The Force Is Strong With Him
By Bill Moore
Todd Fisher comes from a famous Hollywood family. His father is the 1950's pop music icon, Eddie Fisher. His mother is the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds. And his sister, Carrie is best known for her starring role as "Princess Leia" in the first Star War's trilogy.
As a result, Fisher has grown-up living in a veritable "fish bowl" of public attention, which may account for why he's tended to remain behind the scenes in Hollywood, working at times as a producer. Now he spends much of his time on his 300-acre ranch on the California coast between LA and San Francisco. There he powers his home and his brand new Toyota RAV4 EV with an 8kW system solar electric array on a tracking system he designed and fabricated himself.
So, on the eve of the premier of "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones", we thought it would be fun to talk to Fisher about his family, his RAV4 EV and environmental politics in Hollywood.
When he's not overseeing the remodel of his ranch home - - and it is a working ranch, he tells EV World - - he spends his time in LA overseeing several projects for his mother, including the construction of her Hollywood Motion Picture Collection museum, for which he is the executive director.
We began by asking him to explain what the museum is all about.
"About thirty years ago, my mother started buying up all the artifacts from MGM, Fox and a lot of the studios that had decided to liquidate due to various reasons. She became the largest protector and collector of all of the costumes, props and furniture from all the great studios; MGM, Fox, Columbia, RKO, Universal, Warner Brothers, Paramount, etc. The collection at this point is the largest collection in the World. It's valued at about $50 million.
"Back when she was doing this, people considered this stuff junk. A [Marilyn] Monroe dress wasn't really worth much, but of course today . . . We have the white subway dress of Monroe's from "Seven Year Itch". It's worth at least a couple million bucks." Fished noted that the collection has a total of 28 Monroe dresses, plus a pair of the famous "Ruby Slippers" from the "Wizard of Oz."
"We cover every major Academy Award-winning film and star from the silent era up and through the late 70's. And we have quite a bit of contemporary stuff, as well."
Architectural Doorway to Environmental Awareness
Turning to the subject of Fisher's own personal views on the environment, he explained that he started to take an interest in solar and geothermal energy, as well as EVs, while an architectural student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture where he majored in architecture.
"I was sort of into it back then, but I never had the money to do anything about it. Of course at that age, who does? So I didn't do a whole lot. It took me many years until I had the resources. I do have an electrical engineering background," he added, noting that he's continued to follow the evolution of solar and EV technology over the years through Home Power magazine and the EV World web site.
"I've spent a lot of time following the technology and I always been wanting an electric car. There was nothing really very practical prior to what's coming out now."
Fisher is good friends with Ed Begley, Jr., another staunch environmental activist-actor and now RAV4 EV owner. Fisher commented that he and Begley have spend many hours discussing technology and commiserating with each other about the lack of environmental awareness in Hollywood, which even carries over to Fisher's own family; his famous mother and sister.
"They're aware of it [but] they're not super-technical people," he said. "Carrie is certainly more technical than my mother, but they really don't know how to implement it. Like so many other people, they really don't understand how you can implement this stuff into your life. They don't know how to go out and buy the stuff and put it in, even though they have the money and can do it, they're just never quit sure how to implement it.
Fisher also commented that his family finds the practical range limitations of EVs off-putting. He said he is a pilot and is used to planning trips with the range limitations of the aircraft -- or EV -- in mind. "My sister would be running out of power constantly," he teased. "I would never give her an electric car, not unless we could limit her to the inside of Disney Land."
Such concerns didn't prevent Fisher, himself, for leasing for five years his Toyota RAV4 EV. He said that he went for the lease instead of buying because he feels the technology will have changed by then. He also said he had talked to some people about the life of the NiMH batteries and thought it wouldn't make sense to keep the vehicle beyond five years. Like many folks who'd like to get into an electric-drive vehicle, he's hoping that fuel cells will be practical by then.
"That's certainly where I'd like to see this all going," he stated. "The RAV 4 [EV] for where we are today is a wonderful machine. My wife drives it. My kids can use it. It functions like a regular vehicle."
This is the first EV Fisher has ever owned.
He especially likes the vehicle's regenerative braking, not because it gives the vehicle additional range, but because it is, what he considers, a "great educational tool." By this he means, it teaches people how to drive more efficiently.
"If you use the regenerative braking correctly, it makes you slow down earlier, instead of racing up to the stop sign, and then bunching it off the line. This whole car makes you drive more conservatively, even in the [gasoline] fuel car. So, it's a good training exercise."
While he likes the RAV4 EV a great deal, he admits it's not for everyone.
"It certainly has to be part of another vehicle, especially if you travel any great distances. If you lived in a small community and everything was within a certain distance, no problem."
