Electric Cars Ready for a Plug

Electric 2001 Volkswagen Jetta
Souped-up and Ready to be Plugged In
ST. PETERSBURG (2010-06-22) -

There's an old joke that that electric vehicles are the cars of the future - and always will be. A new partnership is being jump-started in Tampa Bay to help the future get here a little sooner.

"All right, we're taking our lives in our own hands with me behind the wheel," says Suzanne Grant. "Suzanne, crank it up: It's started."

Don't hear anything either? Don't blame your ears - it's just the electric motor softly humming away under the hood of a prototype Ford Escape - one of only 21 built with a plug-in option.

"It's really quiet," Grant says. "Even when you step on it, it's very, very quiet."

Progress Energy spokeswoman Suzanne Grant turns the key on the Ford Escape hybrid and takes it for a spin in the parking lot of Tropicana Field.

"It's sort of disconcerting, because it's so quiet. You don't know that it's actually going," she says. "It drives just like a regular, traditional SUV that I've driven all my life."

Finding an alternative to fossil fuels is just one motivation being used to jump-start the electric car industry. The federal government has set a goal of having at least a million plug-in vehicles on the road in the next five years. The local effort being kicked off at Tropicana Field is called "Get Ready Tampa Bay." It includes the regional planning council, Progress Energy and TECO, and local governments.

Matt Mattila of the the non-profit group Rocky Mountain Institute says eight out of 10 motorists are able to charge a vehicle at their home. For the rest, he foresees the establishment of commercial charging stations - some of which might be owned by electric utilities.

"I think we're seeing a shift in sending money to petro-dictatorships to it staying locally and domestic," he says. "I think the utilities are interested in selling more electricity, but I think there's a number of parties that could profit from this - everyone from the automakers to the people installing and building the stations."

Progress Energy could be one of those utilities. Mike Waters is an advanced transportation manager for the company.

"At a minimum, we are going to make sure we are preparing ourselves from the grid standpoint to satisfy the load," says Waters. "We are going to look at as well trying to see other solutions we should be involved in, whether it's public charging or residential charging solutions. And we are going to explore a pilot to do some of those stations."

Electric cars may be the new buzzword in transportation, but it's anything but a new concept. They were first developed in the 1890's, but a lack of decent battery storage capability in those "horseless carriage" days doomed it take a back seat to the internal combustion engine.

Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf will be rolled out later this year, and Mattila says just about every car company will be unveiling new electric vehicles.

It's not the first time. General Motor's well-publicized EV-1 was developed more than a decade ago, before the company ended the program and crushed the last prototype. So what's different about the Volt? Britta Gross is with GM:

"What we did when we laid out this vehicle, we said, let's get some things better and right," Gross says. "Number one, it had to be more functional. EV-1 was a two-seater, this is a four-seater. Number two, we wanted to address the range issue, because it was in fact a concern."

Gross says instead of having an EV-1 with range of a hundred miles, the Volt can go three times as far. And it can top 100 miles an hour.

"This is not your grandmother's electric vehicle," she says. "This is something designed for Americans differently than we've approached the design before."

And it's not just the big companies trying to make a charge into this brave new world of transportation. Steve Rutherford banged away in his Tampa garage for two years, and the result is a souped-up, all-electric Volkswagen Jetta.

"This is what you can do out of your home garage, if you have the right tools and friends with a lot of motivation and beer and pizza - you can get a lot done," he says.

The Jetta has 12 "deep-cycle" batteries and gets 60 miles per charge. Rutherford says it has a top cruising speed of 85 miles an hour.

"I use it every day. It's a commuter vehicle," says Rutherford. "I travel 20 miles round trip back and forth to work. It's a vehicle that offers me convenience. I haven't looked at the price of gasoline in a long time, and the fluctuation in electricity prices is something pretty much I've been able to count on."

And Rutherford says by avoiding the pump, he saves more than $100 every month.

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