Vacaville: America's EV Hometown
By Bill Moore
Vacaville, California straddles US Interstate 80 between Sacramento, the state capitol and San Francisco. Long a bedroom community, several high-tech firms have set up facilities in this town of just over 90,000. Driving through the middle of town on the Interstate you might not think it is much different from other communities in America, but you'd be wrong.
Vacaville -- often referred to with both humor and pride as "Voltageville" happens to have the highest concentration of electric vehicles per capita of any community in Northern California. (Click here to see T-Shirt design worn by EV drivers in Vacaville). And if Ed Huestis, the town's transportation services manager, has his way, his town will someday have the highest percentange of EVs for its size of any city in America... if only he can get the vehicles.
To date, there are eight GM EV1 electric coupes in town and four Ford Ranger EVs. Interestingly, the first three EV1s -- besides the Gen I Huestis leased -- where leased by school teachers, with the help of Vacaville's innovative grant program. As Huestis explained to EV World, all of the vehicles were leased using funds from a US$300,000, federal air quality improvement grant he procured. He has since found an additional $600,000 to help people in his community to buy down the cost of their EV leases, often reducing the monthly cost from $499 to as low as $310.
When Huestis obtained the initial $300,000 grant, he divided it into 35 $6,000 incentive packages totaling US$210,000. The remaining funds were used to install public charging and acquire some additional EVs for the city's own fleet needs.
Vacaville's EV incentive program would enable 35 people in the community to get into an EV lease who might otherwise have been put off by the relatively high lease costs. Before the available inventory of EVs was exhausted, just twelve individuals were able to take advantage of the program, Huestis told EV World. This not only left 23 unused incentive packages, it also left a long list -- totaling over 100 applicants -- of disappointed would-be EV drivers in Vacaville. Huestis added that his list of applicants for the program continues to grow mainly by word-of-mouth as people in the community learn from EV owners the benefits of the driving a battery electric vehicle. They too want to taken advantage of the program.
Vacaville's EV incentive program, which Huestis just learned prior to our interview is this year's recipient of CalStart/WestStart's coveted Blue Sky Award, is designed to reduce the incremental cost difference between leasing a comparable gasoline vehicle and an electric one.
"One of the requirements of this funding is that we can't exceed what has been determined to be the incremental cost of the vehicle, which typically is about half of the lease, is what industry is telling us." He added that he had originally intended to make each incentive worth $8,000 but there was so much interest in the program within his community that he decided to spread the funds out more. "It (the $6,000) doesn't cover the full incremental costs, but I felt is was enough to get people off of the fence and into the vehicle."
The funds can be used either as a down payment or to help defray the taxes and title fees on the car and the first several months cost of the lease. The only stipulation for becoming a program participant is that the person must either live or work in Vacaville, Huestis said. He is also in the process of setting up a similar program for the nearby community of Dixon, population 15,000.
Huestis personally spends anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour with each program applicant, in his words, "bringing them up-to-speed on the industry and what vehicles are available." If they decide to sign up, he gets their email address, as well as other pertinent information. Huestis uses email to keep everyone on the list updated as to the status of the program. Most of the people who do sign-up also take the next step of contacting the manufacturer of choice to get on their waiting list.
One thing that can be said for California is that the state is certainly trying to get EVs on the road. Prior to Vacaville's incentive program, the state's Air Quality Districts offered a US$5,000 incentive package that was already figured into the cost of each vehicle. Since the Vacaville program, the governor has signed into law AB2061 setting aside some US$18 million dollars for EV incentives, which will let EV owners apply for up to US$9,000, spread over three years, to help offset the cost of an EV purchase. At the time of this writing, the legislature has yet to authorize the funds, however.
For the citizens of Vacaville, this means not only will the ownership costs of an EV come down by an additional $3,000 but it will let more people participate in the program. Huestis explained that under the terms of his federal grant, he must first utilize available funds elsewhere, like those provided for under AB2061. Instead of contributing the full US$6,000, he can now contribute just $2,500, letting he make more funds available to more people in the community.
