Charging ahead with energy independence

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO - "Zappy, a little blue 1997 Suzuki Swift, will soon be zipping around Santa Fe — sans gas, oil or radiator fluid.

Zappy is an all-electric vehicle under construction in Dan Baker's garage off Old Santa Fe Trail. Baker — known around town as an avid cyclist — also is a big solar-energy and electric-vehicle proponent. He'll run Zappy off the 5-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system he had installed on his roof last September.

Baker, 47, figures the amount of money he's put into building Zappy and installing the solar photovoltaic system about equals the cost of a brand-new sport-utility vehicle.

Zappy will be able to travel up to 50 miles on a single charge of its 12, 8-volt, golf-cart batteries and its DC motor. These "deep cycle" lead batteries are made to be charged and discharged.

It should take about eight hours to fully charge the set up, Baker estimates.

Long before "plug-in" electrical vehicles began making their way to the automakers' showroom floors, people built homemade versions of electric vehicles. Baker said it's not that complicated to build one if someone walks you through the process.

Of course, it helps to have a background in some practical skills, such as welding and mechanical engineering. Baker learned welding by working with his machinist father on a small Massachusetts farm and later fixing ski chairs. "The mechanical skills were definitely there," Baker said about embarking on Zappy's creation. "I was deathly afraid of the electrical side."

He consulted an old copy of Convert It, the do-it-yourself electric vehicle bible by Michael Brown.

It turned out the electrical portion of building the car was more or less six easy pieces. "The rest is mechanical," he said.

One of the first steps was removing the old internal-combustion engine. "It is amazing how much 'stuff' you don't need when you remove the gas engine! Exhaust, gas tank, radiator, power steering, air conditioning... and the engine itself... all go," Baker writes on the site. "If you are lucky, some pieces may be sellable on,, or at your local salvage yard. I actually sold my old engine for $150!"

Baker had to design and weld his own racks for the batteries. Six of the batteries are under the back seat and six in the engine compartment.

The new electric system hooks into the old one. He's installed several safety features like a circuit breaker with a kill switch in case "something bad happens." Overall, Zappy will be "a heck of a lot safer than sitting on a gas tank," Baker said.

By February 9, Baker figured he had put about 86 hours into Zappy since he started in December. He estimates he has about 15 hours left to finish the car.

Since an electric vehicle has limited range, EV drivers have to think about how they drive and what they haul around. The more weight on the car, the fewer miles it can go per charge. "Getting that last little bit is important," Baker said.

Especially if you want to make it back to your house without pushing your car.

He'll use the car to chauffeur his two young children, when they aren't all buzzing around town on their bicycles. He estimates it will cost him about $1 of electricity for each 40 miles. The most significant cost will be replacing the batteries every three to four years.

"On a purely financial basis, it will cost the same to operate as when gas is about $2.75 a gallon," Baker said.

The added advantage of an electric vehicle is less maintenance and no greenhouse gas emissions out a tailpipe.

But putting more electric vehicles on the road has to go hand in hand with installing more solar photovoltaic systems on people's homes so they can charge their own cars, Baker said. Otherwise, electric vehicles will increase the need for power from coal-fired, natural gas and nuclear power plants, pumping out more greenhouse gases.

"It is important to push distributed generation," Baker said, referring to promoting more locally produced power.

People who install solar photovoltaic power on their homes can get some of their money back through federal and state tax credits. In addition, Public Service Company of New Mexico pays its solar-powered customers two ways for solar power: The electric meter spins backward when power is being produced and the company pays 13 cents for each kilowatt hour of energy.

To further push support for helping homeowners pay the hefty up-front costs of solar photovoltaic systems, Baker pitched an idea to Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, that is now a bill before the Legislature. House Bill 219 would allow counties to establish solar energy districts. Homeowners could then work with a lending institution for a loan paid back automatically over 20 years through property taxes on the home.


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