News | Watt a Concept: Electric car builders are powering up all over Utah. 

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In 2006, the electric car was dead, scrapped into a memory. Major automakers focused on producing trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Gas was cheap and miles per gallon were hidden away on sales stickers.

Then, this summer, gas prices soared past $4 a gallon. Out of the frustration many drivers suddenly felt, the electric car was reborn.

An e-vehicle revival is alive in Utah, where the movement’s enthusiasts are an eccentric bunch. They span the state from Hurricane to Sugar House. They represent a range of ages and occupations. They are abundant with curiosity and a do-it-yourself attitude.

Kyle Dansie, a computer programmer living in Sugar House, is part of this small but growing movement. The Website EvAlbum.com lists 1,828 electricity-powered vehicles, including 17 built in Utah. There are bicycles, motorcycles, cars and all-terrain, four-wheeled vehicles. If it has wheels, these people can make it electric. Number 1414 is Danise’s first electric conversion, a 1986 Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle, or the “Lectric Ninja.”

“The Ninja started out a dirty, greasy mess,” Dansie says. “Today, it is a clean, quiet ride without the smell of stale gas or burnt oil.”

In Salt Lake City, Dansie is leading the fight to extinguish the internal combustion engine. He founded Zero Emission Vehicles of Utah to bolster the ranks of the electric movement and help others break their dependency on oil.

It wasn’t always like this. Dansie was on the other side, a car enthusiast and the more fuel-hungry the better. In his spare-time, Dansie rebuilt antique cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In essence, his mission was ensuring the legacy of the internal-combustion engine lived on, but no longer.

“I don’t like breathing dirty air,” he says. “The vast majority of air pollution in this valley comes from internal-combustion engines—mainly cars, trucks. After mobile sources, we have coal-fired power plants. My electric vehicles fueled with solar [power] addresses both of these problems. Then, there is the problem of sending $700 billion a year to despot regimes in the Middle East. How many Americans are going to die needlessly this year so we can fill our tanks?”

While protecting the environment is a motivating factor, some electric-vehicle enthusiasts simply want relief from high gas prices.

“Gas prices, mostly,” says Hurricane resident Alex Chamberlain. He owns “Bev,” an electric 1995 Geo Tracker. “To be honest, it was about half practical, half idealistic,” he says. “I just wanted to do something on a personal level that could make even the slightest difference.”

Not everyone is championing these idealistic do-it-yourself electric conversions.

“Converting a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle to be totally electric is not a practical job for most people,” says Perry Carter, associate professor of manufacturing engineering technology at Brigham Young University. “There are conversion kits available for some cars, but they are expensive and you would have to be an accomplished auto mechanic to make such a conversion. Carter, director of BYU’s electric racing team, adds, “It is even beyond most hobbyists.”

Locked inside their garages crafting ideas into reality, electric-vehicle enthusiasts find the learning curve for a conversion is steep. Trial-and-error and figuring out the different components take the most time. Dansie recounts rebuilding his second project, a 1994 Volkswagen Golf, twice just to reconfigure the batteries. While each initial conversion took hundreds of hours, done mainly on weekends over a period of several months, most speculate they could complete their next conversion faster.

West Jordan’s David Foy is converting “Blue Bug,” a 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle. Most conversions, he says, can be done in less than 40 hours. Foy, whose motivations are rooted in curiosity and business opportunities, believes the electric-car market will grow over the next several years. He’s also working on developing products such as battery boxes to make future conversions less time-intensive.

Mainstream appeal of electric vehicles depends on improving limitations such as charging capacity and range. But the future seems bright. By late 2010, major automakers will have electric vehicles in showrooms. But critics question if the automakers can satisfy the demand.

“As the technology continues to progress, the driving range increases and the cost decreases, we expect that [electric vehicles] will become more prevalent,” says Karen Matusic, spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and natural gas industry.

Current electric vehicles range 50-60 miles per charge with top speeds of 55 mph. Refilling the battery is a little trickier and more time-consuming than fueling a car. Charge times vary from a couple of hours for a motorcycle to five or six hours for a car. Increasing the voltage for a quick charge can bring the vehicle back to full power in half the time. Although charging stations don’t exist in Utah, a standard 110-volt outlet does the job. Occasionally, Dansie uses the outlet on the maintenance building at his place of work.

A $2,500 tax credit for the vehicles helps, but conversion still doesn’t come cheap. Costs vary with each vehicle and desired components. For instance, different battery types such as lithium-ion or lead-acid may be used—but lithium-ion batteries cost substantially more. A lower-end conversion like a Volkswagen Beetle could be done for around $5,000; a motorcycle for slightly less.

In spite of the steep initial investment, electric enthusiasts are quick to point out the long-term benefits of owning a vehicle that is maintenance free and not tied to rising gas prices. Instead, electric vehicles enjoy fuel prices about a penny or two per mile.

“It has given me great pleasure this week to cruise by those gas stations this week with the $3.89 sign out for regular,” Dansie says.

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Joseph Bateman

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