Dude, Wheres My Electric Car!?!

Can one activist fight off Detroit, Japan, Big Oil and the Bush administration to keep EVs alive?

Photo by James BunoanI had arranged to meet Doug Korthof on a Tuesday to talk about his increasingly futile campaign to save the Earth by saving the electric car in California. But then I imagined pulling up to Korthof's Seal Beach house in my yacht-sized 1974 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, the one that racks up a pathetic 7.5 miles to the gallon.

One cannot allow mere personal shame to stand in the way of a good story, however, so I made a bold move: I rescheduled the interview for Wednesday, and when I drive down Korthof's street, I'm behind the wheel of a 1994 Nissan Sentra sedan with peeling paint and a cracked windshield.

* * *

You may know Doug Korthof from such previous environmental battles as the fight to stop development of the Little Shell wetlands in Huntington Beach, the struggle to keep Hellman Ranch developers from building on ancient Indian burial grounds, and the campaign that forced the Orange County Sanitation District to clean up sewage it pipes offshore.

But this time, it's personal. Korthof is the proud owner of electric vehicles—EVs—bound literally for the dustbin of history. He owns a Toyota RAV4-EV and leases a Saturn EV1 produced by General Motors. He used to lease a Honda EV Plus and still would, but Honda mysteriously confiscated it when the lease ended—refusing Korthof's offer to buy it—and sent the EV to an electric-car junkyard.

Korthof's house looks like all the other houses on his block, where none of the houses look alike. Built in the days before cookie-cutter subdivisions, his house, like several others nearby, has an added-on second story. But atop that top deck is something the other abodes don't have: solar panels to charge a bank of batteries that power his electric cars.

The solar system feeds directly into the grid—the place where power generated from plants is stored—through his home's electric meter. On a warm morning like the one on which we meet—a peak period for electric usage—the solar panels collect enough energy not only for his house but also for four or five surrounding homes. Even if clouds completely block the sun, the juice stored in the batteries could run the lights and appliances in Korthof's house for two days. There has never been a lack of sunshine for more than two consecutive days in the 14 months he has relied on solar power—and the skies in this beach town are often blanketed with coastal fog and cloud cover.

"Everyone who gets a solar system seems to go out and watch the meter spin backward on the first day," he says.

Standing in his kitchen, Korthof (B.S. in mathematics, master's in philosophy from Cal State Long Beach) is your classic rational. He points to a chart created by Southern California Edison (SCE) that maps electricity usage in his house. It shows his monthly electric usage and what SCE bills him. Most months, the dollar amounts represent how much credit he has received from SCE for generating more electricity during peak periods than he's using in off-peak hours. By his math, SCE should pay him most months. Instead, there is a "yearly reckoning" where SCE has been known to zero-out his bill, essentially charging him nothing to power his house and cars.

Korthof acknowledges "there are legitimate missions that only gas cars can perform," but driving EVs and charging from solar power has enabled his family to live mostly oil-free.

It naturally makes one wonder how life would be if every other house in the neighborhood—or the next hundred new housing developments in California —had similar solar panels on their roofs. Imagine a step further, having some of that excess energy charging up electric cars for those neighbors who drive less than 80 to 120 miles daily, the respective ranges of Korthof's EV1 and RAV4-EV.

"We'd never need foreign oil," Korthof says.

The bumper sticker on the back of his EV1 says it all: "Starve Terrorists, Drive Electric."

* * *

Sadly, Korthof's prized EV1's days are numbered: GM has announced it won't extend leases on the cars when the last of them expires in 2004. Korthof will have to surrender his car.

EVs were created to satisfy the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state agency charged with preventing the air we breathe from killing us. In 1990, CARB mandated that 10 percent of all cars sold in California this year be zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs); subsequent proposals lowered the mandate to 2 percent, then 1 percent. But on April 24, CARB junked the 1990 mandate altogether, instead urging automakers to sell 125,000 gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and ultra-clean gasoline-powered vehicles by 2010. There was hope that CARB would allow for even a few hundred more electric cars just to keep the technology alive, but the only nod to zero-emissions advocates like Korthof was CARB's recommendation that the auto industry continue work on hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

To hear Korthof tell it, the conversion to electric cars was doomed from the get-go when an industry that would be rendered irrelevant by their widespread use—that would be the oil companies—teamed up with an industry that would not stand to profit off them in the short term—major carmakers. Some last-minute help from a White House teeming with former oil executives made it a fait accompli. You might refer to CARB as the pallbearers.

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