He explained that he lives about 40 miles from San Luis Obispo and about ten miles for Paso Robles, California. He usually travels about 10 miles each way. "Everything's within 30 or 40 miles. I can make it to San Luis Obispo and I can charge up there." He said he could even make the trip without recharging, assuming he's got a full charge when he starts, but it's close.
"So I feel range is certainly an issue, but I don't have any problem at all. I keep everyone else limited to shorter runs. We really enjoy it though. And it's also fun to know that you're not out trashing the environment. It just makes you feel nicer that when you're making some futile trip, because we all make these stupid trips. How many times have you gone to town, come home and realized you forgot something and now you're going back again. When you do it [in an EV] you don't feel quite as stupid."
Soon a Two RAV4 EV Family
Fisher has been so pleased with the performance of the RAV4 EV that he now plans to lease a second one for use in and around Los Angeles, where he usually spends half his time.
"There's more opportunity, clearly, in Los Angeles for charging than here." He observed that he and his family drive around LA much the same way they do at their ranch, making very similar shopping trips and running errands.
"I think it makes a lot of sense when you're just doing your around-town running. I know it's saving me money. I've had a few months evaluating my gas card bill and we're saving a considerable amount of money right now on fuel."
Part of those savings come from the fact that Fisher can recharge his RAV4 EV from the electricity generated by his 8kW solar array, "providing you don't roll in at 12 O'clock at night," he added.
His system is inter-tied to the power grid and he 'stores' some of his excess electricity on the grid, buying back what he needs when the sun isn't shining and receiving a credit for excess solar electricity he puts into the grid.
Beside his solar array, he said he also has some wind energy potential and that his inverter is capable of handling up to 11,000 watts of peak power. He backs all this up with a 2200 amp-hour battery system. He also supplements this with a 60kW generator.
"It's a pretty sophisticated system [that] is a little beyond the average person means, but because of my background, I wanted the ultimate no-brainer system." We got Fisher to promise to talk to us about his system in more detail at a later time.
As for charging the RAV4 EV, he installed the charger himself, though it took some convincing to get Toyota to agree. "I keep the charger where we park the EV... My mother can figure it out and that's saying something.
Teasing his famous sister just a bit, he added with obvious mirth, "You'd think that because 'Princess Leia' is like sophisticated and can fly these spaceships, she can handle electric cars, well even she can handle this car."
It was his friend Ed Begley who showed him one of his first production electric vehicles when the actor/environmentalist leased the EV1. While Fisher was intrigued, he felt it simply didn't meet his needs in terms of its carrying capacity or its range on its original lead-acid batteries, so he held off. He said he did look at other options like the GM S-10 EV and the Chrysler EPIC minivan, eventually dismissing them due to range limitations.
Instead, his bided his time and used electric golf cars around his ranch. He added that he and his family are "technically self-sufficient" on the ranch, but that he's not a "survivalist", more a "Green Acres" gentleman-farmer.
For his longer trips, Fisher has two Range Rovers, one of which he is considering converting to use natural gas. He thinks that if you can afford to own more than one vehicle, that having one of them electric is "an incredibly practical thing." Though in the case of the RAV4 EV with a $42,000 price tag, he admits it's expensive, adding that federal and state tax credits help bring the price down somewhat.
"I personally feel that the government should be doing more than they're doing," he said, "since they're willing to put out millions of dollars for every other possible project. I think there is more room for this and it could make it more reasonable for people."
A Question of Priorities
While Fisher finds himself in an enviable financial position relative to most people in the US, let alone the world, he understands that some people may take a critical view of his lifestyle.
EV World asked him how he would respond to charges that he can afford solar homes and expensive cars, but the average person can't.
"First of all, I do a lot of this stuff myself," the 44-year old Fisher replied. " I am very handy. As I said, I have an engineering background, so I like building this stuff myself. I was able to build most of my system myself. I took out the permits myself. I installed the system myself; I even installed the battery charger for the RAV4," a process that he said required him to jump through a lot of hoops.
As to the question of the question of being able to afford a $42,000 vehicle, he understands that many people can only afford one vehicle and this is "certainly not the car for them." This is one reason he thinks the government should take a more proactive role because he believes there are plenty of people in the one vehicle family that would like to take advantage of vehicles like the RAV4 EV, but simply can't. Here he sees affordable hybrid-electric vehicles as a good solution for many of them, though even here, many cannot afford these either.
"I think the state of California is, at least, doing something. I would certainly like to see more being done." This includes even his own family whom he said can afford to do more environmentally, but don't. "A lot of it has to do with the desire of the individual," he said. He said it has a lot to do with personal motivation.
"Why am I motivated to do it? It has to do with my own set of priorities. I feel very strongly about not contributing to the trashing of our planet. I think that we all have to get onboard with that, or we're going to be in big trouble."
Referring to his solar array and RAV4 EV, he stated, "These are worthwhile investments, in my opinion. Even if I really couldn't afford to do these, I would find a way to prioritize so I could."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK..
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