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Week of 10.30.09

Alexandra Paul on Electric Cars

Actress Alexandra Paul Actress Alexandra Paul, an activist and former star of "Baywatch," is so passionate about electric cars, she even got arrested for trying to save hers. Paul, a founding board member of Plug In America, is currently starring in the Lifetime movie "The Boy She Met Online" and co-stars in the film "The Frankenstein Brothers" due out next year.

NOW: You've had four electric cars. What are you driving now?

Alexandra Paul (AP): I drive an electric-powered 2001 Toyota RAV 4. I bought it used after GM wouldn't allow me to re-lease my EV1.

NOW: How do you go about charging your car?

AP: My car charges at home, in my garage, while I sleep. I charge pretty much every night, by just plugging this special paddle into the front of my car. In the morning, it's ready to go. Simplest thing ever.

NOW: How do you handle long distance driving?

AP: My car has a range of 100 miles per charge. I live on the outskirts of Los Angeles and I drive an average of 56 miles per day, so my electric car fits my needs perfectly. When I need to drive farther, I borrow my husband's Prius. But it uses gas, so I don't like it very much.

Range is the number one concern of people thinking about buying an electric car, which is interesting considering the average American only drives 29 miles a day. Here is my advice: if you are a two car family, then use the EV for most of your driving and the gas car for when you have to go farther. If you only want one car and your commute is 100 miles or less, then rent a car for those times you go on long trips. I have found most of us travel less than we think we do.

NOW: Compared to your other electric cars, how does your Toyota RAV 4 compare?

AP: In the 20 years since I bought my first electric car, battery technology has improved 10 times over. My first car, a converted Datsun ran on lead acid batteries, only went 25 miles before I had to plug the extension cord into the wall socket. My next car, which was a converted VW Rabbit, had the same batteries but went 50 miles. My EV1 had nickel metal hydride batteries, a special 240 V charger, and went 120 miles per charge. My current car runs on that same 15 year old technology. Today, the cars being built use lithium-ion batteries, which have the ability to go many more miles on a charge. The Tesla has a range of 240 miles and charges in 3 1/2 hours. Even faster charging batteries are expected in the near future.

NOW: What are some of the advantages of driving an electric car?

AP: The equivalent of 82 cents per gallon, quiet smoother ride, no tailpipe emissions, no transmission to fix, no oil to put in the car, virtually no servicing —except rotating the tires a little more often—no supporting oil wars or oil companies, no pollution if you have solar panels, less pollution even if you charge from the grid, domestic energy source... should I go on?

NOW: Any drawbacks?

AP: I have some big picture concerns about electric cars. First, electricity utilities must not gain the power of oil companies. In California, utilities do not make money based on the amount of electricity they sell, but on how much energy they actually save. This encourages conservation measures. It is critical this becomes the case in all states.

Second, there is the question of the grid. Where does the energy come from that powers our electric cars? Even though a battery electric car powered by 51% coal (the national grid mix) is still a lot cleaner than a gas car, we cannot let power companies use electric vehicles as an excuse to build more coal or nuclear plants. We must move to renewable energy like wind and solar.

NOW: Do you think the major car manufacturers are producing quality electric cars?

AP: No. Not one of the major car manufacturers has produced anything for the showroom yet. Ironically, there are fewer electric cars on the road today than there were in 2001. Tesla, a small private company, has put 800 Roadsters on the road—kudos to them—but all the big car makers have done is put test programs in place and make promises. Until they have cars at dealerships that Americans can buy, they haven't done anything worthwhile. I will believe it when I see it.

NOW: The high price and lack of infrastructure to allow owners to 'fuel up' while on the road are major problems. Do you think that will change any time soon?

AP: Change is here! Although new technologies are always expensive at first, as more people purchase the cars the price will come down. Millions of dollars are being put into charging stations along freeways, at malls, and at workplaces. Building codes are mandating charge points at parking spaces so offices and apartment buildings will have charging. But it is the chicken or egg thing: Will people buy the cars without infrastructure, or will infrastructure have to be built before the cars are bought? Everyone needs to take a leap here. Municipalities need to get involved by building charge points for cars that aren't even on the road yet, and consumers that can afford it need to walk their green talk and purchase plug-in vehicles.

NOW: When we last interviewed you in 2006, there was a lot of talk about the death of the electric car in America. How has the electric car movement changed since then?

AP: In 2006, the government wasn't on board with plug-in technology. They were distracted by hydrogen and ethanol. Now, largely due to the success of the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and the precipitous rise in gas prices, most people can see the advantage of electric cars. President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have been very upfront in their support of battery electrics. The stimulus bill included a lot of money for battery R & D. What started as a very grassroots movement has quickly evolved into an accepted ideal. The organization to which I belong, Plug In America is now getting calls from auto manufacturers for advice.

NOW: In the stimulus bill, over $2 billion was granted for plug-in technology for electric cars. What do you think the effect of this will be?

AP: It will stimulate the economy, support smaller innovative companies, get cleaner cars on the road, and provide incentives for consumers to purchase the electric cars. Already there are charging corridors being built along major freeways out west. It will be $2 billion well spent. The government needs to support this new technology, as it is very expensive. Free marketers criticize this, but let's face it, oil is heavily subsidized by our government—to the tune of at least $15 billion a year—and most governments pay between 60 and 90 percent of the cost of construction of nuclear plants.

NOW: You were arrested in 2005 during a protest at a facility where General Motors stockpiled reclaimed EV1's. Why are you so passionate about this issue?

AP: Because I have no choice. I resist change as much as the next person, but fossil fuels are so last century—that's why they're called fossil fuels. Pretty much everyone agrees that gas cars contribute greatly to climate change and that we're going to run out of oil at some point. We have already run out of affordable oil. In the 1990s, California began to make strides in getting emission-free cars on the road and then the auto companies used their money and power to make those cars disappear. They crushed 4,000 perfectly good, low mileage, emission free vehicles. It was such a slap in the face. So EV drivers made a ruckus. We lost the battle because all those cars were destroyed, but I think we won the war. Time will tell.
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