Charging ahead | June 19, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 19, 2009

Charging ahead

Electric cars are sparking new interest in Palo Alto and around the world

by Gennady Sheyner

The Tesla engines purr like muffled Xerox machines in a spotless garage inside the company's flagship dealership on El Camino Real in Menlo Park.

Aside from the rows of glossy roadsters, the small crew of short-sleeved mechanics and the classic rock tunes drowning out the soft hum of the battery coolant, the place has about as much in common with a traditional dealership as its much-hyped roadster has with a Hummer.

The gray floor is conspicuously greaseless — a small but palpable benefit of dealing with oil-less cars. The plush waiting room is separated from the garage by a glass partition, for easy viewing. And the company's newest offering <0x2011> the Model S sedan, due for a 2011 release — looks more ordinary and traditional than the futuristic sports cars currently scattered around the lot.

The Tesla dealership stands on the grounds once occupied by an Anderson Chevrolet dealership. The dealership closed in 2005, one of five car dealers to leave the Menlo Park segment of El Camino Real in recent years.

Tesla, by contrast, is thinking big. Earlier this month, the San Carlos-based company announced its plans to build seven more sales-and-service centers, including ones in Seattle, Chicago and New York. And it's banking on the family- and wallet-friendly Model S (at $49,900 roughly half the cost of the roadster) to open up a whole new market for the company in 2011.

For Tesla spokesperson Rachel Konrad, the symbolism of Tesla's location on the former Chevrolet site just outside the Palo Alto border isn't hard to grasp.

"We're reviving the car industry," Konrad said.

Tesla is far from the only company banking its future on the rise of the electric car.

From San Diego's three-wheeled Apterra and China's recently unveiled Coda sedan to a panoply of prototypes offered by the major manufacturers, a new wave of electric vehicles is preparing to flood the nation's auto market over the next few years.

And unlike just a few years ago, these entrepreneurs have a charged-up supply of dependable partners in the public sector. The federal government just bought more than 14,000 electric vehicles to bolster the fleet of its General Services Administration. States are promoting electric vehicles as a way to improve air quality. And cities are installing charging stations and integrating electric vehicles into their fleets.

Even filmmaker Chris Paine, whose celebrity-studded documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" chronicles and sentimentalizes the 2003 recall of GM's EV1 electric car, is feeling optimistic. Paine, who lost his EV1 to the recall but now owns a Tesla roadster, is preparing to release a sunnier sequel: "The Revenge of the Electric Car."

By all accounts, things are looking up for a high-voltage future.

And Palo Alto, already one of the greenest and tech-savviest cities in the nation, is poised to be on the front lines of a global electric-vehicle revolution.

"My sense is, if there's any place that's going to be one of the early adopters, it's Palo Alto," said Don Von Dollen, a researcher who specializes in electric infrastructure at Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute. "There's green awareness and it's an affluent area, so people can afford to respond to that awareness.

"Just seeing the number of Priuses here, you can tell the desire is there."

But skeptics could rightfully say they've been here before. In the mid-1990s, the major carmakers in Detroit and Japan began spitting out prototypes for electric vehicles, including the Chevrolet EV1. Hyped as the wave of the future, these cars attained a passionate following in Hollywood and other green circles around California.

Ten years later, the cars were nowhere in sight. In 2003, the California Air Resources Board rescinded its Zero-Emissions Vehicles mandate, which required carmakers that do business in California to include emission-free vehicles in their fleets. The car companies responded by scrapping their nascent battery-powered fleets and shredding existing electric cars into metal pebbles.

GM recalled the EV1 and Ford and Toyota both scrapped their programs. "Who Killed the Electric Car?" spreads the blame between Detroit, Big Oil, the California Air Resources Board and the Bush administration, which embraced hydrogen-powered vehicles over their electric counterparts.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, said it's too early to tell whether the car giants will be any more earnest this time around. Jacobson's recent study compared the various types of alternative-fuel vehicles and concluded that electric cars are by far the most efficient and green of the available options — provided their electricity is generated by wind. A hydrogen-powered vehicle — which has the benefit of a longer range — is as clean as an electric vehicle but requires about three times as much electricity to function, Jacobson said.

He said electric cars use between 75 percent and 86 percent of their energy for actual transportation. Gasoline-fueled cars use between 17 percent and 20 percent (the rest gets released as heat). The fuel-cell vehicle, meanwhile, uses about 28 percent of its energy to get from one place to another.

