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All hands on dash: Converting a car from fuel to electric

Do electric cars make sense in Southeast Alaska? Angel Drobnica, the energy coordinator for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is in the process of finding out. SEACC sponsored a one-credit class offered by the University of Alaska Southeast the first week of June that focused on the process of converting a vehicle from an internal combustion system to an electric one.
SEACC has led efforts in other community outreach programs focusing on the use of wind and solar power.
“Part of what we do is initiate these small scale renewable energy technologies, looking at their potential to decrease regional fossil fuel consumption,” said Drobnica.
With little road to drive and the relatively inexpensive and renewable energy source of hydropower, a vehicle that is powered by electricity, but has a limited amount of mileage before it needs to be recharged, does seem like a logical transportation method in the area. The problem is that there is a small amount of exposure to electric cars.
“Running electric vehicles is a pretty direct and immediate way to reduce your fossil fuel use,” said Drobnica. “It is a proven technology down south; it just hasn’t caught on here. It’s just not common yet. I think people need to see it more on the roads to see that it can work.”
The principle of converting a vehicle run on fuel into one that uses electricity is relatively simple: remove the fuel-related components of the vehicle and replace them with a system that can be plugged into an outlet. No more gas tank, no more exhaust, no more oil changes.
At first, Drobnica looked for a donor, someone who might be interested in donating a car for use in the class. The attempt was unsuccessful, so Drobnica found a Jeep in Sitka with a busted engine. Passionate about providing the class, Drobnica invested her own money. For $500, a tow from the vehicle’s home in Sitka to the ferry terminal and a round trip ferry ticket, a 1983 CJ8 gray Jeep made it to the UAS’s Regional Vocational Technical School.
Michael Golub, a University of Alaska Fairbanks mechanical engineering graduate student who has taught electric vehicle conversion classes all over the state, flew down to teach the five-day class.
“I knew it would be a tight schedule,” said Drobnica. In order to prepare, she assisted in removing the unnecessary components of the car: the engine, radiator, gas tank and exhaust system. She also had to order the components the class would be assembling and/or installing into the Jeep.
A simplified list of the necessary components includes a speed controller, motor, a battery management system (BMS), batteries and wiring. Easy? Not so much. First, Golub has taught a lot of classes, so he wanted to mix it up.
“A lot of the technology is about 100 years old. To keep it interesting for myself,” Golub explained, he had the class use more “innovative parts. We could by a controller for an extra $2,000. The controller used in this class is $600. We [had] to put it together in class.”
The class could also have used a pre-made BMS, but since one of the goals was to truly understand the process of electrical conversion, as well as to highlight the potential cost-effectiveness of electric vehicles, Golub had the class attempt to assemble a BMS.
“We found one that we could build ourselves that has more functionality at half the price,” said Golub.
There was also the motor to select. Every component of the conversion had multiple choices, based on the needs of the driver.
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