Motorcycle mechanic Arlin Sansome is so excited about electric vehicles he can hardly sleep at night.
He has a day job at R.E. Cycle in Chemainus and an upcoming gig as a fill-in instructor at Vancouver Island University in the fall, but these days Sansome is spending all his spare time at his garage on Pine Street, building experimental electric vehicles.
For far he has completed work on a BMX bike, dune buggy and a drift tricycle, has two scooters under construction and has plans to convert a Honda CRX.
Expanding knowledge in the field has allowed him to conduct most of his research online, said Sansome, and it’s a field of research he is finding immensely interesting.
It is also a field with local applications. Just last week, council decided to retrofit to one of the city’s six Zamboni ice cleaning machines from propane to electric power.
The decision expands the city’s existing electric fleet, which includes a 2004 Prius, a Ford Ranger converted with a kit in late 2011, three Nissan Leafs purchased in the last two years, and a new electric Zamboni bought last year.
The move towards embracing the electric trend in the city also included the installation of free charging stations around the city in February of last year.
For Sansome, his adventure with all things electric started with remote control cars, and the realization that the newest, super-powerful motors in use were all electric.
From there he began to research on the internet, hitting up an electric vehicle technology forum called Endless Sphere.
Much of the discussion revolved around electric bicycles, so Sansome’s first project was to soup up an old BMX.
“For me, it started off as simply: I build something really cool. At that time, I still thought big V-8 big fire-breathing gasoline motors were the way to go, right?” said Sansome.
After experimenting on it a little and taking it off-road, he realized that it was far more powerful than he had anticipated: capable of speeds of up to 85 kilometres an hour, and able to run for 15 to 20 kilometres on about six cents worth of electricity.
“It’s amazing, the torque you can get from such a simple system,” he said. “For the first three months of riding it, I was giggling like a little schoolgirl.”
It took about a year, and a whole lot more tinkering, for him to realize he was essentially wasting his time with gas motors, said Sansome, though he does still have a soft spot for his 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner.
“In the next ten years we’re going to see electric vehicles in racing take over, for sure,” said Sansome.
He cited the Pike’s Peak race held this summer in Colorado, where Lightning Electric’s Superbike motorcycle won overall in its class for the first time in history.
Another example is in a recent video uploaded to Youtube that shows a Tesla Model S silently sliding to victory as it drag races against a Dodge Viper SRT10.
What is obvious from the video is that having no need to shift gears, among other things, is a distinct advantage.
The Tesla Motor Company also made history earlier this year with the announcement that it was the first U.S. car company to fully pay off its government loan, nine years ahead of schedule.
Part of the reason Sansome has had to turn his back on his prized Roadrunner comes down to economics.
“I calculated it out, to drive a (Mitsubishi) i-MiEV, and it worked out to 25 cents a day to drive 70 kilometres a day,” said Sansome, who added that the electricity used in the production of gas is also a factor in its cost.
Conversions of existing vehicles are another option, though at the moment the cost is comparable to buying new.
For the Yamaha YSR 50 scooter Sansome is converting, the controller he wanted to run the motors he bought from Croatia were far too expensive, so he started learning how to make his own.
Much of the range of electric vehicles depends on the battery.
“I’ve got a friend who’s done (a conversion) in Campbell River, his range is about 220 kilometres for a $12,000 battery,” said Sansome.
However much of the savings comes not only from comparisons between the price of electricity and gas, but in the cost of maintenance.
“Our little electric cars are ideal for the city. We’ve had a lot of success,” said Larry Rumney, fleet foreman for the city. The lack of oil changes and regenerative brakes mean there’s fewer parts that wear out.
“We don’t really do anything to them. I bring them in to service them, but there isn’t much to do, other than check the tire pressure and the window washer fluid.”
It’s economics that has primarily motivated the city decisions to build charging stations, as well as the provincial carbon tax, said Rumney.
“Even if you charge your own car at home it’s only going to cost you $2,50,” he said. The Nissan Leafs in their fleet go about 150 km on one charge.
To charge in town, the cost to the city at the free stations is only a quarter of that amount because they get a corporate rate, he added.
For Randy Holmquist, who sold the city a conversion kit for their truck in 2011, the electric trend hitting Nanaimo has been a long time coming.
A former marine mechanic, Holmquist started Errington-based Canadian Electric Vehicles Inc. 23 years ago.
What started out as a hobby has now grown, from converting B.C. Hydro’s truck 20 years ago, to now include sales of conversion kits all over the world.
“We convert big aircraft fueling trucks, and we’ve got those as far away as Dubai and Australia, Puerto Rico. We’ve sold kits for dump trucks to New Zealand and Russia — we’ve got a map on the wall and it’s just covered.”
They are also one of the few companies in Canada that actually manufacture electric vehicles, said Holmquist.
“Everybody now wants the range. When we started this years ago people were happy with 20 or 30 kilometres range. They thought it was amazing to go that far without gas. Now, people want 100 or 200 kilometres range, and the only way to do that is with the expensive lithium batteries,” said Holmquist, whose wife drives a newer converted 1998 Volkswagen Beetle.
The better batteries drive the conversion cost up from about $10,000 to the $20,000 range, he said.
Most of customers these days are either city municipalities, hot-rod hobbyists or high-speed enthusiasts.
Whatever way it expands, Nanaimo has done its part in what Rumney said is a plan to open charging stations all across Vancouver Island.
Vancouver businessman Greg Webster is also hoping to bring electric kart racing to Nanaimo by next June, pending approval from the city.
There are currently a wide range of charge stations open for use in the city.
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