Electric highways

Chicoans abuzz about life in the slow lane

GOLF CART? NO WAY!<br>You won’t see Chuck Aldrin’s neighborhood electric vehicle out on Highway 99, but the compact car costs only about a penny per mile to operate and is practically emissions-free. NEV prices range from about $6,000 to $14,000.

You won’t see Chuck Aldrin’s neighborhood electric vehicle out on Highway 99, but the compact car costs only about a penny per mile to operate and is practically emissions-free. NEV prices range from about $6,000 to $14,000.

Photo By Brittni Zacher

Tired of doling out the dough for gasoline and expensive repairs, Dennis and Marguerite Scammon decided to ditch conventional gas-guzzlers for slightly slower but decidedly cleaner modes of transportation.

The couple can be spotted traipsing around town in a neighborhood electric vehicle. The futuristic-looking NEVs are ideal for a town the size of Chico and have the added bonus of being extremely compact; two can fit into a single parking space.

With a top speed of about 25 mph, the miniature cars travel about 30 miles before needing to be recharged from an electrical power source. They are street legal for roads with posted speed limits of 35 mph or less. Highways are an obvious no-no, but Marguerite finds she rarely needs to alter her route to get where she needs to go.

“There’s about three blocks on the way to church where it’s 40 mph, but I just don’t worry about it,” she said.

In addition to the NEV, the Scammons own an electric bicycle that can reach a top speed of 20 mph, operating only when its rider is pedaling.

Dennis uses the bike for his commute to work. The trip takes a little longer than driving—about 15 minutes versus 10—but he says that not contributing to global warming is worth that extra time and effort.

Dennis became interested in climate change after watching Al Gore’s award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. He said driving an electric car is his way of helping halt the global climate crisis.

“Everybody does their one little bit,” Scammon said. “It’s not hopeless; global warming can be reversed or mitigated in some way.”

The Scammons share their interest in electric vehicles with members of the national Electric Auto Association. In Chico, the local chapter meets every two months to promote clean-running electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles received a lot of hype in the early ‘90s, yet the cars were relatively slow to catch on. Recently, their popularity has been on the rise.

In the United States, the numbers jumped from 2,860 to 353,518 between 1995 and 2004. That’s an average annual growth rate of 39 percent, the second largest increase among alternative-fueled vehicles, behind ethanol, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Photo By Brittni Zacher

Chuck Aldrin, president of Chico Electric Auto Association, was interested in electric vehicles long before there was a heightened awareness of greenhouse gases. His foray into the world of electric cars was mainly spurred by his desire to be less dependent on oil companies for transportation, and he recognized that without them transportation options are pretty limited.

“You can either walk, ride a bicycle or buy gas,” he said.

Aldrin is something of a pioneer when it comes to electric transportation, having converted a Fiat into a fully electric car more than 25 years ago. He now owns three electric vehicles: an NEV, a Toyota RAV 4 EV and a hybrid Toyota Prius, which runs on a battery and gasoline.

The RAV 4 is the most efficient of the vehicles. It is limited to a top speed of 80 mph by a computer, yet comes standard with all of the features of its gasoline-fueled counterpart, such as heating, air conditioning and automatic windshield wipers. Depending on driving conditions, the car can travel upwards of 100 miles before it has to be plugged in and recharged.

Despite the vehicle’s mileage limitations, Aldrin manages to drive the car long distances. He recently made a 300-mile round-trip trek to the Central Valley by stopping at a relative’s house in Sacramento to plug in the car, and then using a public charging station once he reached his destination in Modesto. The only downside of recharging, he says, is that it can take four to six hours.

While they’re not well-known, hundreds of public charging stations for electric cars were set up in California at private companies and businesses (some of the first at Holiday Inn hotels in the late 1960s) to meet the needs of the coming wave of electric vehicles. However, because of the measly production of the vehicles over the years, the infrastructure of these stations began to crumble.

These days, several companies have begun donating the unused chargers to the Electric Auto Association, allowing the organization to set them up and maintain them in places they see fit.

A network of chargers has already been set up by EAA volunteers at various stops between the Bay Area and Reno. Aldrin would like to see the network extended from Redding to Southern California, forming an “electric highway” that would allow the vehicles to cruise across California.

The local chapter of the EAA currently has a public charger at the offices of the Butte County Air Quality Board Management District in south Chico, and is hoping to set up additional sites in Red Bluff, Redding and in the area near Yuba City and Marysville. Aldrin hopes that eventually there will be chargers outside of businesses, so that people from Chico and the surrounding areas can charge their NEVs while they shop.

Aldrin says the future of electric cars in America is plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, cars with an internal combustion engine and batteries chargeable by an electric source. The technology for these cars is readily available, although production of the vehicles is years away.

A likely entrant into the plug-in hybrid market is the concept Chevy Volt. According to General Motors, the Volt can run exclusively on battery power for 40 miles, after which time it switches to liquid fuel to recharge the battery, giving it an estimated gas mileage of 50 miles per gallon.

Aldrin owns a solar-panel business, Energy Alternatives, and sees potential for the electric car to even further reduce emissions by being powered by cleaner forms of energy, such as solar power. His home is entirely solar-powered and is hooked to the power grid. On cloudy days when the panels don’t produce much power, he can draw in PG&E’s power, and on sunny days when he doesn’t use all of his power, he sells it back. This also allows for all of Aldrin’s electric vehicles to be solar-powered.

Although oil hit another all-time high last week at more than $89 per barrel, Aldrin hopes the price gets even steeper. When fuel prices rise, he said, people have a greater incentive to buy more efficient vehicles that produce less emissions.

“I hope fuel prices rise to $10 a gallon,” he said.