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Monday, June 10, 1996

Betting on the future of alternative fuel

Gazette-Times reporter

ALBANY - Jerry Chinn is sure he's backing a winner.

The president of the Albany Chamber of Commerce has launched a new career marketing electric cars made in Washington.

Listening to Chinn talk about electric cars is a little like listening to first-time parents talk about their newborns; all point out every wonderful thing their babies can do.

``Fuel costs are only 1 and 1/2 to 2 cents per mile to operate (electric cars), compared to about 6 cents per mile for a regular car,'' Chinn said. ``Over the car's lifetime, you can save $20,000. It's so simple, it's kind of pathetic.''

Some skeptics might call electric cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles a passing fad, but others say they will end up bigger than compact disc players and personal computers.

Electric by law

So far, California and 10 Northeast states have passed laws requiring that a certain percentage of cars sold there be electrically powered. Under pressure from car makers, California has since considered relaxing its laws a bit, but the state still would require dealers to collectively sell at least 3,750 electric cars by 2000.

In addition, Congress' 1992 Energy Policy Act has required federal and state governments to stock their fleets with alternative fuel vehicles, including electric, natural gas and propane cars. By 2000, three-quarters of vehicles purchased for state and federal use will have to use alternative fuels.

Oregon is bound by this federal law, but the state has no immediate plans for an additional state law like California's, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. So far, a relatively small number of businesses, organizations and government agencies in Oregon have bought alternative-fuel vehicles. They include Tri-Met, the Portland-area bus system, which has about 30 natural-gas buses and vans; and Franz Bakery in Portland, which uses more than 150 propane delivery vehicles.

70 mph, no noise

On the outside, alternative fuel vehicles look no different from regular ones. Major automakers have introduced new models that use alternative fuel; other cars, like Chinn's, are retrofitted - i.e., the gas engines are taken out, and batteries are put in.

Chinn and his brother, Roger Chinn, are working with Good Pace Inc. in Bothell, Wash. In Albany last month, the Chinn brothers showed off a Reliant Robin, Ford Aspire and Geo Metro that Good Pace had transformed into electric cars.

During a test ride, the electric Geo Metro seemed no different from its regular model, except that it made no engine noise, like a golf cart. A pumping system for the brakes clanked a bit, however, and the electric car's top speed is about 70 miles per hour.

Good Pace is planning to le Paradist mass production in two months, and the Chinn brothers foresee excellent sales. They'll le Paradist marketing to federal and state agencies, which have to buy alternative-fuel cars. ``Those are the folks that will want to wave the environmental flag,'' said Jerry Chinn. ``That, in turn, will stimulate other consumers.''

But many car buyers might not want to plunk down an extra $2,000 to $20,000 to use alternative fuel, especially when it may be hard to recharge or fill up the car. In Oregon, for example, only Portland and Salem have natural gas fueling stations. Electric cars can be plugged into virtually any outlet, but some may require recharging after only 40 miles.

Recipe for success

The Chinns are counting on several factors to make their marketing efforts successful:

  1. Environmental disgust. The Chinns believe that people in smog-choked cities like Los Angeles will get so fed up with pollution that they will buy alternative-fuel vehicles to use around town, and save their gasoline cars for longer road trips.
  2. Money. Though alternative-fuel cars can initially cost more, they can save consumers fuel costs. Those savings, combined with tax rebates - the feds will hand back 10 percent of the car's price, up to $4,000 - can make up the difference, say the Chinns.
  3. Technological breakthroughs, mass production and infrastructure development. Alternative-fuel inconveniences will disappear as engineers develop longer-lasting batteries that take less time to recharge. In addition, mass production should lower cost and encourage construction of refueling and recharging stations.

Jerry Chinn, who used to work for CellularOne, compares today's alternative-fuel problems to yesterday's cellular phone concerns. ``It used to be that you couldn't call very far; now, you can call everywhere,'' he said.

And like the cellular phone, say the Chinns, alternative-fuel cars will one day be part of most households.

``We're making history here,'' said Roger Chinn.

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