When it comes to greenness and efficiency, the electric car wins the race with ease. But Jacobson is quick to point out that this by no means makes the resurrection of electric cars inevitable.

He said the big companies have been using electric-car prototypes to "greenwash" their image for years, only to pull the plug on the prototypes in favor of the traditional (and then more profitable) gas guzzlers.

"My feeling is, the startup companies like Tesla, which are basically basing their whole existence on electric cars, are really sincere about this," Jacobson said. "As for the big companies, if they were really sincere they would make efforts to do things faster.

"I would be skeptical until I see them releasing electric cars on a larger scale."

But most local electric-car enthusiasts are starting to feel rosier about the car's rise.

Jerry Pohorsky was one of dozens of electric-car owners who attended the California Air Resources Board hearing in 2003 to urge state officials not to drop the state's Zero-Emission Vehicles mandate. He now works as chief technical officer for Eeveemotors, a Santa Clara-based company that is converting the Honda Civic sedan to run on electric power.

"There's a demand out there for electric cars that are popular sedans, but so far there's just the two-seat roadster that is too expensive for most people, the small cars that can't go past 25 mph, and not much in between," Pohorsky said.

"We figured, 'Why not take the most popular sedan — the Honda Civic — and convert it to electric?'"

Pohorsky, who serves as president of the Silicon Valley chapter of the Electric Auto Association, said consumers have made it clear over the past few years that they want to see the electric car on the market. Their reasons include rising gas prices, a desire to protect the environment and a yearning to shift away from a foreign energy source to a domestic one.

If the traditional carmakers won't come through soon, it will be up to start-up companies like Tesla and Miles EV (the Chinese company behind the Coda) to bring the electric vehicles to the mass market, he said.

"There's a pent-up demand in the marketplace and the major manufacturers have made promises that electric cars will be appearing soon," Podhorsky said. "And there's other companies like Miles EV who are planning to introduce electric vehicles that can travel at freeway speeds in the next few months.

"Those kinds of new vehicles on the scene will probably be meeting this demand."

David Coale, a former member of the Electric Auto Association, said Palo Alto has been hungry for electric cars for some time. In Coale's garage stands a cherry-red 1978 MG Midget, a convertible car powered by electricity. Coale and his small group of tinkering enthusiasts transformed the Midget into an electric vehicle in the early 1990s. At that time, air pollution — rather than global warming — was the main environmental problem people were trying to solve.

"Palo Alto has always been very progressive place, so there's always been a lot of interest in electric vehicles," said Coale, now a member of the environmentalist group Acterra. "People here really understand all the issues and they want to do something."

Michael Mora woke up one Sunday in 2002 and told his wife, "Honey, we're going to buy an electric car." She looked at him like he was crazy.

Mora called six Toyota dealerships to inquire about the electric RAV4, but struck out on all of them. He ultimately convinced a Putnam Toyota dealer to sell him a RAV4 the dealership was planning to send to Southern California. Mora has been driving the RAV4 ever since.

Mora said one of the great benefits of owning an electric vehicle is the low level of maintenance it requires. No oil means no oil changes. He estimates the cost of maintaining his RAV4 at about 15 percent below what it would cost him to maintain a gas-fueled RAV4.

"It's one of the best things I've ever done in terms of spending money," said Mora, whose company installs solar panels. "There's really no maintenance except tires, wiper blades and windshield-wiper fluid."

But their low-maintenance also makes electric cars less lucrative for dealerships that rely on service and repairs to meet the bottom line, said Arthur Keller, who also owns an electric RAV4. Keller, who serves on Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission, said parts and service are among the five major revenue sources for the major companies.

"Electric motors are highly reliable — they essentially don't need tune-ups," Keller said. "There are fewer parts and the cars last longer.

"As a result of that, automobile manufacturers sell fewer of them. People keep them longer, there's fewer service needs and the service stations get less revenues for support."

Keller bought his RAV4 in 2001 and began using it to commute to University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught computer science. In early 2002, he persuaded the university to install a charging station, a process he said took about seven months to complete.

Like other electric-car enthusiasts, Keller sees signs of optimism in President Barack Obama's administration — particularly in Obama's appointment of former Stanford University physicist Steven Chu to the secretary of energy post. Last month, Chu submitted a department budget that trims $100 million from fuel-cell research program — a move designed to significantly scale down the program.

"The federal government likes the electric cars and hybrid cars these days," Keller said. "Steven Chu basically killed the fuel-cell car initiative and is putting his eggs into the electro-propulsion market — plug-in cars or electric cars."

