The electric car revolution is alive and well on the hill

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By Roger Snodgrass

Tony Tomei would not describe himself as a missionary of electric cars, although he admits to a little zealotry.


“Jiminy Cricket sounds about right,” he said with a sly grin. “He was Pinocchio’s conscience, you know, kept him from telling lies.”


Three years ago, Tomei knew very little about electric cars. Now he’s teaching the course with Skip Dunn at UNM-LA. And in a new and suddenly exploding field, he’s like a very knowledgeable one-eyed man leading the blind.


All kinds of new electric cars are coming out in the near term and at an accelerating pace. Huge investments are pouring in from the federal government. On Mar. 19, President Obama announced that the Department of Energy would offer up to $2.4 billion in stimulus funds to develop the next generation of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and the batteries that will make them go.


Tomei and Dunn founded the Los Alamos Plug-In Coalition. It has about 25 people on a mailing list and is one of the most active groups around.


“I get calls from Albuquerque asking how do we do it,” Tomei said.


He said his life changed a couple of years ago. At the time he wasn’t sleeping at night. He was agitated and deeply worried about the environment and global warming, about the terrorist problem, oil spills and the volatility of gas prices.


He was looking for what he could do.


“I wanted to get the biggest bang for the buck,” he said.


Then he saw the movie – “Who Killed the Electric Car (2006),” directed by Chris Paine. It’s a riveting murder mystery documentary about how General Motors created an experimental fleet of a few hundred EV-1 electric vehicles and then ended up crushing them to death in the desert.


The movie, which tells a compelling and credible story about how General Motors and groups associated with oil corporations quashed the first electric car built by a major car manufacturer. The EV-1 came out in 1996. All the cars were pulled out of their leases and “killed” according to the movie by the company.  


The film describes GM’s perspective, which was that the car was never popular enough to sustain, but there are also interviews with many EV-1 owners who loved the cars, felt that GM had essentially sabotaged the project. Many of those who were only allowed to lease the EV-1s were bereft when their cars were recalled by the company, which turned its attention to marketing a far more profitable line of cars – the Hummers.


Clips of the movie and a “re-education” motif are part of the class.


Tomei has his own totally electric car, a converted a 1983 Honda Civic station wagon completely restored inside and out. It has a range of 40 miles per charge and the whole deal cost him $8,000. On an introductory ride, it was found to be zippy, clean and quiet.


“Once people learn about it and go for a ride, they are sold,” Tomei said. “You don’t want to get back into an internal combustion engine.”


Tomei’s car burns no gas. He plugs it in at night and unplugs it when he leaves in the morning. There is almost no maintenance other than checking the lead-acid batteries every once in a while, he said. New developments in battery technology, particularly in lithium-ion batteries are coming on quickly these days.


An important aspect of the electrical vehicle crusade has to do with the cost-savings, operating costs, tax-breaks and how to get them.


Tomei was asked how much he saved on gas.


He did the numbers based on the following factors.


He drives to and from work 30 miles each day, 20 days a month, for a total of 600 miles a month, plus about six miles a day on the weekends, which adds another 48 miles or 648 miles each month. At 20 miles per gallon of gas, that comes to 32.4 gallons a month, times the current price of $2.09 a gallon, or $67.72.


Of course there is the cost of electricity, but that is negligible at about two cents a mile, but even that is dwarfed by the maintenance costs for the internal combustion engine and its many moving parts, calculated at about 6 cents a mile for an average American car.


“We’re activists, Skip and I,” he said. “We want to do something to move New Mexico forward in the EV Zero Emission area.”


Tomei’s class, the second time its been offered, is called “An introduction to Electric Vehicles, Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) and the Basics of  ‘How to Convert,” It’s part of the community education program at UNM-LA.


The course serves as an antidote to what Tomei considers a long period of environmental predation, scams and public deception by massive corporate interests.


The introductory material about conversion has to do with changing over a gasoline or diesel fueled car or truck to a non-polluting electric vehicle. It covers current options and an outlook for prospects over the next one-to-three years.


There are four, two-hour courses during the month of April. They are offered Thursday nights from 6-8 p.m., starting April 9.  Classes are limited to 25 students.


Interested people can call UNM-LA at 662-0336 for Course No. L417.


Tomei can be contacted at ttomei4664@hotmail.com.