"Vacaville residents will still always have a better deal than anybody else in the state," Huestis stated, "but I'll be able to leverage the dollars to even a greater extent and cover even more people." He also pointed out that he'll need those funds because as more people drive EVs, word-of-mouth is going to stimulate even more interest in the community. He added that with just thirteen privately owned EVs in town (the 13th is a Honda EV+ that was acquired prior to the Vacaville program), his list of applicants is growing rapidly, largely due to the very positive experiences of current owners.
Huestis has compiled his own private survey of current EV owners in town and, "to a Œt¹ they are very, very satisfied and after the end of this lease are ready to get into another electric vehicle," he reported. " This is what my wife and I are experiencing... we never want to go back to gas cars. It's just too convenient, too much fun to drive these vehicles and with no maintenance to speak of and very little operating cost, it's just a lot of fun to drive."
This kind of experience is what's driving the growth of Vacaville's waiting list, that and very positive publicity in the local press. What Huestis is also learning from his survey and time spent with would-be program participants is that many of them are very interested in owning or leasing something other than a two passenger vehicle. What they are telling him is they would really like something more along the lines of the Toyota RAV4 EV, a four-passenger, four-door SUV-like vehicle. (We at EV World can confirm this because we are continually receiving requests from people who would like to lease or own this particular vehicle), It now appears that, for at least some of these people, their wish might just come true.
Just last week, Huestis was in conversations with Toyota and it now appears a strong likelihood that the company will broaden the availability of the RAV4 EV from its initial market of fleet vehicles to small business owners. While Huestis said he isn't sure what Toyota will define as a "small business" -- and probably a "home-based business" won't quality -- he was very encouraged and "confident" about this possibility.
The dozen EVs currently in operation in Vacaville are used, as one might expect, for commuting to and from work, some traveling as much as 45 miles one way. Most commute between 15 to 30 miles a day.
The City and NEV Experience
Just before Christmas 2000, Nissan donated three of its HyperMini EVs to the city of Vacaville. This car is a small, two passenger vehicle intended strictly for use on city streets. It has a top speed of about 55 mph and an advertised range of 50 miles, though in real world -- ala Vacaville -- the practical range between recharges is about 30-35 miles, Huestis reports. One of the vehicles -- all three are right-hand drive -- is used by the local police department for parking enforcement. Another is designated for use by the community's recycling program office for travel to promotional and educational events in the area. The third is used by the city's IT department for travel to various city facilities to maintain its computer network.
Huestis is also working with both Dynasty Motorcars of Canada and Global Electric Motors of Fargo, North Dakota (GEM was recently acquired by DaimlerChrysler) to determine potential markets for their lower speed Neighborhood EVs. He is trying to determine who on his waiting list -- and beyond that -- would be interested in operating this class of vehicle, which is restricted to speeds below 25mph and streets posted 35mph or less. He told EV World that it was still too early in his investigation to determine any trends or potential market size for these vehicles. However, he did have his Traffic Engineering Department color a map of all the streets in Vacaville to illustrate the posted speeds in the community to help determine where NEVs could safely operate. He said it appears that most of the streets north of I-80 are posted 30mph or less. He was also fairly certain that laws in California now allow them to operate on public streets, though he admitted he still needs to confirm this to be totally certain.
One thing seems obvious to Huestis, most of the people on his waiting list would prefer to own a fully-functioning, highway-capable EV over a NEV. However, in the absence of highway-capable vehicles and the fact that you can't buy them, only lease them, he thinks some of the people on his list may choose to buy a NEV. They can use NEVs for running errands or for short commutes of a mile or so in town, what he calls "secondary trips."
