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Electric cars generate a buzz

by Mike Morrow
with permission from The Times-Standard
Photos by Nick Aronoff
April 24, 2005

ARCATA -- Often, Kevin Johnson will wave as he drives past one of those $2.89 per gallon gas stations that pepper the landscape.

But even Johnson knows he's going to have to stop every once in awhile.

"Yeah," he says, "maybe to put air in my tires."

His 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit -- no, make that, Voltswagen Rabbit -- has become somewhat of an attraction throughout Arcata, a community known for and proud of its uniqueness.

And during Saturday's Sustainable Living, Arts and Music Festival at Humboldt State, the car and several others on display drew a constant gathering of interested individuals.

"I just paid $35 to fill up ... where do I get one of these?" asked one woman.

Johnson is among more than a dozen members of the Humboldt Electric Vehicle Association, individuals whose mission includes, among other things, educating and promoting sustainable transportation.

Transportation, they say, is just one focus of their lifestyle, but it's a big piece of the day-to-day puzzle.

"Ninety percent of all cars in the United States travel less than 30 miles a day, so an electric car is a perfect fit for most transportation needs," Johnson said. "It's particularly relevant to the needs of people in Humboldt County."

What's needed, they'll say, is a commitment to a philosophy and a lifestyle most people support but few are willing to enter into. It's all about solar heating, growing vegetables and avoiding the easy way out.

It was a philosophy much in evidence Saturday, with exhibitors including On Our Way to Zero Waste, the city of Arcata's Environmental Services, a group called the Humboldt Juggling Society and "an insurrection blue grass" group from Fort Collins, Colo.

"Think about it," Johnson said, "all of this makes sense."

Also on display was a bio-diesel vehicle run on a sort of restaurant vegetable oil, along with several other vehicles.

Johnson's car, which he said "was a piece of junk" when he purchased it several years ago, operates on 16 golf-cart batteries (eight located in the front, eight located in the back), gets between 40 and 50 miles between charges and has been rebuilt with off-the-shelf items.

The vehicles operate on lead acid golf cart batteries which have a life of between three to seven years. Nickel metal hydride batteries, soon to be readily available, can get more than 100,000 miles on them, said Johnson.

"I'm an example that this can be done," he said, noting that most medium-range conversion costs (from fuel to electric) average from $3,000 to $6,000.

Actually, said Johnson, "when this country gave up the horse-and-buggy at the turn of the century, some of the first cars produced by Henry Ford were electric."

Today's electric cars are the original plug-and-play.

"You know," said John Schaefer, another electric vehicle proponent, "it probably costs 15 to 25 cents per mile to run cars today. An electric car costs 5 cents per mile."

Schaefer purchased his vehicle, a 1994 Chevy Prism, as a ready-to-run car last summer.

It was, he said, a glider car, that is, a car without an engine that General Motors and U.S. Electric Car had intended to develop.

"All the organized components were right there," he said. "All I had to do was replace the batteries. It runs really sweet right now."

Admitting his "runs" are no more than back-and-forth trips to Eureka, Schaefer said, "something like this really would serve people here."

"We have been seduced by the ease of using fossil fuels," Schaefer said. "We do not have to do that. We can burn vegetable oil (to run vehicles). That would change how we distribute our agriculture, but there's no reason why we wouldn't change.

"Hey, it's time that we all review how we lead our lives. Maybe we need to have horses again. That wouldn't be so bad."

Brian Willson, another supporter of the "sustainable" lifestyle, said he's got 24 solar panels installed on his home in Arcata and that he has moved toward a totally independent way of living his life.

"Right now, this country is on a suicide path," said Willson. "The way we live our lives, the way we exploit our resources as if they were limitless, the way we pollute the air. I'm a philosophical Buddhist, I've never had a credit card, and I'm very conscious of what I do, the footprint I want to leave on this planet."

Willson, somewhat of a folk hero within the anti-war movement in the area, has a specially made truck he uses to help him at home. He also commutes with a specially made bicycle.

Willson lost both feet when he was hit by a train during a protest in 1987, but says he has not lost faith in the direction his life has taken him.

"I believe we have to go in this direction," he said, looking at one of the electric cars.

Today, he uses his truck, a Chevy S-10, to help him move manure, compost, mulch, brush and other materials as part of his permaculture gardening.