Iowa Man Takes US Electric Car Future Into His Own Hands

Mike Howard, an enterprising local businessman in Elk Horn, Iowa, has put his hometown on the electric car map. Howard financed the installation of four plug-in car charging stations, capable of providing 110-volt or 220-volt charges. Despite the fact that Elk Horn has exactly one electric car—a Chevrolet S-10 pickup that Howard himself converted to run on batteries—Howard sees his investment of about $30,000 as a good move, and plans to install four more in the small farming town of 650 people.

When all eight stations are installed, Elk Horn will have a greater density of charging stations than just about any location in the United States, except for a few spots in California. In fact, he plans to spend another $50,000 next year to expand his efforts in Iowa and into Nebraska. Howard’s larger vision is to install a network of charging stations along the Interstate 80 corridor through Iowa from Denver to Chicago.

The entire state of Iowa has more than 4 million registered vehicles but just 96 electric-powered ones, mostly low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles.

“He’s definitely being progressive, but you know, somebody’s got to be first,” Pat Davis, program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Vehicle Technologies, told Associated Press.

According to AP, Howard plans to ask electric car drivers to pay about $2 to $3 for a charge. He’s undaunted by the current lack of customers. “It’s going to be slow at first,” he said. “You’re not going to see a large influx of electric vehicles out there everyday.”

But the 57-year-old Howard, who has been interested in alternative energy since he was a kid, is on a mission. And he wants Elk Horn to play a role in the nation’s future in electric cars. “We have a dream about electric vehicles and we’re going to make that a reality,” he said.

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  • ex-EV1 driver

    This is exactly how its going to happen. It isn’t going to take $million government pork schemes. It’s going to be the people of the US (other countries are welcome to join in too 🙂 that get us off of our dependence on oil.
    Elk Horn is about 70 miles outside of Omaha and 85 miles from Des Moines. Sounds like a great place to stop for breakfast and collect a few coulombs!

  • Mr. Fusion

    Mike Howard. Remember that name.

  • nycsolar

    AWESOME! BRAVO! But seriously, it’s not that crazy to run a 30-50 amp line out from any house or business for charging. Maybe not the fastest charging in the world, but it would still charge a battery. 50 amps at 110 v = 5500 watts. if you charged for 1 hour, you could transfer 5.5 kwh. With a 80% charging efficiency, you would get 4.4 kwh/h.
    A normal house line can carry 15 amps, which would supply 1.65 kwh in 1 hour of charging, yielding 1.32 kwh of stored charge in an 80% efficient storage mechanism.

    I’m sure 4.4 kwh could get you a couple of miles, at least to the next house or building. You don’t have to worry about running out of electricity, as long as you’re patient.

    According to Wickipedia… the Tesla’s battery has a 53kwh storage capacity. At 50 amps at 110v, it would take about 12 hours on normal house currents for a full charge, but I am sure it doesn’t run until the battery is empty. 6 hours would give you a 50% charge, and would allow you to travel over 100 miles.

    Do we really NEED to have charging stations? Iguess not for everyday driving but we do need them for long trips…

  • nycsolar

    When will we start rating vehicle efficiency in KWh/mile or miles/KWh?

  • watchtower

    I am trying to organize a yearly pilgrimage to Elk Horn with my local St. Louis Hyundai Dealer to honor this gentleman’s progressive thinking.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    My car (Tesla Roadster) already does show me my KWh/mile. If I’m good it’s around 0.25. If I’m not so good >:-) its about 0.30. The only problem is that there aren’t any other cars in production that do – yet.
    Mike Howard is proving that getting the KWh isn’t the problem. Getting the cars is. I have cautiously optimistic hopes for the Nissan Leaf.

  • ACAGal

    Funny thing, I put solar on my roof after I learned EVs were again in the works. A neighbor had and loved the first EVs from GM. I installed the solar so I could charge an EV when my current car dies. I’ve since found out that running a clean house, is even more beneficial and has already paid off about 25% of the installation costs.
    I’m glad I did the house, because I am now very comfortable with solar and well prepared for the next step.

  • Mr.Bear

    I’ll go with crazy. Town of 650, 4 charging stations
    for $30,000, and only 1 electric car – his.

    A couple bucks per charge. That will take about 15,000 charges to break even. Suppose someone else with an electric car moves to town and charges their car every day. It will only take 41 years to break even.

    Good luck with that.

  • AP

    I’m with Mr. Bear. Electric cars won’t be truly successful until they are competitive without charitable rich farmers or the Federal government (i.e., you and I as taxpayers). To me, this story shows how pathetic the electric car business case is, given their initial cost relative to conventional alternatives.