"We will provide an incentive for those vehicles, not the full $6,000. We're looking at $3,000 which we think is very generous from what I've seen." He plans to advise people on the waiting list about both the Dynasty and GEM vehicles by email this week, asking them to express their views and possible interest in these vehicles. He is also going to approach some of the high tech companies in the community that have campuses to ascertain their interest in this class of vehicle, as well as city workers who live in town.
But Are There Enough Public Chargers?
With all the current and projected EVs that may someday be motoring cleanly about the streets of Vacaville, does the city have enough public chargers to meet people's needs. Huestis immediately responded with a long list of places where public chargers are or will soon be in place. He sounded confident that no one should have a problem finding an open charging port. (In the accompanying photo to this article, Ed stands next to both a conductive and inductive chargers outside Vacaville City Hall.)
Apart from occasional use of some of the city's EVs like the Nissan Hypermini, Huestis, himself, is currently without an EV. He was one of the individuals whose Gen I EV1 was recalled by General Motors in 1999 because of safety concerns with the charging port. Huestis told us that GM has informed him that the company is right on schedule for placing back into service all the recalled vehicles in the first quarter of 2001, which ends this month.
"We're seeing some information about that, in fact it just hit yesterday that it should start happening in the next few days." (Note: EV World contacted Ken Stewart's office for confirmation, but he was out of the office until later this week).
Whence His Calling?
One thing is certain, Ed Huestis is a man with a mission. He explained what drives him to expend the kind of energy he does to promote EVs in his community.
"It all started when we entered into (our) lease in August, 1998 for the EV1," he stated. "Actually, I'd been going to Clean Fuels Forums up in the Sacramento area as part of my job, so I was exposed to it at Ride & Drives... I thought that maybe this was the way I could help out to some extent. I am not an extremist or strong environmentalist..." Huestis is, in fact, a Republican.
"When we took our first lease, I was shocked. Whenever we went somewhere shopping or whatever, being the first EV in Vacaville, people were asking us questions whenever we got out of the car and they were asking questions when we got back out to the car. And if we missed them, there were fingerprints all over the windows from people peering inside. I was just amazed that people didn't even know these cars existed, let alone that they could get them at that time. So I said, I need to have twenty-five people going through what I am going through. That was my initial goal."
"I just have a passion for it," he continued. Huestis, himself lives only a mile and a half from his workplace. His wife commutes daily 40 miles to UC Davis where she is an accountant, a drive she easily made in the Generation One EV1 prior to its recall. He said that if the 70% of people who commute from Vacaville can't be persuaded to join a car or van pool, he at least wants them to drive a clean, non-polluting vehicle like the EV1.
"It's been a lot of extra hours above and beyond," Huestis commented. "My wife can attest to that." His one-on-one approach with potential EV owners seems to have guaranteed -- up to this point -- that Vacaville's program will not repeat the AFV incentives debacle in Arizona that could cost the state an estimated US$200 million or more.
Do BEVs Have a Future?
Given the lack of available vehicles at present and the need for significant government incentives to help people "off the fence" and into EVs, EV World wondered what the EV drivers of Vacaville thought about the future of battery electric vehicles. In short, do BEV's have a place in tomorrow's transportation system?
"Those that are driving the battery electric vehicles truly feel that way," Huestis observed. "We don't even want to consider a hybrid unless it is a plug-in hybrid. I think in one word, we're hopeful that we'll continue to see battery electric vehicles, both fully functional battery electric vehicles and then next City and NEV. .." Huestis¹ only concession to hybrid-electric vehicles is a plug-hybrid. If these were available, he said he'd replace his Ford Taurus with one.
He thinks that volume production is the ultimate answer for bringing costs down and eventually eliminating the need for costly government incentives.
"What I am seeing is that these people (who currently operate an EV) are willing to pay whatever the going rate is at the end of their lease... within reason. So, with more people driving the vehicle and more exposure, the demand itself will expand, then with the volumes up there, the costs will naturally come down and it will just feed itself."
It seems to be working in Vacaville, at least. Maybe someday the city will consider changing its name to "Voltageville".
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