Electric cars urged for L.B.

By Will Shuck
From Our Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO - A decade after Long Beach's commitment to natural gas vehicles made it an environmental trailblazer, state regulators say the city must embrace electric technology if it hopes to stay ahead of the air-quality curve.

"Natural gas is an excellent first step," says Richard Varenchik, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. "But even extremely clean engines fall short of the state's future clean-air needs."

As clean as natural gas is - about a tenth as dirty as gasoline - only electronic, zero-emission vehicles (or ZEVs) will cure the state's smog problem, Varenchik says.

"We consider zero-emission to be the gold standard."

City leaders and industry experts say it's easy for Sacramento to beat the zero-emission drum, but for the time being there are not enough electric vehicles to go around. With only 2,300 in the state and a waiting list of would-be buyers, anyone who does not have one yet won't anytime soon.

And until automakers step up production, Long Beach's fleet of natural gas cars and trucks is the next best thing.

Varenchik acknowledges Long Beach's accomplishments but says the state's fifth-largest city should not get complacent.

"What they did 10 years ago was very futuristic-looking," he says of Long Beach's initial work with natural gas vehicles.

"Now 10 years have passed, and they have to start looking at new clean-air goals, and they have to start looking at electric vehicles, at least for their meter-readers."

Varenchik's agency, known by the acronym CARB, earlier this month brushed aside carmakers' protests and upheld its decade-old mandate requiring 10 percent of the cars sold in California to be emission-free by 2003. The state has backed down on the issue before, and it remains to be seen whether carmakers can meet the mandate.

In Southern California, cities, counties and big companies are preparing to meet new rules from the Air Quality Management District that require them to buy alternative fuel vehicles when they restock their fleets next year.

Long Beach already has 320 natural gas vehicles ranging from patrol cars to trash trucks.

The city first flirted with natural gas vehicles during the oil crisis of the 1970s, but lost interest when petroleum supplies loosened up.

Since 1991, however, Long Beach has been at the forefront of the alternative fuel movement and in 1994 became the first city in the state to earn the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean City designation.

Chris Garner, head of the city's Public Works Department and former chief of the Gas and Electric Department, says Long Beach initially rode the coattails of Southern California Gas Co.'s pioneering efforts with natural gas technology.

Aid scaled back
The Gas Company, as Southern California Gas calls itself, had promised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the program until federal regulators prohibited the use of customers' money. Limited to shareholder money, the company scaled back its efforts.

"We kept going," says the city's Garner. As one who helped implement the early efforts, he not surprisingly extols the virtues of natural gas.

"The big difference is you're really taking a normal vehicle and making some relatively minor adjustments to it, and then you have a natural gas vehicle," Garner says. Traditionally trained mechanics can still work on natural gas vehicles, and fueling works almost the same as for liquid gas cars, although it is slower.

Plus, Garner says, the vehicles are much more available than electric ones.

Greg Vlasek, executive director of the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, an industry trade group, calls Long Beach an early pioneer, but says others are catching up.

"I have to think they're not quite as aggressive as they used to be," he says.

But Dennis Hill, who heads up the city's fleet services, says the city is as committed as ever.

Costly commitment
Hill says Long Beach's fleet is big and growing, and that the city pays a premium for its commitment. A natural gas trash truck, for example, costs about $200,000, nearly $60,000 more than its diesel counterpart.

"I don't think we're taking a back seat to anybody," Hill says. "We've been buying 30 to 50 (vehicles) a year, and we didn't have to."

The city's natural gas program is near and dear to Ray Grabinski, an outspoken City Council member whose west side district sees its air quality diminished by diesel-driven operations at the city's port, and by trucks and cars on the crowded Long Beach (710) Freeway.

"Long Beach has already done the natural gas because we were in the natural gas business," he says, referring to the city-owned gas company that serves Long Beach residents. "If we were in the electric business, I'm sure we'd have electric, too."

Grabinski likes to tout Long Beach's pre-eminence in the field, and most experts agree with him.

Until recently, neighboring Cerritos came to Long Beach to fill the tanks of its two natural gas-powered Ford F-250 pickups. Now the city uses its own fueling station.

Cerritos uses propane to power its fleet of seven city buses.

Downey has one electric car for city officials, and three of the city's 17 buses run on natural gas.

Lakewood has eight electric Toyota RAV4s, which carry parking control officers, code enforcement officers and public works inspectors around the 9.5-square-mile suburb.

"We think they are an admirable and ecologically friendly choice," says city spokesman Don Waldie, "especially for a city as compact as Lakewood."

Lakewood also operates a propane-fueled work truck, as well as a van and a forklift that run on natural gas.

"But cities can only do a certain amount of this," Grabinksi says. "Industries make the biggest difference."

Boeing fleet smal
The Boeing Co., one of the region's largest employers, has only a small alternate-fuel fleet. In Long Beach, the company has two Ford pickups, a Toyota Camry and a Honda Accord that run on natural gas.

Boeing's electric-vehicle use is limited to the kind of small service carts common to college campuses and amusement parks, says spokesman Larry Whitley.

Southern California Edison, on the other hand, boasts the largest fleet of electric vehicles in the country. The company, whose largest city is Long Beach, is dedicated to electric cars for obvious reasons.

Edison has 320 electric cars, more than 10 percent of the state's total. It also is studying heavy-duty electric vehicles and hybrid electric cars, which use small gas motors to increase their range.

"It's a hell of a lot bigger than you think," says Ed Kjaer, director of Edison's Electric Transportation Division.

Kjaer reels off statistics: 70 percent of emissions come from transportation, he says, and 90 percent of Californians live in unhealthful air. The state is the third-largest consumer of gasoline in the world, burning 14 billion gallons annually, trailing only the United States as a whole and Japan.

Californians have 30 million cars, "one for every man, woman and child in the state."

Price tag dropping
With the population expected to double in 40 years, "You've got to ask the rhetorical question: Are we going to have 60 million cars?" Kjaer says.

However many cars exist in California's future, Kjaer says a lot of them will be electric. One reason is that they will be cheaper.

Even without the benefit of mass production, the cost of electric cars has dropped dramatically since 1990. And the cost of batteries, the priciest piece of an electric car, has plummeted, says Kjaer. A battery system for a car in 1990 cost nearly $180,000. By 1995 it was half that, and today it is about $30,000. By 2003, experts predict, the battery system for a passenger vehicle will be about $10,000.

"And that reduction is just from technology. That's done without the benefits of volume," Kjaer says.

With Californians' wringing their hands over the threat of an energy crisis and higher electricity prices, some state leaders suggest now is the wrong time to be talking about electric cars.

But Kjaer and others say electric vehicles, even in big numbers, will not break the state's fragile grid because the cars are typically charged at night, long after the peak daytime hours when the power system has been stretched to its limits.

Electricity cheaper
And the cost? "Electricity is still always going to be cheaper than gasoline," Kjaer says. "It's a very long-term play. The point is we have to start now; we can't delay."

Kjaer commends Long Beach's natural gas program, but says the city can evolve to include electric vehicles. But not in the short term, though.

"In real-world economics, electric vehicles aren't practical, and natural gas vehicles are," says Vlasek, of the gas coalition. "It's easy to sit here today and say we have to move to zero emission vehicles, but the natural gas vehicles are, for all intents and purposes, near zero."

Both alternatives are cleaner and cheaper than gas, but now only natural gas vehicles are readily available.

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