Chu isn't the only federal official with Palo Alto roots to push for electric cars. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who represents Palo Alto, introduced a House of Representatives bill on March 26 that would establish a program to "deploy and integrate plug-in electric-drive vehicles in multiple regions." The goal of the bill — which was referred to the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit — is to encourage development of electric vehicles and decrease America's reliance on foreign oil.

"The president has spoken at length about using private-public partnerships to overcome the obstacles we face," Eshoo said in late March, when she announced the bill. "My legislation will encourage the government to work with private entities to facilitate the integration of electric cars in our country."

As the government prepares to distribute funds for electric cars, cities are getting ready to collect. Palo Alto Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, who serves on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board of Directors, said the district applied for a federal grant last month that would bring hundreds of zero-emission vehicles and charging stations to its member cities.

The grant request includes 212 electric vehicles, 607 compressed-natural-gas (CNG) vehicles, 74 hybrid vehicles, three CNG stations and three alternative-fuel stations and 1,200 charging stations for electric vehicles. Palo Alto's portion of the grant application includes 260 charging stations.

"The vision is to have the Bay Area play a leadership role in rolling out coordinated electric car projects," Kishimoto said.

Though Palo Alto has electric chargers at three city garages, the city has been reluctant to switch to electric cars because of their limited range between charges. About the only city cars powered exclusively by electricity are the glorified golf-carts used for parking enforcement.

But Kishimoto said electric vehicles represent a ripe opportunity for Palo Alto, which also owns its own utilities. Utilities staff is currently working on constructing a "smart grid," a network that would allow distributors and customers to track — and regulate — how much energy is being consumed.

Von Dollen of EPRI said such a system could include price incentives for electric-car drivers to plug their cars in at off-peak times, which would take some pressure off the grid during peak-use times.

"We in Palo Alto are in a unique position to integrate our electric utility with alternative-fuels transportation," Kishimoto said. "I think it's an exciting and unique opportunity for Palo Alto." While the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has been working to coordinate the region's drive toward zero-emissions vehicles, Peter Holoyda said the movement would greatly benefit from even more coordination between cities and manufacturers.

Holoyda's nascent nonprofit, Renewable First, hopes to orchestrate that coordination.

The group is trying to pool the various cities so that they could purchase environmentally friendly vehicles in bulk. The key, Holoyda said, is to increase the production numbers, a task that first involves improving the economies of scale. Individual cities can't do this alone, he said.

"We don't try to pick a vendor, but we want all the vendors to play," Holoyda said. "What's important is to rapidly find out who has the better technology.

"We want to pull the cities together, have them come together to represent their constituents, and to see if they could use these vehicles."

But Holoyda is quick to point out that electric vehicles aren't the only ones his group is looking at. Hydrogen cars and hybrids that combine gas and electricity are also in the picture.

Even the electric car's most avid proponents acknowledge that the vehicle's future dominance is by no means certain. Rachel Konrad, the Tesla spokesperson, said it would be realistic to expect electric vehicles to fill between 20 and 40 percent of the car market. She said she doesn't expect any particular technology to dominate the entire market.

One company that's looking to speed up the global transition to electric vehicles is Better Place (see sidebar). The Palo Alto-based company is working with government officials, private investors and carmakers to install networks of charging locations and battery-switching stations (for long-distance travelers) in participating nations worldwide.

Better Place has already installed about a thousand charge spots in Israel — the company's first partner — and is now looking to bring them to Denmark, Hawaii, Australia and California by 2012.

The company plans to introduce switching-stations that would allow drivers to switch their low batteries with fully-charged ones without leaving their vehicles. A driver would enter a carwash-style station and wait while a robot swaps the batteries through the bottom of the vehicle.

"With the charging spots, people can top off their cars like cell phones," said Julie Mullins, a Better Place spokesperson. "But for the rare occasions where they drive beyond 100 or 120 miles they can go to a switch station."

But even if Better Place succeeds in bringing its network of battery-switching stations to California, the stations won't be in place for at least three more years. Until then, "range anxiety" will remain a part of the electric-car experience during road trips and longer commutes.

Given this limitation, even the electric vehicle's fiercest proponents concede that it's too early to declare victory. Even Mora, who swears by his electric RAV4, said he currently has to consider other options for longer trips.

"This is California — a family can't survive with one vehicle here," Mora said. "That's why we also have a Prius."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


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