Mr. Green Car: Green cars at the 10th Anniversary Renewable Energy Fair

August 24, 2011

Neighborhood electric vehicles brought in by MEE Material Handling Equipment of Sheboygan, Wis.: Star four-seat people mover (from left); Columbia SUV, green and white versions; and the Star Smile. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

As I have for the past three years, I’ll report about what showed up at the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 13-14 at Ogle County Fairgrounds.

In past columns, I reported about everything green that was there as transportation related. This time around, I’ll spare the details and say transportation displays were way down. A handful of regulars were there: the late-model Prius, the folks with the veggie oil-powered Mercedes, and this time, two electric Chevy S-10 pick-ups.

The newcomers were two Triton’s “Trikes” — one gas, one electric — and the fleet of small-neighborhood electric vehicles (NEV) that Bob Mair of MEE Material Handling Equipment, Sheboygan, Wis., brought down.

A Star Smile NEV. (Photo provided)

First, the Triton. This car/motorcycle is a kit car built here in Pecatonica, Ill., with sales out of Rockford. The reason I say it is a car/motorcycle is that it has three wheels, which means it is licensed as a motorcycle, yet it is a car in size and handling. The body and “frame” are one piece of fiberglass that I’d describe as a tub. You climb down into a Triton, so this car is only for the agile. The rear wheel only has two jobs — hold up the back end and braking. The front is a tube frame sports car style front-wheel drive-type suspension. Many different engines can be installed — sourced from salvage. I took particular interest in the all-electric version that was on display in the building (no roof or top for this car, so it was inside out of the frequent rain).

Powered with lead-acid batteries (like the one that starts your car), it is capable of 60 mph. Going that fast will run the batteries down quickly, but driven more sedately, one could expect a range of 30 to 40 miles on a charge — typical of electric vehicle conversions. It has optional tops, and can be ordered as a completed vehicle. Visit www.TritonTrikes.com for pricing details. I did not get a chance to drive one, but it looked like it would be a very fun, sporty way to go for a pleasure cruise. With the electric version, you could have fun and not pollute the air while enjoying the smells that pass you by. (I have a convertible, and smells are much more noticeable with the top down.)

The front of an all-electric Triton Trike. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

The other green vehicle was the line of NEVs from Sheboygan. Four were on display, and Bob Mair enthusiastically answered questions all day both days. The two industrial-looking vehicles, the Summit Utility SUV, are built by Columbia ParCar in Reedsburg, Wis. These would be perfect vehicles for farm, local delivery or campus use. They have other body styles for different duties. Indeed, all of Columbia’s NEVs are essentially heavy-duty golf carts that are street legal within the limits states and municipalities allow. Illinois, for example limits NEVs to 30 mph top speed. Columbia’s website is www.ParCar.com.

My favorite of the show was the Star EV Smile. Its style is very similar to that of a smart car. It does not have the solidness or refined interior of a smart car — but then again, as an NEV, it must be lightweight, and need only be light for its limited speed and usage. Its oval doors can be removed — and it has a small trunk. Powered by eight 6-volt lead-acid batteries, the 48-volt system will allow it to go 25 to 40 miles on a charge at speeds up to 30 mph. Battery life is typically about three years with regular use, but it won’t break the bank to replace them. Charging is by regular 110-volt house current via a built-in charger. The Smile is a reflection of what individual customers have said they wanted in an NEV — and I’d say they hit it just right: a cute and practical electric car for $10,800. This compares well in price to what it costs to convert a gasoline engine vehicle to an electric (but with no work involved) and well below the $33,000 price of a Nissan Leaf.

The rear of an all-electric Triton Trike. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

Also on display was Star’s stylish four-seat people mover that was very popular among fair attendees. It is available as a four-seat golf cart as well. It had enclosable side currents that kept out Saturday’s rain, too. Star builds a variety of utility and even off-road electric vehicles in Simpsonville, S.C. The remainder of Star’s line can be seen at www.starev.com.

Any of these simple electric vehicles can save its owner a lot of money in fuel costs. Charging costs very little (and no road tax, either) — could be solar for totally clean, renewable energy. If you were so inclined, you could probably rig one up to provide emergency backup power for home or business. There are many applications where electric NEVs are a perfect fit; uses where highway speeds and long distances are not an issue, in places were frequent recharging is not a hassle.

More and more, you’ll see businesses, as Walgreens is doing, providing electric charging for their customers. It will be easy for business to do so; all they need to do is provide designated parking, and an outside firm will install a recharging facility. I see in the not-too-distant future that the coming “smart-grid” will allow these firms to be sent charging and billing information by simply plugging your car in and disconnecting it. You won’t have to so much as swipe your credit card. Many businesses may provide free charging as an incentive for you to shop with them.

Star Smile has plenty of room for larger people, with easy access. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

Some of our Southern retirement communities are already NEV centered. Residents can accomplish all their out-of-home needs in an electric vehicle. Even here in northern Illinois, residents of smaller communities, such as Freeport, Pecatonica, Winnebago and Belvidere, could accomplish much with these clean and cheap-to-operate vehicles. You need only adopt an attitude that it is a fast bicycle you don’t have to peddle — and it’s fun, so taking a few minutes more to get somewhere is no big deal. We could all stand to slow down just a little — and an NEV may be just the ticket to a calmer lifestyle, too.

From the Aug. 24-30, 2011, issue

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