Sacramento’s electric-car club

Small contingent of Sacramentans will never pay at the pump again

Greater Sacramento Electric Auto Association’s (left to right) Guy Hall, Tom Dowling, Elia Bassin and David Link show off their electric vehicles.

Greater Sacramento Electric Auto Association’s (left to right) Guy Hall, Tom Dowling, Elia Bassin and David Link show off their electric vehicles.

Photo by Nick miller

For Tom Dowling, embracing new-fangled gadgets is something that runs in the family.

“My father was an early adopter, and we had the first TV set on the block,” said Dowling, who today is vice president of the Greater Sacramento Electric Auto Association, and owner of two electric cars. That’s right, he’s also an early adopter to the latest auto technology.

Now retired and settled in Folsom, Dowling joined a local chapter of the national Electric Auto Association and spends a lot of his time sharing expertise on things such as electric chargers with other electric-vehicle owners.

There are 85 members in the GSEAA, which is run like an auto club for alternative-vehicle enthusiasts. But a club “for geeks,” according to member David Link, a retired math teacher and owner of a 1998 Honda Civic GX natural-gas car, which is charged by a gas compressor.

Link said the club has been around since the ’70s and has had two incarnations. Its original members were experimenters: They would take ordinary gasoline cars, strip the vehicles of its gas tank, gasoline engine and all parts that were strictly gasoline operated, because there was no EV industry prior to the ’90s.

“There are cars you see driving around that are missing their tailpipe,” said Guy Hall, GSEAA president, who listed old Porsches as vehicles that are popular to convert to electric. “There is still a little bit of that [conversion] going on in the club, it’s mostly [made up of] people who have bought commercial EVs.”

The manufacturing of commercial EVs and their batteries is a direct result of President Barack Obama’s $800 billion economic-stimulus package in 2009. More than $2 billion in federal grants, combined with another $2 billion in private investment for EV manufacturing and its infrastructure has made EVs a higher-profile industry.

According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, at the end of 2011 there were 99,917 registered electric vehicles and 395,483 registered hybrid vehicles in California.

Those are small numbers compared to the nearly 32 million gasoline-fueled vehicles in the state, but it is an industry in its infancy after many false starts.

Between 1997 and 2000, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. produced electric cars to test the viability of a commercial EV market, but most of these vehicles were only available by lease. By 2003, manufacturers phased out EVs.

The Obama administration’s revival of the EV industry still has a long way to go to meet its goal of putting 1 million EVs on the road by 2015.

“It’s sticker shock and range anxiety,” said Link about what keeps people from buying EVs.

Dowling owns a 2011 Chevy Volt and said he paid $47,000, prior to the $7,500 federal tax credit and the $2,500 California rebate as incentive for purchasing his car.

Hall owns a Nissan Leaf and he spent $600 on his charging station. He chose electric because of the dramatically lower cost of fuel and maintenance.

“You have to keep in mind that a lot of people only look at the money you’re saving on gas. They’ve got valve adjustments, smog checks, clutch problems, oil checks. All those things don’t exist with electric cars,” explained Elia Bassin, GSEAA member and owner of the 2010 Zero Motorcycle, one of the first classes of electric motorcycles.

To put range anxiety into perspective: Dowling’s Chevy Volt has 40 miles of battery life. On trips to San Francisco to visit his grandchildren, he uses up his battery life, then lets the gas motor kick in so that it charges the battery while he drives.

Bassin pointed out that most people only have 10-mile commutes.

Part of the success of traditional gasoline cars is the way it continues to symbolize unlimited freedom on the open road for American consumers.

The GSEAA network of alternative-fuel owners are interested in changing people’s minds about EVs, in order to dispel the many fallacies they see associated with alternative vehicles. One tactic is noting the high cost of fossil fuels.

“When I had my first car, gas was 99 cents,” Bassin said, “and I’m not even 30 years old, and it has gone to over $4 dollars a gallon. It’s bigger than any inflation of anything, maybe bigger than health-care inflation.”