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Converting cars from gas to electric

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Jenny Isaacs (left), an instructor with Bucks County Community College’s Green Jobs Academy and director of Bucks County Renewables, shows students Julie and Richard Niemeyer of Connecticut the undercarriage of a converted Mazda Miata. ​

​Imagine a car that can run for 44 miles on $1.20 worth of electricity.

That recently happened at the Green Jobs Academy at Bucks County Community College (Pennsylvania) when 10 participants converted a 1990 Mazda Miata into a fully electric battery-powered car.

In partnership with Bucks County Renewables—a nonprofit organization that promotes electric vehicles—the Green Jobs Academy recently held an electric-vehicle conversion workshop at the Middle Bucks Institute of Technology that drew participants from as far as New Mexico.

The converted vehicle is powered by a 144-volt pack of lithium-ion batteries, which charge up overnight on an ordinary household current and provide a daily 44-mile range. That’s plenty to cover an average 30-mile commute, plus any unexpected side trips. 

The amount of electricity consumed by each nightly charge costs less than $1.20 at current local utility rates, according to Jenny Isaacs, director of Bucks County Renewables.

“That's like getting 90 miles to the gallon at current gas prices,” said Isaacs, the workshop’s lead instructor.

In addition to their lower operating costs, electric vehicles reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil, Isaacs noted. What’s more, electric vehicles also stimulate local economies. 

“The ultimate goal of this seed program is to jump-start systematic training in electric vehicle technology in our technical high schools and community colleges,” Isaacs said. “But we also hope to promote for-profit conversion shops as a ‘green’ niche in the automotive maintenance industry, as well as meeting the needs of individuals who want to take on the project themselves.” 

Isaacs credits co-instructor Bill Kirkpatrick with most of the technical know-how. Kirkpatrick has taught automotive technology for more than 25 years at the North Montco Technical Career Center. This is the third electric-vehicle conversion workshop in which the pair have collaborated and the first for the Green Jobs Academy. 

The workshop was partially supported through the U.S. Department of Labor and by Elite Power Solutions, a Phoenix-based maker of lithium-ion batteries, which selected the workshop as one of three projects to receive a 144-volt pack, worth $7,000. 

This fall, the academy—which is overseen by the college’s division of continuing education, workforce development and public safety—will offer a four-hour introductory course to electric vehicle conversion. A follow-up course on electric vehicle charging stations is slated for spring 2012.

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