A colorful wooden safety fence on Broadway between State and Union streets Downtown surrounds a construction site that will be home to a new federal courthouse. The fence is decorated with drawings made by students from Harborside School, reflecting the kids' visions of the future. One drawing shows people traveling via bubble; nearby, another depicts a solar-powered flat-screen TV announcing the UFO news at noon.
There's clearly an underlying theme to the young artists' work: a hope for sustainable energy sources. There's a wind-turbine-powered hotel and magnet-propelled cars in full Crayola glory. One sketch shows a space vehicle fueling up at a futuristic gas station, where the price for regular, super and diesel is marked at $1 per gallon. A few blocks away, outside the Central Public Library, a street preacher effusively warns: “Gas prices are going to reach $7 a gallon. Arabs are so rich, they're constructing man-made islands with their oil money. Isn't that crazy?”
It's a scene straight out of one of those Armageddon movies.
With a barrel of crude oil recently reaching $147, consumers are rethinking their commutes and frequenting websites like Gas buddy.com, where people post real-time gas-price updates. According to Gasbuddy's webmaster, about 10,000 San Diegans visit the site daily.
One person unscathed by Big Oil is Abrán Quevedo. On any given weekend, you can find him hard at work in his cluttered Golden Hill garage. Four years ago, the retired San Dieguito Academy auto-tech teacher was fed up with the amount of gas it took just to go to and from work, so he bought an electric-vehicle conversion kit and converted a 1990 VW Cabriolet that he nicknamed Lil' Red.
“It was a kit with three components: a DC/DC electric motor, a speed controller and a battery pack; basically, it was scaled-up golf-cart technology,” he says.
Since then, his pastime has turned to passion. He threw away the textbooks and started teaching his own 10-day class on electric-car conversion, under the auspices of the Electric Vehicle Association of San Diego. His first course had an enrollment of six. Word-of-mouth brought 40 students to his second session, and by his third go at it, he was forced to open a second concurrent class to meet the high demand.
“It started out as a hobbyist movement, and now it's becoming an under-the-radar grassroots one,” said Quevedo, also known as Mr. Q.
The grassroots level is pretty much where the electric-car movement's at right now. Almost two decades ago, the California Air Resources Board mandated that by 2003, 10 percent of all new vehicles sold in California had to be electric. But high manufacturing costs and limitations on speed, size and travel distance gave major car manufacturers reasons to fight—and successfully overturn—the CARB mandate. Currently, the best option for folks wanting a functional EV is to convert a standard car, but with soaring gas prices and a push for alternative fuel, the big automotive companies seem to be coming around. General Motors, which scrapped its EV1 program in 1999 (as documented in Who Killed the Electric Car?) has seen a steady decline in sales of its gas-guzzling Hummer and recently announced plans to introduce the Chevy Volt to the masses sometime in 2010. And racecar manufacturer Shelby plans to unveil the Ultimate Aero EV by the end of 2009. How far a converted electric vehicle can travel on a fully charged battery depends on the weight of the car, with heavier vehicles getting around 30 or 40 miles per charge and lighter vehicles able to travel up to 90 miles before needing more juice.
The day I visited Quevedo, he was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that showed off an electric-car tattoo on his right arm. Emblazoned on his shirt was a hieroglyphic-like dragon whose body is a series of five twisted internal combustion engine (ICE) chambers. That's Puff da Mechanical Dragon, Quevedo pointed out, before breaking into song: “Puff da Mechanical Dragon is an I.C.E who frolics in the smoggy mist of L.A. and D.C. Now Jack and Jill got sick, riding around on Puff. And then one day the kids dropped dead from breathing all that stuff….”
Quevedo said he belongs to the “gramps” generation and feels the need to be a leader. “I turn ICE cars into nice cars [because] I feel a tremendous responsibility to do whatever is in my power in order to provide clean breathing air for all the future Jack and Jills,” he said.
