How to Build an Electric Car 

Some boise drivers aren't waiting for car manufacturers to make an electric car

Regardless of the combination of cars parked at the Front 5 Building on Broad Street in downtown Boise each day, one car in particular stands out from the rest.

Parked in the spot closest to the front door is a banana yellow Ford Festiva that's probably seen better days. Despite its age, the body is in decent shape with only a few dents and dings. Four shiny rims look oddly out of place on the worn tires, and the subcompact's back bumper, cracked in one corner, has faded to a dusty gray after years in the sun. On the back of the car are stickers that read "Renewable Energy is Homeland Security," "Support Your Local Revolution" and "Plug into Renewable Energy," and just under the back window, a Peter Maurin quote says: "Creating the new in the shell of the old."

A few things, however, tip off the observant passerby that this particular Festiva is not a run-of-the-mill clunker held together by the glue of its progressively bent bumper stickers.

For starters, its Idaho vanity plates read "SUNCAR1." And there are the words "zero emissions" and "solar charging" on the back of the car. The biggest clue, however, is on the Festiva's roof, which is covered by four solar panels. Peek inside the driver's window at the instrument panel and you'll see two gauges measuring amps and volts. Peer into the back window and you'll find a tiny trunk compartment packed with batteries.

If you're a Jimmy Kimmel fan, you may have seen the Festiva along with its owner, John Weber, on national television. In a skit, one of Kimmel's assistants interviewed the Boise resident, who is ultimately "blown up" by his battery-powered creation for a laugh.

Weber retrofitted the Festiva three years ago for himself, but for the last month and a half, Modus architect Bruce Poe, whose office is in Front 5 Building, has been driving it, pushing the car to its limits in order to better understand its weaknesses.

"I'm going to upgrade the batteries and put more power into it to give it a little bit of range because John kept it at the cheaper, lower end of the power spectrum. Now the batteries are getting old, so I'm researching batteries to find a good battery that would replace the lead acid batteries," said Poe. Although the Festiva is well-suited as an around-town car, Poe wants to give it a power boost so that his son can use it as daily transportation, but it needs to be able to better climb the long and steep grade to his house in Warm Springs Mesa.

Poe would like to install a nickel metal hydride battery, the kind used in hybrid cars, but the U.S. manufacturer he's spoken with hasn't expressed much interest in dealing with a lone ranger in Boise trying to upgrade a retrofitted car.

Weber, too, has been stymied by a similar problem trying to produce electric cars in larger numbers in Boise.

At Westside Body Works on Five Mile Road, Weber and his boss, Tim Wallace, spent a recent afternoon installing an aluminum heat sink in "Sparkee," a white, two-door Toyota Tercel the pair gutted and retrofitted during the Fourth of July weekend last year. Wallace, who's been in the auto body business for almost three decades, did the metal fabrication and Weber tackled the electrical work using tricks he learned on sailboat electrical systems.

Unlike the Festiva, Weber and Wallace built Sparkee using far more expensive, yet far safer, dry cell batteries. And, unlike the Festiva, Sparkee doesn't have solar panels on its roof. Two round solar fans have been mounted on the hood to help cool off the batteries in the engine compartment, but Sparkee's batteries rely entirely on a good, old-fashioned plug in to the wall--three plugs, in fact, which pull out from the locked door where the gas tank once was.

After putting Sparkee together, Wallace and Weber calculated that a two-man team could build an electric car in a single day if they were able to standardize the process using gliders, new cars that are complete but missing their engines and fuel systems.

Wallace and Weber approached several car manufacturers hoping to purchase gliders without any branding, but none were responsive.

"At the end of the day, it's a money issue," said Wallace. With the impending 2010 debut of an all-electric car from Chevy, the recent rollout of Teslas and news that Ford, Mitsubishi and Nissan will soon offer ell-electric cars, Wallace said he believes there is about to be a changing of the guard in the car business. Manufacturers who don't evolve with the electric car business will fall by the wayside while new power players emerge.

In addition, the industry built around supplying combustion pieces--everything from spark plugs to oil filters--will also face financial demise in the wake of a large-scale push toward electric.

