When gas prices were skyrocketing and projections for $5-a-gallon gasoline were being made by an ex-oil executive about a year ago, the mechanically inclined John Kapicka got inspired for his next garage project.
The 54-year-old machinist, who lives in the edge of the woods in northern Summerville and always has projects in the works, saw a video on YouTube of a man who converted a motorcycle to electric power.
"It was pretty interesting and I thought, 'well dang!' I started looking around (the Internet) and saw where people were making electric vehicles at home," said Kapicka, whose pick-up truck guzzled a gallon of gas every 17 miles and cost him $80 a week to fill.
Interest in electric cars may extend beyond the mechanically gifted in Charleston in the coming months.
Kapicka proceeded over the course of the year to convert a 1973 Volkswagen Super Beetle into an electric vehicle, using a forklift engine he got in exchange for fixing another forklift. By salvaging and trading other parts and by buying other parts such as batteries on Craigslist, he estimated the car cost him $1,500.
Now he's driving a 1994 Geo Metro to work that gets 42 mpg. But he and wife Gayle often take the Beetle, which has "It's Electric" painted above the former forklift engine, on trips around Summerville where it always generates interest.
Dawn of alternatives
The Chevrolet Volt and the all-electric Nissan Leaf -- garnering attention nationally for nearly a year -- are just now becoming available at Lowcountry dealerships. The Volt was "Car & Driver" magazine's 2011 North American Car of the Year and the Leaf was the "2011 World Car of The Year" at the New York Auto Show.
Besides the technology, they cost tens of thousands more than Kapicka's converted Beetle: three Volts at Crews Chevy in North Charleston were listed in the mid-$40,000s and a demo model of the Leaf at Morris Nissan was listed at $37,500. Both qualify for a $7,500 federal tax rebate.
Crews has kept its three Volt models out of plain site at its Rivers Avenue lot until a technician is certified to work on the car (expected this week).
"You can't get anymore cutting-edge than this car. We're trying to get as many (from Chevy) as we can," said Crews co-owner Robert Crews, adding that he thinks Volt's extended, gas-powered range trumps the Leaf's single charge range.
Meanwhile, Rick Hendricks Chevrolet on Savannah Highway already has sold and delivered a Volt to a woman in Ladson, according to salesman Chad Petrey. "We're hoping it will do well. It's generating a lot of interest," he said,
Volt vs. Leaf vs. i-MiEV
Petrey added that people don't understand the Volt is not a hybrid. While the Volt uses electricity for the first 40 or so miles, it switches to gas after that -- extending its range beyond the all-electric Leaf, which gets an equivalent of 99 miles per gallon and a range of about 75 miles.
Meanwhile, the Leaf will be joined locally by another vehicle in the "EV" category, the Mitsubshi i-MiEV, which is expected to get an equivalent of 112 mpg, is smaller and less expensive (mid- to upper $20,000 range, not including the rebate).
"We're excited about it," said Hoover Mitsubishi senior salesman Will Therrieau, who expects to get delivery of the first i-MiEV in January or February.
So far, in the battle of the Volt versus the Leaf locally, the latter appears to be winning.
Daniel Shahid, the salesman in charge of Leaf sales at Morris, said he has sold 12 already -- more than any other dealership in the region -- which he credits to locals being "more green and artistic" than other areas within the region. The first delivery of those 12 Leaf vehicles is expected this week.
"I think in the next five years, hybrids will be a thing of the past," predicted Shahid. noting that stations to power electric vehicles have been installed in Charleston parking garages and that retailers and fast food restaurants are installing quick-charge stations across the nation.
Four charging stations are being installed in the city's garage behind 75 Calhoun St., and two more each will be put inside the Visitor Center parking garage and the Queen Street parking garage. In all, electric-utility backed Plug-in Carolina said the state has 67 charging stations and may have up to 100 by the end of the year.
Beyond fossil fuel
Ever since Dr. Gregory Cain was a math and engineering geek in high school, he dreamed of a day when cars would be powered by something other than gas.
Now, at 47, the family doctor -- married with four children -- is about to enter that age. Cain plans to build a house using solar, or photovoltaic, shingles and wind to power his house and charge the Leaf he just bought for his German-born wife, Anja.
Because his commute is from West Ashley to Holly Hill, Cain will continue to drive his Volkswagon Jetta diesel, which gets 46 mpg. Anja's daily trips with the children and her job at Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding Farm is within the 75- mile range of the Leaf.
While the Cains are "green," he said his interest in buying the Leaf has as much to do with economics as the environment.
Not only will the Cains net $150 per month in savings on gas by switching a minivan for a Leaf, but by generating his own electricity, it will help them to more quickly pay off the cost of putting photovoltaic cells on their house.
"It sounds like I'm being so green and environmentally conscious, but I'm actually being a little bit on the chintzy side. I'd rather make money off electricity than pay for someone else to do it," Cain said.