Plug-in hybrids guru bolts to D.C.

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SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Mr. Kramer goes to Washington this week, he’ll be driving a modified Toyota Prius that he says gets more than 100 miles per gallon.

In the nation’s capital, Felix Kramer, the Redwood City, Calif., resident and guru of the plug-in hybrid movement, has found an unlikely ally: President Bush.

In a speech in April, Bush endorsed the notion of a plug-in hybrid: “One of the really interesting opportunities available for the American consumer will be the ability to buy a plug-in hybrid vehicle that will be able to drive up to 40 miles on electricity. Seems to make sense to me.”

Bush had been scheduled to meet with the chief executives of Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group on Thursday, but that meeting was postponed because the president is scheduled to talk about border issues in Arizona. However, the Big Three’s CEOs intend to meet Thursday with leaders in Congress.

Kramer sees those meetings as an opportunity to put his car, and his grass-roots campaign to persuade automakers to build plug-in hybrid vehicles, before a receptive audience of policy-makers, bureaucrats and media. He flew the car to Washington on Monday.

Kramer founded the nonprofit CalCars: The California Cars Initiative in 2002 after selling a company that provided online services to Web designers and developers. He was a volunteer for many years, and only became a paid employee in 2005. The group now has three on its payroll. CalCars is supported by foundations, utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric and other contributors.

The modifications to turn a regular hybrid into a plug-in version are relatively simple, and include a bigger, better battery pack, a bit of software and a short extension cord. The alterations allow the regular Prius, which can run for short distances and at certain speeds solely on electric power, to expand that capacity. When he’s driving at 55 mph, Kramer said, 75 percent of the power comes from electricity.

The result? A monitor attached with Velcro to Kramer’s dashboard showed he got 101.09 mpg on a recent trip. His cruising range is about 800 miles, a little less than double the normal Prius range. He buys gasoline every three or four weeks “except when I do lots of extra driving.”

Kramer made a two-hour presentation about his car, and even gave a few rides, to an audience of about 30 people last week at Acterra, a Palo Alto environmental group.

In a parking lot full of Priuses, Kramer’s car stood out, thanks to its “This Plug-In Hybrid Gets 100plus MPG” lettering and PLUG OK vanity plate.

It’s the second plug-in Prius for his group. The first was completed in fall 2004. Eleven exist in the world, he said.

He said his car is a means to an end. “Conversions are simply a strategy for us,” Kramer said. “That’s not the game. The game is getting the carmakers to do it.”

Kramer worked with others in the Bay Area to create his car, and relied on a Monrovia company, Energy CS, for some of the parts. That company has delivered one of its plug-in hybrids to Southern California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District for testing.

Energy CS might soon begin selling the conversions under the brand name EDrive.

Kramer said his conversion cost about $12,000, and future conversions from Energy CS also might cost that amount. A do-it-yourselfer might be able to build a plug-in hybrid using a less sophisticated set-up for about $3,000, he said.

Kramer also suggests Toyota would be able to add the technology to its existing hybrids for about $3,000, turning the $21,000-to-$27,000 regular Prius into a $24,000-to-$30,000 plug-in Prius.

Kramer has found that talking about cleaner cars that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and cut the need for imported oil has attracted surprisingly broad support. Many big cities have expressed interest in adding the vehicles to their fleets once they become commercially available. Political conservatives he describes as “energy security hawks” endorse the idea of using less oil from the Middle East.

Still, the idea of mass commercialization of plug-in hybrids seems far from assured.

Toyota Motor says any Prius owner who converts the car into a plug-in voids the vehicle’s warranty.

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“Plug-ins pose very obvious difficult challenges for us, with regard to the current technology,” said spokesman John Hanson. In a converted Prius, the battery is depleted, then recharged, and that’s done repeatedly. “That’s death on a battery,” he said.

Still, he said, the concept is promising. “We are definitely looking at the possibility of developing a plug-in.”

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Kramer’s group has been seeking support from Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford and said it has been talking with Ford about a partnership for many months.

Ford, at his company’s annual meeting in Delaware last week, said the automaker is studying plug-in hybrids with other potential transportation technologies.

“It’s a technology that’s valid, certainly,” Ford spokesman Nick Twork said. “But they need a lot more development before they’re commercially viable.”



(c) 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at http://www.mercurynews.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-05-16-06 1810EDT


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