, we wanted to exhibit leadership. One strategy was the notion of adopting California's emissions program," he recalls. Thanks to an initial push from then-Governor Howard Dean, and federal grants facilitated by Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Bernie Sanders, the Waterbury-based EVermont was soon at full throttle as a public-private initiative. "We put together a number of projects to collect data," Garabedian says of his operation, which has a staff of four consultants and an average annual budget of almost $1 million.

Remember the little electric car plugged in on Main Street in the Queen City about 10 years ago? It was among some half-dozen converted Geo Metros that EVermont bought from the Solectria company in Massachusetts for an initial three-year test period. One immediate hurdle: The cars' lead batteries froze overnight in frigid temperatures, unless they were covered by a heating-pad device, according to EVermont financial manager Phil Girton. Along came nickel metal hydride batteries, which were less susceptible to the chill.

The new Evergreen, a retrofitted Toyota Echo, has Swiss sodium nickel chloride batteries that withstand below-zero conditions. The four-door sedan also features an auxiliary kerosene heating system to warm up the cabin without draining the battery; one gallon lasts an entire season. "EVermont sort of pioneered this heating system," EVermont's Kassel points out.

The earliest Solectrias have a range of 40 to 50 miles from each complete charge; the more recent EVermont electrics clock 80, and the Evergreen can reach 100.

"Carmakers apparently thought Americans wouldn't go for electric cars when gas was still only $1.50 a gallon," Kassel notes. "Now that it's $3, people ask me all the time where they can get one."

Unfortunately, they can't. EVermont turns out a limited number of test vehicles. The three upcoming Evergreens may become part of "a shared-car program with local transportation organizations," Girton says. Some used EVermont cars were sold on the Internet or at state auctions.

In 2004, Kassel paid $2500 for one of the original models that runs a mere 35 miles per charge. "That's fine for 90 percent of our family's needs," he says. "My kids take it to high school. We drive it about 5000 miles a year."

Garabedian's plug-in Solectria has 55,000 miles on the odometer and is potentially good for another 445,000, unless the body succumbs to road-salt rust first. Meanwhile, charging the battery each night only adds about $30 to his monthly electricity bill. Nowadays, many of us pay more than that for a single fill-up at the gas station.


Until a few years ago, EVermont was the only company making electric cars in the United States, according to technical director Miracle. But the Evergreen is now evolving in the shadow of other eco-friendly entrepreneurial endeavors hoping to capitalize on the oil industry's "well-to-wheel" quagmire. In late July, Tesla Motors unveiled the sleek, sporty Roadster, an electric with lithium-ion batteries that hold a whopping 250 miles per charge. The rich and famous are already plunking down $100,000 deposits for 100 "collector's edition" cars now available from the company, located near San Francisco. The vehicle may eventually sell for a slightly more affordable $45,000.

"The Tesla is very flashy and will attract a lot of attention, but it's yet another diversion," Miracle contends. "Getting to work and the grocery store in a safe, comfortable and efficient vehicle may not be what we want, but is surely what we need."

The decidedly not-flashy Smart Fortwo, a tiny German gasoline-fueled invention, is expected to hit these shores by 2008. And an electric offshoot of this two-seat coupe with 68-mile batteries could soon follow.

Gas-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius still rely on the oil industry. "Zero emissions was driving the technology in the 1990s, so hybrids seemed like a compromise in Vermont," Kassel says. "We're a little greener than other places."

Some people see promise in biodiesel or ethanol. Hydrogen fuel cells, touted by the Bush administration, are still decades away from reality. In an entirely different scientific approach, last month EVermont debuted the state's first hydrogen-burning car and requisite filling station, in Burlington. Garabedian describes this prototype as "a bridge to the future, because it's a cleaner fuel that can be locally generated, not from a hole in the ground half-a-world away." At $5 to $10 per gallon, hydrogen is costly, but he theorizes that might become the price range of gasoline before too long.

EVermont's visionaries temper their idealism with practicality. They'd like to see a local cottage industry that could manufacture electric vehicles. Kassel hopes to forge a partnership with the University of Vermont, which "wants to create a green Silicon Valley to bring a lot of green, high-tech jobs here," he suggests.

"We will end up with electric cars in America," predicts Miracle, who took the premier Evergreen on a successful 10-mile maiden voyage last week. "They're the most efficient way to get to the store without having to pedal. We can make them with all the accoutrements -- air bags, heaters, air-conditioners, whatever. If you can't give one to your mom, forget it."

Garabedian appreciates the cross-continental arc of progress: "California was the catalyst. Vermont continues to pursue more sustainable transportation for modern society." He pauses before "going out on a limb" to suggest a revolutionary mind-set: "Maybe we need to stop thinking of transportation as personal property. It can be a service that we pay a monthly fee for in order to get all the mobility we need. One day you might want a pickup; another day, it could be a compact."

Isn't this idea a bit like, gulp, communism? "Well, it's actually how we use the Internet," Garabedian notes with a smile. As he parks his Solectria Force, the swelter of climate change outside is a reminder that EVermont's emission-free mission may be a lifesaver.