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Marylanders Finding Ways to Cope at the Pump

Bicycles and electric cars are becoming a more attractive alternative as fuel prices remain high.

By AARON CARTER
Capital News Service 

Sitting in your electric car, sipping organic tea from a biodegradable cup, you pull up to your bank's drive-thru window quite proud of your environmental awareness and saved dollars.

Then you see the silver Litespeed brand bicycle of the 58-year-old customer in front of you.

Whether they bike more, buy a more fuel efficient vehicle, convert their gas engine to electric, or simply ride more public transit, Marylanders are looking for ways to cope with pump prices.

Since 2008, according to the Maryland Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Council, Marylanders have hit the roads with 52,000 more hybrid cars. They've also added 289 electric vehicles since 2010, and at least one more bicycle.

And Metrorail ridership is up four percentage points through the first quarter of the year, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

"Gas is nuts," said Georgia Glashauser, president of the Baltimore Bicycling Club, and a frequent cyclist at the M&T Bank drive-thru eight miles from her Westminster house. "I'm surprised we don't have a revolt," she said with a laugh.

Even though AAA reported prices are 13 cents lower than a month ago, they are still within 31 cents of the all-time high of $4.11 per gallon set in July 2008.

Glashauser commuted an hour or more to her engineering job until five years ago, when she found a Westminster job that paid less but was just an eight-mile bike ride from home.

Her commute could still take an hour, but it wouldn't be because of traffic, distance or stopping for gas.

"It depends," Glashauser said, "on how much energy I have that morning."

Even some businesses are rethinking the energy they put into their cars.

Advanced Technology & Research Corporation is an engineering firm involved in, among other things, solar energy.

The corporation's vice president of automation systems, Rob Lundahl, said his company purchased an electric Chevy Volt as a corporate car.

"We do sales calls in it and run around. We've had it a little less than a month. We've got about 750 miles on it and have used less than six gallons of gas," Lundahl said, standing just outside Win Kelly Chevrolet in Clarksville.

The president of the dealership, Kevin Bell, said the advantage of the Volt is that it has an EPA estimated range of 35 miles on electricity alone. After that, the gas engine kicks in and increases the range an additional 300 miles.

According to data from the 2010 census, about 73 percent of Marylanders commute alone to work, and that commute takes an estimated 31 minutes, likely within a Volt's 35-mile range.

At Bell's dealership, Lundahl's corporation installed a solar car charger with sun tracking technology. Lundahl was there charging up.

The solar charger, which is styled like a light pole, has panels that track the sun using GPS technology, allowing for more efficient absorption.

"Electric cars are happening," Bell said. "The interest is growing week to week and I think you're going to see a very significant piece of the market over the next five years go electric." 

Bell said a spike in gas prices and an increase in awareness helped sales that were sluggish early.

"You had your early adopters," Bell said. "But the mainstream wasn't quite there and as gas prices have risen all of a sudden the mainstream shopper that's coming in looking for a Malibu is looking at the Volt also."

Bell said his dealership has had the Volt for about nine months and early on only sold about one per month. However, because gas peaked, Bell said March and April's combined sales totaled five.

According to 2011 data from the Maryland Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Council, 177 electric vehicles qualified for the excise tax credit for plug-in vehicles. In the first three months of 2012 that number is already 111.

The credit is a maximum of $2,000 and was implemented to stimulate purchasing, which in turn would show automakers demand worthy of increased technological investment.

"Innovation in technology will drive down costs," said Chris Rice of the Maryland Energy Administration. "That's what this program is all about."

Some aren't waiting for prices to dip and instead are driving their own innovations on the road.

Last year, Bruce Lawson got tired of exorbitant gas prices and said to his wife, "I want to get an electric car."

He settled on a grayish-blue 1997 BMW Z3 convertible with 144,000 miles logged on its gas engine. He would later convert it to electric.

Last week, Lawson, a 50-year-old Virginia resident, was at the Silver Spring public library for a meeting of the Electronic Vehicle Association of Greater Washington, D.C., a non-profit group devoted to electronic vehicle promotion.

Also in attendance was the man who made the conversion, Steve Clunn of Greenshed Conversions in Florida.

"It was a pretty nice car to do," Clunn said. He was in town to deliver a part for Lawson's Z3.

Lawson develops iPhone and iPad software for MicroStrategy, a business intelligence software company in Tysons Corner.

Because the new electric engine needed to be powered by about 80 lithium batteries, Lawson had to sacrifice a spare tire for battery storage. But he's not worried about being stranded.

"If I had a flat tire I'd just call on my phone for help," Lawson said. He owns an iPhone and is actually working on an application that would interface with the car's engine, enhancing the user experience.

Lawson said his full-charge range is about 100 miles, and the total cost of making the conversion, including buying the Z3, was about $33,000.

For comparison, Chevy dealer Kevin Bell said the Volt, which has an electric range of 35 miles, retails between $39,000 and $43,000, but also earns the buyer a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Clunn has been converting cars for 20 years and said the benefits are more than just less pain at the pump.

"You don't have all the heat and exhaust gases that you have in a normal gas car," Clunn said.

His major concern is environmental, a sentiment shared by Lawson.

Affixed to Lawson's home are solar panels whose energy can be used to charge his car.

"It's so much of a thrill to drive every day and not be beholden to oil companies," Lawson said. "It's neat to drive past a (gas station) and see people grumbling."

His license plate cover reads, "Driving on sunshine."

"It's kind of true," Lawson said.

Kym Byrnes (Editor) May 16, 2012 at 05:31 PM
I think Patch should buy me a bright green electric car with a huge patch of grass sprouting out of the sunroof. The car itself should also be a wifi hotspot and have a siren on it so I can get to breaking news scenes faster. What can your employer do to lessen your pain at the pump?

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