A Ford Ranger minus the combustion engine


Conservatives can lead the “drill, baby, drill” chant all they want–but this isn’t our future. We must find alternatives to fossil fuels to maintain sustainable growth as a state and nation.  The technology for electric vehicles (EVs) has been sitting in our laps for decades–and we can take advantage of it right now without waiting for the major auto manufacturers to make it available on a wide scale.

Recently, I took my 2003 Ford Ranger to Stewart Roberts.  He runs an auto repair shop in Roseville. Using long-proven battery technology, he converted the light pickup into a fully-electric powered eRanger, I’m calling Sparky.

First, he yanked out the internal combustion unit parts, which means no more tailpipe emitting carbon into the air.  Then, he installed a 20-horsepower electric motor (the kind you might find in a forklift) along with 1400 pounds of lead acid batteries. Lithium batteries would have been nice but this was a low-budget operation.  Under optimal conditions, I’ll drive Sparky about 30-40 miles per plug-in.

While it would have been a bonus, we made the conversion without the help of grant money — although I will get a small tax break.

Before Sparky, I’d been driving a beat-up, rusted out 1987 Mazda B2200. When I hit mid-life crisis mode, I followed the path of many Minnesotans and bought a pickup truck, the locally-manufactured Ford Ranger.  Unlike most mid-life crisis purchases, I didn’t go for the big shiny guzzler with leather interior and lots of convenient extras. I hunted down high mileage pickup with a good body, a manual transmission and two-wheel drive for a simpler conversion.

The conversion kit and the labor ran about $15,000.  Uncle Sam kicked in a $1500 tax credit. Which makes me wonder:  Wasn’t he doling out more money for folks buying fleets of gas guzzlers just a few years ago?

In addition to the combustion engine parts, Sparky’s air conditioning got scrapped–too much of a drain on the Another Ranger in conversion Another Ranger in conversion batteries.  Instead, we installed nature’s AC–a rear window with a moveable window panel.  Fortunately, because of electric power, the heater gets warm quicker than a typical gas engine heater. In fact, I have heater #1–for sort of cold–and heater #2 for true Minnesota, bone-chilling cold, thanks to Stew.

The brakes and power steering also operate electrically.  An added button in the cab activates “power steering on demand” for select times when you are parallel parking or in an otherwise tight spot.

Electric motors are much greener than gas ones.  In the first place, they don’t produce all that wasted heat.  They can simply be air cooled. Additionally, most of the charging can take place during off-peak hours when we are tucked neatly in our beds–a perfect marriage with our current energy grid. Sure, we are using power plants but the potential for more wind and solar power is there, and the idea that these vehicles could store energy and put it back into the grid is fascinating.  Here’s the best part: No oil changes! No anti-freeze! No gas! The lead acid batteries are recyclable, too–casings and all.

Technology is advancing to make all-electric vehicles more practice and driver friendly.  Remember the EVs General Motors built (in the 1990s) that got killed?  They relied on charging stations. In contrast, the eRanger can plug in to any 20 amp (110 V) outlet, the household standard–no special infrastructure required.  A $45 Kill-A-Watt meter calculates energy use for reimbursing employers or landlords.

It takes about an hour of charging to replace three miles driven with a 110V outlet, at about 12 cents an hour.  Electric cars can charge faster on 220V — the outlet on which most household clothes dryers and electric ovens run — but I still need to make that upgrade.

When I need a vehicle to go beyond my range, like getting delicatessens in St. Louis Park or visiting the North Shore, I utilize the Hour Car sharing program.  It has several Hybrids in its fleet; Hour Car even lets me plug-in Sparky free of charge.
Certainly, Battery pack Battery pack recharging time and driving range limitations make EVs prohibitive for some families.  However, for those in condensed urban areas with short commutes, EVs are a worthwhile alternative to gas guzzling SUVs, minivans and other types of cars.  Incremental advancements in this technology have provided a good start, helping reduce costs and improving popularity.

But if we’re ever going to significantly cut fossil fuel consumption, people have to stop talking about how great it would be and start using the products that will lead us to energy independence.  Stew’s garage isn’t as fancy or as high-tech as assembly plants in Detroit or Japan, but he’s got the know-how; now, we just need more people willing to make the conversion to electric vehicles.