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Electric Travel

The Spark meets some Electric Vehicle (EV) enthusiasts...

Bristol resident John Honniball believes that in a couple of decades, we’ll all be driving electric cars. “They are the future,” he tells me. He owns a small electric vehicle called a CityEl, and a City Van called an ElCat. The CityEl is super-compact, with seating for one person, three wheels, a roof that lifts up and lead-acid batteries. The vehicle uses no petrol and has a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour.

John’s not the only one getting behind EVs. After a disappointing false start in the mid-’90s, car manufacturers are once again looking to EVs to revive their fortunes in the face of rising oil prices and a global recession. And with policy makers from Barack Obama to Boris Johnson, pledging money for new transport infrastructure to support EVs, the future’s looking brighter for petrol-less cars.

Of course, you still need to burn fossil fuel to generate electricity, so more EVs on the road will need a surge in energy production, renewable or otherwise. Energy experts are keen to point out, however, that EVs could act as mini power stations with batteries that double up as energy storage devices. Users could feed energy back into the UK grid, helping the country cope with fluctuations of power demand and supply.

Nikki Bloomfield (pictured), a local EV enthusiast and blogger, says the lack of tailpipe emissions is another perk. She says: “The ‘Don’t Choke Bristol’ campaign encourages people to switch off when they’re idling. But an electric vehicle doesn’t have to switch off, because when it’s stationary it’s not wasting any energy. So in terms of pollution, it’s a lot better for city dwellers.”

It’s also more energy efficient to power an electric vehicle off the grid than to have individual cars burning gasoline or diesel sourced from small petrol pumps. Nikki says: “A power station generates power in the region of megawatts, and is much more efficient at producing large amounts of energy than 200,000 small car engines all sitting there burning away.” Nikki has owned several EVs in the past, and has even converted petrol cars to electric. She says: “They’ve got a major advantage over a regular petrol car, because I can charge it up at home.” EVs are also nearly silent, offering a more peaceful driving experience.

Charge it!

There are a growing number of public charging points springing up for when you’re out and about. Online resource displays online maps of public charging locations across the UK (but you must register). If you’re willing to offer your own electricity source for other EV owners to use, you can register for free. In Bristol you can charge your EV in Cabot Circus for free (but you pay for parking), and at Cribbs Causeway, where both charging and parking are free. Small businesses such as the Better Food Company also have charging points. The cost of charging depends on the size of the vehicle and the cost of electricity at any given time. The City El has a very small battery and costs about 40-50p to charge completely. If you drove it every day, and charged it every night, that works out at just under £15 per month.

Charging generally takes several hours and most fully electric vehicles can travel about 40 miles on a full charge, (road trips are out). Nikki points out, though, that most UK residents only drive an average of 40 miles a day. She says: “For commuting to work, shopping trips and visiting local friends and family, an EV’s range is plenty.”

So what about the cost? The bad news is that EVs are currently no cheaper than petrol cars to buy. Even one of the most affordable options, the G-wiz town car (which travels up to 48 miles on a charge) comes in at £8,000. The good news is: from 2011 the UK government will offer an incentive of up to £5,000 on the purchase of a new, fully electric car. In addition, EV owners are exempt from road tax.

Convert to electric

But buying new is not the only option. With a little DIY, and a bit of digging on eBay, you can drive a used EV. Adam Walker is another EV enthusiast and friend of Nikki Bloomfield. He recently purchased a 25-year-old electric Volkswagen Golf, originally created by Southern Electric as an experiment. The car cost only £1,700, though he had to put it together. He wishes there were more publicity around EVs. He says: “Why don’t people know that you can get these and they drive brilliantly?”

Petrol cars can be converted to electric, but the cost is prohibitive, at between £7,000 and £11,000 for a professional conversion. Alternative Vehicles Technology (AVT), a company in Somerset, offers several choices of new and used vehicle conversions and they also sell conversion kits for several models of car and van, if you’d like to try converting yourself. Bear in mind, though, that this kind of DIY project can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Nikki and Adam are hatching a plan to import and sell conversion kits for the Toyota Prius, as well as conversions for regular petrol cars. Nikki said: “We’re working to bring a commercial kit from the States to the UK, which will offer people the chance to convert their own, or have their Priuses converted professionally, for about £4,500. That will be a commercial solution that has been tried and tested and has support.”

Electric scooters are a cheaper alternative to cars. The battery can be removed and taken to a mains electrical outlet for charging. Many scooters also have pedals, so you can increase battery power while you cycle. Elisabeth Winkler, editor and journalist, loves her second-hand scooter, recently purchased for £300. She was uncomfortable using her petrol car so frequently, and, following a back injury, no longer rides her bicycle so much. She says: “Bicycles are great if you’re fit and healthy, or if you don’t have children, but some people need an alternative option.”

You can find second-hand electric scooters on eBay or though word of mouth. The website has a classified ad section that has a few electric scooters available. Alternative Vehicles Technology sell new electric bicycles for under £500, and electric motorcycles/scooters for under £1,000.

An excellent information resource for all things EV is the Battery Electric Vehicles of Bristol (BEVOB) society, who hold casual social meetings once a month at a pub in Stoke Gifford. Their EVs range from commercially built Finnish and German EVs to those converted by members themselves. Newcomers get a warm welcome, and are encouraged to drive to the pub in their vehicles (shandies all round then!). With 58 members on their email group BEVOB are spreading the word. DIY enthusiasts and eco-conscious freewheelers, take note…

Alternative Vehicles Technology

Nikki Bloomfield tel 07901 553308

EV Network

Battery Electric Vehicles of Bristol (BEVOB)

Written by Ashley Kuehl
Published in The Spark issue 58 - autumn 2009

Details correct at time of going to press but may now have changed - please make your own checks

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