June 18, 2009
Right now, I am sitting on the futon of a new friend in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, just miles from the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Custer.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the fair, and it's bigger and better than ever.
My particular interest is in sustainable transportation. Lucky for me, the fair includes an entire Clean Energy Car Show. In fact, that's why I am here - to show off a pair of home-built electric vehicles - both a car, and a motorcycle.
Although my interest in clean transportation most likely started with the electric motor my brother put on his bicycle as a kid, my most recent foray into clean transportation started here, at the MREA, three years ago.
I saw a bicycle with a front-wheel drive electric motor on it.
Brilliant! The front tire pulls you along, and you can still pedal with the rear! A plug-in hybrid bicycle.
When I got home, I plunked down the cash (ok - debit card, it was mail order....) to buy an "electric bicycle kit".
The kit included an entire front wheel with motor, controller, charger, and the other required doo-dads - just add a bike and batteries! I hit up my local thrift store and found an old ten-speed, complete wire wire rear baskets - perfect to hold the batteries!
A couple hours later, I had an honest-to-goodness electric bicycle! No more gasoline for me! Just fresh air and sunshine, and silent 20 mph cruising without pedaling!
While I zipped around in an electric euphoria for much of the summer, I eventually found that it wasn't the perfect vehicle for me.
The ten-speed frame had NO suspension. Terrible on my rough country roads. Worse than that, I was shocked how cars treated me. Vehicles constantly pulled out of driveways RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. I suppose my grannie panniers did not add to the speed-demon image. Indeed, a headlight and horn would not have been back additions.
Hmmm. Suspension. Lights. Horn. Something that says - "Get out of my way! I'm really flying here!" I believe that's the definition of a motorcycle.
That's right a motorcycle - not an engine cycle.
A motorcycle is really just a big bicycle. It couldn't be too hard to make one of those to be electric, could it?
I then began my quest to build an electric motorcycle. Eventually, I found one cheap. The engine and transmission were shot, the tank was dented, and there was no title. But it met my main requirement. It was cheap!
I went to the library and found a book about converting vehicles to electric, and bought an electric motorcycle guide through the internet.
I scrounged for parts on E-Bay, finding an electric motor being sold from college robotics battles, and purchased a motor controller through a golf-cart store.
The motorcycle was really coming together. Of course, I have no background in welding, nor do I really have any tools beyond a socket set. Everything on the motorcycle was simply bolted in using threaded rod through the original frame mounting points.
The motorcycle was ready and on the road only days before the MREA Fair, exactly one year after I had first seen that electric bicycle. Of course, it wasn't pretty, and it was running on the tiny 18ah batteries that I had been using for the bicycle.
It wasn't until the next year that the motorcycle was back at the fair with the Optima Yellow Tops.
I love the motorcycle, but it still isn't the perfect vehicle for Wisconsin, especially the 8 months of the year with snow on the group. If only I had some sort of motorcycle with a roof and more than two wheels on the ground.....
Of course that then lead me to thinking about building an electric car. Come on! I gotta be kidding myself. How could I possibly build an electric car?
Well, I already learned some basics working on the motorcycle. The car is heavier, needs more batteries, but is pretty much the same otherwise, right?
Well, it's a bit more complicated than that, but in the year in a half since I decided to build an electric car, I have learned more about motors, power brakes, batteries, guages, watts, ohms, amps, cables, and myself, than I ever thought possible.
I have made new friends, chit-chatted with the Tesla salesperson as I sat in a Roadster, learned that brake fluid and plasma cutters are a bad combination, and so much more. I even bought a 1970's street legal electric car, met the creator of the vehicle, and drag-raced it (winning!) against others.
Now, I have been asked to consult on a battery-powered vehicle for a net-energy-producing "house of the future".
So here I am, at the Energy Fair again, where so much of this started, ready to show off both an electric car and motorcycle I couldn't have DREAMED of a few years ago.
Last year, I lost my voice speaking to so many fair attendees about clean transportation. Just two weeks ago, I installed the cheapest radio I could buy in the Metro. One of the radio features is MP3 audio playback from a solid-state USB thumbrive. Rather than answer the same questions over and over - How far does it go on a charge? What's the top speed? - I will simply record a sound file and have it play through the stereo.
This time, the work will simply speak for itself.