Welcome to Voltageville

What happens when a city fleet goes electric? In the case of Vacaville, CA, it charges up the whole town.


AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES

As Huestis secured more funding, more Vacavillians took advantage of the incentive program and signed up to lease EV1s. After the first five in 1999, three more EV1s came to town in 2000, followed by 24 in 2001 and a staggering 41 in 2002.

Then, to Huestis' delight, manufacturers started introducing electric vehicles suitable for fleet use, and soon the Vacaville city fleet had a Chevy S-10 electric pickup, two Ford Ranger electric pickups and four Toyota RAV4 electrics. At the same time, Huestis helped private users get leases on seven Chevy S-10s, four Ford Rangers and 16 RAV4s. Then the city added six Nissan electric Hyperminis (a so-called "City EV," capable of speeds of 60 miles an hour, but not safe for highway driving) and 10 Nissan Altra electric station wagons (the City of Dixon also acquired two Altras).

Did you lose count? Not surprising. By the end of the 2003 model year, 100 electric vehicles were buzzing around town, giving Vacaville the largest number of electric vehicles per-capita of any city in the US. And CMAQ funding was helping pay for every last one of them.

It wasn't always easy, and at one point early in the program, it looked as though Vacavile might never get its first electric vehicle. In early 2000, GM recalled every EV1 to replace their standard lead-acid batteries with the newer, longer-range models, which weren't available yet. No batteries meant no cars.

"It was frustrating," Huestis recalls. "Here we are, we've got everything in place now, we just took six months working with CalTrans to get this program in place, and now we've got another hurdle: there are no more cars. We can't get the new ones, because they have to offer them first to the people who had the old EV1s, and the other ones weren't available because they were being recalled…

"One year later, March, 2001, we were the first to get our car back," he says. "GM said, 'We're going to give you these older EV1s first, because you already have an educated group.' They also got upgraded to advanced Panasonic lead-acid batteries, which had a 100-120 mile range, almost as good as the nickel-metal-hydrite, but without the heat issues."

RUDE REMINDER

The recall scare was a rude reminder that the OEM, after all, owned the vehicles, and could do whatever it wanted with them.

But by then, Huestis was snapping up electric Toyotas and Fords, so he wasn't worried. Toyota even offered its electric RAV4s for purchase, a welcome development after the uncertainty of GM's leases.

"I never wanted to go through the EV1 experience again, having to give up cars that we really wanted," Huestis says. "So we purchased our RAV4s right from the get-go. We got the $9,000 incentive from the state, but there was a $4,000 federal tax credit for the original purchaser.

"With the city fleet, we started out with four RAV4s back in 2001, then got two Ford Ranger EVs for our water meter readers, then one Chevy S-10 for our utilities, then six Nissan Hyperminis," he continues. "Our parking enforcement guy loved it. He was devastated when we had to take that way from him after six years.

In fact, every city employee who had a chance to drive an electric electric vehicle wanted to stay with electric. "Once you're driven electric you can never go back to gasoline," Huestis says.

SUDDEN LOSS

"At our peak, we had 100 electric vehicles," says Huestis. "If we could have kept those 100 vehicles on the road, averaging 10,000 miles a year, that would have been 1 million zero–emission miles driven annually."

But then the tide turned. The California law that mandated manufacturers to offer zero-emissions vehicles in the state was repealed, and as quickly as possible, the OEMs started to take back every leased electric vehicle they could. Huestis was heartbroken.

"Chevy took the EVs back, crushed most of them," he says. "The Chevy S-10s had to go back, the Ford Rangers had to go back. Only the RAV4s were able to stay on."

Those RAV4s offered Huestis the ray of hope he needed to keep his program alive.

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