That push, Wallace and Weber agree, will only happen if the American public is behind it. For now, though, the Tesla's more than $100,000 price tag is cost prohibitive, and most Americans still prefer the mileage security and luxury that a retrofitted electric car cannot offer.

Weber took Sparkee out for a drive after installing the heat sink, and the car was almost completely silent as it rolled south on Five Mile Road. Aside from a nearly inaudible whir and the sporadic click of the connector engaging the batteries, the only sound Sparkee made was that of its wheels on the pavement.

As he shifted the car out of second gear (Sparkee no longer has a clutch and the gear shift works differently than before the conversion), Weber said he believes electric vehicles will be a regular sight on the road within five to 10 years.

Greg Otero, Sparkee's owner and the executive director of GreenWorks Idaho, the organization behind Idaho Green Expo, is equally optimistic that electric vehicles are a sure thing in the near future.

"Some people won't take this leap yet, but it really is a big deal," Otero said about the switch from gas to electricity. "Gasoline consumption really is bad for the planet and if you can avoid it as much as you can, I think it's a good thing to do."

Otero said he knows of six or eight electric cars on the road in Boise, and although ZEVs--zero emissions vehicles--are exempt from emissions testing in Ada County's registration process, BW was unable to find an official count on how many ZEVs are registered in Idaho. The city said it has issued five ZEV parking permits, which allow ZEV owners to park free downtown, but the Festiva for example, does not have one.

At the Idaho Green Expo this weekend, Sparkee and the banana yellow SUNCAR1 will be among a display of vehicles powered by alternative means. Poe, who is the president of GreenWorks Idaho and the co-founder of Idaho Green Expo, will also display his silver and black electric Vetrix motorcycle.

Weber, who is a board member at GreenWorks Idaho and has humorously been dubbed "the greenest person in Idaho" by friends, will also be ambling around the expo this weekend. In addition to the Festiva and Sparkee, Weber built a passive solar house with solar electric power, which he recently sold, and he's just purchased a new house that he intends to "green-over." He's been featured on several TV shows (that are far more serious than Jimmy Kimmel) and has written a brochure detailing a three-step plan--starting with free and simple ways--to green your home regardless of your income bracket. For a primer on building an electric car prior to the Idaho Green Expo this weekend, visit GreenWorks Idaho's Web site, where the story of Sparkee is documented with before-and-after photos, as well as an accompanying blow-by-blow explanation.

For a full list of events and details on Idaho Green Expo this weekend, see the insert in this week's Boise Weekly.

Thou Shalt Not Greenwash

Nearly everything marketed to consumers--from salad dressing to real estate--is touted as being green. Next time you take a stroll through the grocery aisle, count the number of times you see the words "all natural," "organic" or "recycled" on food and household products. Then check out the ingredients list and see how many words you can't pronounce (see Food Page 40). Better yet, look to see what percentage of any given "recycled" product--say, your toilet paper--is actually made from recycled paper. One percent? One hundred percent? It's anyone's guess unless you do your homework. And if you don't do your homework, chances are you'll be greenwashed sooner or later.

According to Canadian environmental marketing firm TerraChoice, which has gained visibility for its study on environmental claims in consumer marketing, "greenwashing" is "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service." TerraChoice has identified seven greenwashing "sins" product manufacturers commit in an attempt to attract consumers' attention. We've reprinted them here with permission from TerraChoice, and locally, you'll soon be able to find information on businesses offering energy-saving and green product alternatives thanks to a partnership among GreenWorks Idaho, the Better Business Bureau and the Idaho Office of Energy Resources.

1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off. Committed by suggesting a product is "green" based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally preferable just because it comes from a sustainably harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, including energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and air pollution may be equally or more significant.

2. Sin of No Proof. Committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence.

3. Sin of Vagueness. Committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. "All-natural" is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring and poisonous. "All natural" isn't necessarily "green."

4. Sin of Irrelevance. Committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. "CFC-free" is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.

5. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils. Committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes are an example of this category, as are fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles.

6. Sin of Fibbing. The least frequent sin, is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered.

7. Sin of Worshipping False Labels. Committed by a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of a third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists.

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