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Week of 6.9.06

Interview: Alexandra Paul On Electric Cars

Photo of actress Alexandra Paul The actress Alexandra Paul, a former star of "Baywatch," appears in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car," which will be released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on June 28th before further distribution.

How did you come to lease the EV1?

I've had electric cars since 1990, but they were conversions that somebody fixed up in their garage. My first car was a Datsun conversion and it got 25 miles per charge. My second was an old Volkswagon Rabbit that got 50 miles per charge. So, when my friend, the actor Ed Begley, told me about the EV1 and that it got 70 to 100 miles per charge, I thought, "Wow that's paradise!"

I was a bit in the "EV loop" because I had already owned two electric cars, so I reserved the car early and the first day the EV1 was leased to the public, I was at the dealership first thing that morning. I was leased EV1 number 37, the first car off the production line available to the public. A hunter green magnificent machine.

What was it like to drive?

Amazing. I've never been a fancy car person, because cars for me have always been a way to get from one place to another, hopefully with the least environmental damage as possible. I've never had a high performance car before; the gas cars I had had before were a Honda Civic and a diesel Volkswagon, and I had bought those cars for their efficiency. But the EV1 was a high performer. It could do a U-turn on a dime; it was incredibly quiet and smooth. And it was fast. I could beat any Porsche off the line at a stoplight. I loved it.

How long did you drive it?

Six years.

Were there any drawbacks to driving it?

Not to me.

How about plugging in?

Plugging it in was a good thing. I didn't have to go to a gas station. Pulling out the plug and sticking it into the wall took maybe five seconds. In fact, I really haven't been cognitive of gas prices. It wasn't until I filled up my husband's Toyota Prius Hybrid that I had a moment of understanding of how people who drive gas cars feel. Seeing the price of gas was startling. But I also think that the only way people are going to change their car buying habits, and the only way government will really get behind alternatively fueled vehicles, is if gasoline prices continue to go up

What inspired you to buy an electric car?

When the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989, I was angry. I even wrote on the back of my car, "Boycott Exxon". And then I said to myself, "Hey Alexandra, you're part of the problem -- you're buying gas. There wouldn't be any oil tankers out there if you weren't using gasoline." And that's when I decided I didn't want to be a part of the problem, so I bought my first electric car a few months later.

What did you like most about your EV1?

It was not using gas and it was emission-free. Of course, electric cars aren't pollution free, because they have to get their energy from somewhere. When I had the EV1, I was living in Malibu and we had solar panels on our house, so part of the energy coming into the car was completely clean energy. The power I got from my utility company was wind and geo, "green power" -- something you have to ask for and which is a bit more expensive to my pocketbook, but much less pricey to the planet. I live in a condo now, so I can't use solar panels to charge my current EV (no pun intended!), but I do continue to buy green power from the grid. However, even if you charge your car with the regular energy mix from the grid (which unfortunately has over 50 percent coal in it), you are still using 35 percent less energy than you would if you drove a gas car.

In 2002, they took the car from you. Tell me how it happened?

General Motors (G.M.) decided that they were not going to allow people to re-lease their cars. So, like a good girl, I gave it back. And, somewhat ironically, they charged me thousands of dollars for these tiny, little paint nicks on the side of the door that you get from opening and closing all the time. I wasn't happy about that, because I felt that was part of normal wear and tear of the car, but then to find out that my car was crushed. Now that was a slap in the face.

How did you feel?

I cried when I knew I would no longer drive the EV1. And I normally wouldn't cry over a car, because I am not a car person really. But this wasn't about the car, it was a larger metaphor for where the world was going. The fact that the electric car program was deactivated speaks volumes about the values of our society. We don't prioritize clean air and a healthy planet. The big companies and their short term bottom line rule.

The hybrids were coming in and everyone was hailing them as this big technological advancement, but to me, it just is not good enough. Forty-something miles to the gallon in the 21st Century is simply not good enough. Plus it still keeps us hooked to gasoline. There is a reason it is called fossil fuel, you know -- it is an outdated method of getting power. And, if we are going to riff on words here, power as in "the power structure" is why we are still using gas in cars.

Last year you were actually arrested during a protest at a facility where General Motors stockpiled reclaimed EV1's. What happened?

I decided not to be a nice little girl anymore. I decided I had been nice enough for long enough to G.M.. A group of activists had a rally in front of the Burbank, California facility because we discovered that the last 78 EV1s were being held there, and we had information that they were going to be crushed in Arizona. We raised $1.9 million dollars in a just few days to purchase all the cars and released G.M. of any responsibility for parts and maintenance, and absolved G.M. of any liability for them. I put in $25,000 myself to purchase a car. But we were ignored, totally ignored. So we held a round-the-clock vigil outside the facility to protect the cars. It was the wettest California winter since the 1800s, but there was never a moment in 28 days when someone from our little group was not out there, on watch.

While I was doing a four hour shift one morning, G.M. came with huge trucks to take the cars away. I, along with another EV driver and activist, Colette Divine, blockaded the trucks in my RAV4 EV. There was a two hour stand off -- peaceful of course, but fraught with emotion. We both got arrested and were charged with a misdemeanor. A few hours in jail, a fine, and 80 hours of community service for each of us. The judge, who thought the cops and the city acted a bit out of proportion to the "crime", encouraged us to do our time with environmental groups and even allowed us to volunteer for electric car organizations! Which I did, of course.

Why is this cause so near and dear to you?

The cars we drive say a lot about us. I had never really been able to get a car that said how much I cared about the environment -- until I drove electric. I believe that in America we need choices in what kind of vehicles we drive beyond just the color, make and model. The electric vehicle movement is not saying that people cannot drive Hummers; we are saying that we want the choice to buy a car that is emission-free. This is especially critical now, with greenhouse gases, environmental damage and our dependence on oil causing wars. It really is a win-win situation for everyone: the infrastructure is there

(electric outlets are ubiquitous), the batteries have improved so much that an electric vehicle fits most Americans' driving needs, the air will be cleaner, there will be less wars, we won't have to drill in the Artic National Wildlife Refugee or be dependent on the Middle East for oil.

But for me the thing that I'm most proud of is that a diverse group of electric car enthusiasts were able to mount a vigil for 28 days in front of G.M.. To me that is just an impressive statement of the power of individuals with a passion to do what is right. Our group didn't save the EV1, but we caused enough of a ruckus so that at least the world knew what was going on. The six car companies that had manufactured electric vehicles under the California mandate all tried to crush the vehicles in secret when the mandate was repealed in favor of hybrids and hydrogen. We did save hundreds of electric cars made by Ford and Toyota. We continue, as the non-profit Plug in America, to keep track of the electric vehicles out there to make sure they are not crushed.

What do you drive now?

I drive a Toyota RAV4 electric car. Toyota was the only company that sold some of its electric vehicles -- all the other car companies only leased. So the cars that were sold were not able to be recalled and crushed. I bought a used one after my EV1 was taken away. It doesn't take the place of my EV1, but I'm really grateful to have it.