    The other bit of hypocrisy is how everyone disputes the claim that EV’s will put extra demands on the power grid by saying “we’ll just charge them at home at night,” but on the other hand, “EV’s will need charging stations at places of work, etc.” to be viable, meaning they will be charged during the day. Which is it? How would you control that? Strand EV drivers at work on high usage days?

    Unless taxes go up VERY HIGH on fossil fuels, EV’s are going to be a very wasteful and futile government subsidy experiment that we won’t be able to “pull the plug” on, because once we pull the subsidies, the whole system will collapse.

  • sean t

    Mike Howard, a respectful pioneer. All the best to him.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    We are seeing a standard start-up issue that exists with any revolutionary new technology. It is also often referred to as the chicken-and-egg problem. There is no business case for electric vehicle chargers because there are no electric vehicles, yet, electric vehicles are not feasible because there are no electric vehicle chargers.
    In the case of electric vehicles, however, to some there is such a compelling value that they are willing to make some personal sacrifices in order to preserve our society for future generations.
    WARNING: ‘sermon to follow’
    Our society and economy are strong today because we’ve learned to exploit cheap and abundant transportation that oil affords us. We’re going to run out of this cheap oil sometime and it’s price is going to spike even before then.
    Now, rather than just let others deal with it as AP and Mr. Bear seem to prefer (which is their right), others, such as Mike Howard, instead, chose to do something today to lessen the impact.
    Is it crazy to do something that won’t have an immediate payback or possibly even one in your own lifetime? Perhaps? Likewise, I don’t see that Mike Howard’s $30K investment in EV infrastructure is any crazier than some people’s $30K investments in swimming pools, boats, cabins, new kitchens, yard landscaping, fancy cars, etc.
    I, for one am glad to hear we have some crazy people around like Mike Howard and look forward to visiting Elk Horn, IA in my EV some day.

  • AP

    I’m not saying I wouldn’t do the same as Mr. Howard, at least as a hobby. I just see it as having some fun with technology. It’s sort of like building a top-fuel dragster or a land-speed record car. It may not be practical or economical, but it’s entertaining. Especially in a rural area, I don’t think his efforts will have much impact.

    I’m also not advocating leaving it to others. Mr. Howard and others like him cannot does this successfully. That’s why I said EV’s will never become mainstream until we have high taxes on petroleum fuels. So the government is the only one that can tip the balance in favor of EV’s.

    And how are they attempting it? In the least desirable way possible. Instead of shifting demand to electricity by making its total operating costs lower relative to gasoline, they are subsidizing the purchase of electric cars (by the way, Cap and Trade would probably double electricity rates). What happens when the subsidy program runs out, and electric cars still can’t make it on their own? They either renew the subsidy, or let the EV makers fail. At $7500 a pop, we’re talking big money that you and I can’t afford ($7.5 bilion per million EV’s!).

    I’ve advocated a shift from income tax to a higher fuel tax here (and elsewhere) before, so please don’t say I’d rather leave it to others. I just want to do something that gets results, rather than something that looks interesting, but has little effect.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    There’s no subsidy on Hybrids and, at least in California, they can no longer go in the carpool lanes so the only motivation to buy is their better mileage. Manufacturer rebates don’t apply to them and Car dealers still aren’t offering particularly great deals.
    Yet, for some reason, people continue to buy them because they are the right thing to do.
    I guess I have a little more faith in people than I should.
    I believe that, were cars available that were apathetic to gas stations, people would buy them. The trick to date is to get the auto industry turned to where they will allow one out the door.
    Sure government meddling may have an affect and I won’t protest it but, being a capitalist and a believer in freedom, I think the right way is to break down the government mandated barriers that make it so expensive and difficult for a new company to get into the auto industry.

  • AP

    There are no “government mandated barriers” to EV’s. but there are government-mandated hindrances to gasoline cars:

    1) Fuel taxes
    2) CAFE
    3) Emissions limits.

    These should already give EV’s an advantage. However, the remaining technical disadvantages are very difficult, and that is the true reason EV’s didn’t win out 100 years ago, when they were actually favored for a while (there never was and there is not a vast right-wing conspiracy or anything like that).

    EV’s need a bigger “artificial advantage” to tilt things in their favor. Hybrids may be getting by right now without subsidies, but you can still travel as far as you want on gasoline if you have to. If you do decide to travel to Iowa in an EV, it will cost you a lot more in time and hotels while you charge it. That issue will not be solved quickly or cheaply, and I doubt it will be in the next 40 years.

    The fact is that petroleum fuels are a very convenient, cheap, and plentiful source of energy that is easy to use and store in a small, light space in the vehicle (so you don’t use much fuel to move the fuel), that works well in almost any weather/temperature conditions (try using an EV in the northern US). This combination is hard to beat, and no amount of entrenepreurship will change this.

