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Power Crisis Is Weapon in Electric Car Debate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

General Motors Corp., the company that once championed electric cars, plans to use California’s energy crisis as ammunition in a renewed attack next week on the state’s already watered-down zero-emissions vehicle rules.

GM’s top energy executive said in an interview this week that the company will argue to the California Air Resources Board on Thursday that it would be folly in the midst of an electricity shortage to require auto makers to produce vehicles that must draw from the state’s maxed-out power grid.

How the argument will play with the politically appointed air board members is unclear, but staff spokesmen for both the board and the California Energy Commission dismissed it out of hand.

The so-called ZEV mandate in present form would require the major auto makers to produce 23,000 electric vehicles a year for sale or lease in the state starting in 2003.

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With technologies available today, the only pure zero-emissions vehicles are battery-powered electrics that must be plugged in to the grid to be recharged. But powering them would take less than 0.06% of the state’s energy output, said air board spokesman Rich Varenchik.

That makes an electric car’s daily drain on the system equivalent to the electricity consumed by a single typical household--a number on which the air board and GM appear to agree. But where GM insists this is too much, clean-car proponents maintain that such usage has little effect because most car battery recharging is done overnight, when demand is lowest.

The question of impact could quickly become moot. At next week’s meeting, the air board will consider proposals to cut the required number of ZEVs by 60% to 80%, or to as few as 4,600 vehicles a year.

The proposals have outraged environmentalists yet failed to mollify auto executives, many of whom see no ZEV rule as the best plan.

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If the auto industry were really worried about electricity, it would concentrate on developing more vehicles that don’t use gasoline, and not on killing the mandate, said Rob Schlichting, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission.

At 10,000 or fewer a year, the number of electric vehicles required by the mandate won’t do as much damage to California’s precarious energy situation--one also plagued by chronically high gasoline prices--as “the low-mileage, high-consumption sport-utility vehicles we already have,” he said.

But executives at GM, and possibly other auto companies, are banking on public perception to win the day.

“We are asking if it makes good sense to have that [ZEV] requirement at a time the government is asking everyone to minimize electricity use,” said Dennis Minano, GM’s vice president for energy and environmental affairs, in Detroit.

“There’s a lot of analysis going on right now, given California’s energy crisis . . . and I think that there will be industry representatives and individual companies pointing this out” to air board members before next week’s meeting, Minano said.

The idea that the state would shut down elevators, ATMs and traffic signals in major cities to conserve power and then force auto makers to build thousands of vehicles that must be plugged into the same overtaxed grid “is a pretty bad image,” said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“I’m sure that state policymakers are sensitive to the public perception that would be created by renewing an electric-vehicle mandate just when the state is having rolling blackouts, so there’s no need for auto makers to raise that issue,” she said.

Schlichting of the Energy Commission counters that state officials expect the crisis to have abated by the time a meaningful number of new electric vehicles enter the market and long before gasoline supplies and prices stabilize in California.

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The Energy Commission has approved nine generating projects in California that should be up and running by 2003, he said, but there is little likelihood that the number of gasoline refineries will increase, given their adverse environmental effects.

Auto makers have largely succeeded in whittling away at the original ZEV mandate. What started a decade ago as a requirement that a full 10% of the passenger vehicles sold in California by 2003 be zero-emissions vehicles has been steadily eroded. The number has been pared to 4% of new passenger vehicles, and could fall to 2% or less after next week’s air board meeting.

Not satisfied with the proposed ZEV reductions, auto makers now want the air board to postpone implementing any requirement until at least 2007.

In place of the mandate, the auto industry lobbying group is offering to help establish a “fair market test” under which 2,500 electric vehicles--including low-speed “neighborhood” cars that resemble fancy golf carts--would be marketed to consumers in a test region, such as Los Angeles or Sacramento.

GM introduced the country’s first contemporary electric car, the EV1 sports coupe, in December 1996, and eventually made 950. But after nearly four years of promoting the vehicle, the company last year declared the car a failure because of its limited range, the high cost of batteries and GM’s inability to market it without heavily subsidizing the cost.

EV1 enthusiasts, however, have inundated the air board with testimony about the wonders of the vehicle, including ease of use and low operating costs.

“The only reason there is no market is that the car companies won’t make any more electric vehicles,” said Roland Hwang, transportation analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Not so, Minano said, noting that GM spent almost $1 billion to develop and market the EV1. The company would have continued the program if it had attracted enough public interest to enable GM to recoup its investment, he said.

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That’s the same position that executives at the U.S. arm of Honda Motor Co. in Torrance have taken in arguing against the ZEV mandate and continued production of the Honda EV-Plus. Honda, the only big auto maker that hasn’t joined the Washington-based alliance, brought 300 of the four-passenger EV-Plus electric cars to the U.S. in 1997 but says it found it difficult to interest consumers in the vehicles.

A Honda spokesman said Thursday that although GM’s electricity crisis argument sounds interesting, Honda executives are still formulating their testimony before the air board and are unlikely to share it before then.


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