Plug It In Or Fill It Up?: Boiseans Look to Alternative Fuels

From electric cars to compressed natural gas, more alt fuels mean more choices


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A plastic sheet divides Mark Hayes' garage neatly in half. On the one side is the frog-green 1962 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite he restored and converted to battery power. On the other side is the shell of a 1967 Austin Mini he's restoring for his wife, Kathy, and an electric motor jimmied to a 1996 Honda Del Sol transmission Hayes found at a junkyard in Garden City.

For Hayes converting classic cars synthesizes his passions for restoration and the environment, and he's not alone. Boise is a beehive of businessmen, scientists, activists and just plain enthusiasts who see challenge and excitement from alternatives to gasoline. For Hayes, the switch from fossil fuels was a personal project, but for others, it's a mission to change the way Boiseans and the world see alternative fuels.

Hayes built his Sprite and is converting the Mini for his wife out of his love of the game. His fascination with electric vehicles began when he was a kid installing an electric motor in a go-kart. It was an experiment that worked for about 15 minutes before it melted down.

"Due to a lack of resources, that was the end of the electric go-kart," he said.

The failure of the go-kart was a minor setback for Hayes, who went on to earn his beer money at a mechanic's shop, where he doesn't recall melting anything. In 1979, Hayes helped a friend with some repair work on a Datsun Roadster and received the Sprite's chassis and hood as payment, but it would be 28 years before he could spare the time to restore and convert his Sprite.

In April 2007 he saw his chance and began the roughly 1,800-hour process of sanding, scraping and welding the parts he had into some semblance of a Bugeye Sprite. The conversion to battery power was the easy part, Hayes said.

EV conversions can be a tricky balance of weight and size. The car's skeleton--the chassis--has to be large enough to accommodate battery packs, but light enough for an electric motor to propel. Researching conversions, Hayes spoke to several experts on the subject. One of them, Michael Brown, author of Convert It, and owner of a California conversion shop, Electro Automotive, tried to dissuade Hayes from converting his Sprite into an EV.

"He told me that I would not be able to get enough batteries into it and get the range I needed and still be able to get up the hill to go home at the end of the day," Hayes said.

The very nature of conversions saved the Sprite. Switching a car to battery power means removing parts of the car specific to internal combustion performance like the engine, the gas tank and the radiator, and replacing them with an electric motor, wiring and, of course, as many batteries as possible.

"It really simplifies the car overall," he said.

By using mock-ups of the 82-pound lead acid batteries he intended to use, Hayes determined he had room for 10 of them. Today the Sprite has a top speed of 85 mph and gets 40 miles to a charge, making it the perfect daily car for Hayes, whose commute is about 25 miles.

With the daily cost of recharging the Sprite less than $1, you'd think there would be more EVs on the road. You'd be wrong. Mass-market EVs like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt are more expensive than similarly performing gasoline-powered cars, and conversions (not including the price of the base car) cost between $6,000 and $20,000.

People don't convert cars to battery power to save money on gas, Hayes said. Rather, electric cars are lessons in being smart about energy use.

"Instead of buying something that meets your maximum needs, buy something that meets your needs 90 percent of the time," he said.

Hayes gave the example of the cars he sees parked at the Hewlett-Packard parking lot, many of which are trucks and sport utility vehicles their owners use to tow boats or drive to the ski hill. He says that if those drivers used their trucks and SUVs exclusively for towing or on difficult terrain, and used commuter cars for getting around Boise, they'd save money on gas and be doing the air quality of the Treasure Valley a favor.

There are some classic arguments against EVs--that they have low-horsepower motors that make them unsuitable for driving in hilly or mountainous places and they have limited range and are no good for long commutes--but one of the gravest is that in drawing power from the electrical grid, they're relying indirectly on fossil fuels.

"I'm not one of those people who says electric cars are the right thing for everybody," Hayes said. "In Detroit, it wouldn't be the answer."

EVs aren't the miracle technology for every region, and the environmental benefit of driving one varies, depending on where it's charged. Detroit, for example, gets about 80 percent of its electricity from coal. Infamously, a University of Tennessee study concluded that EVs indirectly released more air-born pollutants than gasoline cars in China, where 85 percent of electricity is generated in coal-burning power plants alone. The United States generates about 69 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, while Boise gets 40 percent of its power from fossil fuels.

California throws a wrinkle into the wisdom that states with plentiful renewable energy are good places for EVs. In 2011, that state passed a law requiring 33 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources within nine years. The catch: California is America's largest energy debtor, purchasing between 20 percent and 30 percent of its electricity from other states. Energy creditors like Oregon, which gets 42 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams, sells clean power to California, supplementing its own needs with coal and natural gas. Ironically, clean energy laws in California have ensured coal a place in the West's energy portfolio for years to come.

Paradoxically electric cars may be the solution to their own problem. A 2011 report to the U.S. Department of Energy found that EV rechargers can "green" electrical grids by making intermittent sources of electricity like wind, which cause spikes in electricity output, more attractive to power companies, which helps them become less dependent on fossil fuels.

Today power companies trade electricity surpluses in real time because they have no way of containing or storing excess electricity, but EVs are batteries on wheels, and their recharge cycles can be monitored by computers that allow them to draw power in response to fluctuations in the power grid, soaking up excess electricity.


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