He knows he's at the forefront of a movement that's slowly catching on. “For the most part, we're a group of backyard tinkerers. However, just like '50s and '60s hot rods were decades ahead of production-line muscle cars by major car manufacturers, we are as well,” Quevedo said. “We are the hot-rod tinkerers of this 21st century.”
This year's course, which begins July 28, has been sold out for two months, with a waiting list of 60, and Quevedo has eager pupils coming from as far away as South America, Italy and Japan to take part in the intensive $300 workshop.The popularity of Quevedo's class is further evidence that the electric vehicle is experiencing a renaissance. The Electric Vehicle Association of San Diego (EVA), for instance, has recently seen attendance double from about 50 to roughly 100 at their monthly meetings, held at Pearson Fuels in City Heights, the nation's first alternative fuel station. Some of Quevedo's EVA colleagues have converted classic Caddies and, in one case, even a 1930s Rolls Royce. Quevedo says that just about any car can be given an internal makeover. “Existing engine, radiator, gas tank, exhaust and smog systems are gutted, so even a junkyard car is a good candidate,” he assures.
“Just think about it: No more gas or smog tests. Zero maintenance and zero emissions. It's a win-win-win situation. The only hang-up is the upfront investment.”
True, at $10,000 a conversion, it's a hefty one. But electric-vehicle owner Jason Greenblatt says he's done the math, and “$10,000 doesn't seem quite as bad. It'll end up paying for itself within a few years.”
Greenblatt commutes daily from his home near Crown Point in Pacific Beach to his job in Kearny Mesa, where he works as a clean-transportation program analyst for San Diego Gas & Electric. “At current gas prices, around $4.50 a gallon, a typical 25-mpg car can be expected to [cost] nearly $20,000 in gas over a 100,000-mile lifetime. This puts the electric-car conversion costs into perspective,” he said.
Quevedo hooked up Greenblatt's car—also a VW Cabriolet—with a pack of 18 8-volt batteries. To recharge the car, all Greenblatt needs to do is plug it into a standard 110-volt wall outlet. Though the investment was daunting, Quevedo set up a payment plan for Greenblatt that included an agreement to have him stop by the shop and lend a hand—“sweat equity,” Quevedo said.
“Freshly charged, it has a nice kick to it,” Greenblatt boasted. “It pulls pretty good past the 20-mph mark, if you drop the clutch,” he added as we took a spin around the block.
Quevedo's mission in life is clear: Get multi-car families to convert one of their vehicles to electric. “It would be perfect for running errands and making short commutes. Gas-powered vehicles ultimately are less-efficient and pollute more during short trips,” he said.
Quevedo plans to set up low-cost weekend workshops at his garage starting in September, geared toward people with low and moderate income who he hopes can eventually start doing conversions of their own.
“I'm retired and I'm more concerned [with] teaching than making money at this point,” he said. “The Earth is a living, breathing organism and [we] as a civilization are a cancer. We need to find alternate energy sources; that's the brick that needs to hit people in the head.”
Though there was interest in Quevedo showing his stuff at the Street Smart sustainable-energy event happening in San Diego on July 27, he passed on it.
“For the last few years, I've shown [conversions] all the way up from Oceanside to Poway on my own dime,” he said. “My focus right now is to reverse the process, so that people that are interested in electric-powered vehicles come to me.
“Like that movie says, ‘If you build it, they will come,'” he grinned.
A few days after my chat with Quevedo, I found myself walking by the wooden safety fence again and noticed someone had defaced the children's art with black permanent marker. A sign welcoming visitors to Carbon Free San Diego had been modified to say “Carbon Dirty.” And prices at the utopian gas station of the future had been modified from $1 a gallon to $6.
For some, it seems, the future is now. Check www.evaosd.org for details about Quevedo's upcoming conversion seminars and www.streetsmartsandiego.org for details about Street Smart San Diego. Café Libertalia in Hillcrest will show Who Killed the Electric Car? at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 27.