    Unless the US government PERMANENTLY tilts the playing field in favor of EV’s, they will never win out.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Don’ forget a whole lot of very difficult safety requirements that would require millions of dollars to develop/accomplish from scratch.
    I have to agree with AP that there is no right wing conspiracy against EVs. If there was I would have been part of it. What there was was plain old out-of-touch, pig-headed, incompetant, myopic American businessmen making and defending their stupid, bad decisions.
    I actually think the feild is fairly level today. We just need a few big guys to do something right or keep faith in the little guys to take over. It’s too bad the likes of this website and many of the posters here don’t appreciate the strength of the little guys like Tesla, Aptera, Miles, Bright,or Fisker. Remember: Microsoft, Apple, GM, AT&T , etc were small once too.

  • AP

    It is more a matter of physics than anything a person could or could not do. Except for the propulsion system, anything you do to improve the mileage of an electric car can be done to a conventional car:
    1) Lightweight structure,
    2) Better aero,
    3) Lower rolling resistance,
    to name a few.

    So the conventionally-powered car hasn’t reached its potential either. If GM’s EV1, whose body was extremely light, would have replaced the electric drive with a small turbo diesel, it would have gotten about 60 MPG (but there was no market for that, at the cost). If you replaced the batteries’ volume with diesel fuel tanks (about 50 gallons worth), it would have had a 3,000 mile range, vs. 80 for the EV1. That’s almost a 40:1 ratio (it would be interesting to do the same calculation for the Tesla). Even by improving the batteries by a factor of 5 (from the lead-acid batteries), you’re still in the hole by a factor of 8 on range. This is no small technical challenge.

    The problem is that the American public has been convinced that the only way to be efficient is to buy a hybrid or to go electric. This makes it impossible to market a gas vehicle that is super-efficient, and automakers don’t want to show up their flashy (and much more expensive) hybrids with a conventional vehicle with nearly the same mileage.

    So I’d say it is people who have screwed up the entire fuel economy picture, but I don’t think it is anyone associated with the conventional powertrain. I don’t think the physics is there for EV’s. The successful companies you mention didn’t have nearly as big a technical challenge to overcome as Tesla, Aptera, Miles, Bright, or Fisker.

  • Joe

    See what happens when you get Government out the way. A citizen is leading the way not Government! Ration Goverment!

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I understand where you’re coming from if all you want to do is to increase your mileage. I, for one really don’t care about gas mileage. We’re going to run out of that stuff eventually and its going to get prohibitively expensive before then, the only question is whether it is during your generation, your kids’ generation, or their kids’ generation. All increased fuel efficiency will do is delay and prolong the suffering. What we need is a way for our society to move without the need for petroleum whether its distilled to diesel, gasoline or whatever.
    People like Mike Howard aren’t waiting and are proving how easy the supposed EV charging infrastructure ‘problem’ is to solve. Yes, there is a conspiracy afoot. Conspirators distributed in non-descript places like Elk Horn IA are plotting to prove the auto industry and their well funded PR machine to be wrong :-).
    You’re right that the EV1 exploited factors other than its powerplant to make it more efficient. It had to in order to make it viable. Back in 1990, when the EV1 was designed, the only feasible battery type was lead-acid (Pb-A). Pb-A is a very heavy material (being composed of lead) and they needed to reduce every possible loss in the car, just to get marginal range. Now, nearly 2 decades later, there have been several battery breakthroughs, starting with the NiMH battery and now the Li-ion ones. This accounts for about a 5x improvement in the specific energy of batteries (Wh/kg). There have also been improvements in power electronic efficiency since 1990 as well.
    Today, an EV is viable without the extreme measures that were put into the EV1. The only problem is that the Internal-combustion-centric automobile industry refuses to participate. The Tesla Roadster is proof of an EV’s viability. The legacy automobile industry can no longer hide behind their lame claims that the technology isn’t ready yet. Nissan appears like they may be the first out of the gate (maybe someone else will prove me wrong).
    I disagree with you about the technical challenges that the high-tech companies I mentioned went through but will agree that the regulatory hurdles for a new car company are much bigger.

  • Shines

    AP I have to disagree with you on this:
    The problem is that the American public has been convinced that the only way to be efficient is to buy a hybrid or to go electric. This makes it impossible to market a gas vehicle that is super-efficient, and automakers don’t want to show up their flashy (and much more expensive) hybrids with a conventional vehicle with nearly the same mileage.

    Don’t you think Toyota would have made a Prius sized vehicle thats gets 50 mpg without the hybrid technology if they could? You can buy a Non-hybrid Ford Fusion – it averages somewhere around14 mpg less than the hybrid version (and can cost 10 grand less). VW Jetta TDI is the best conventional compact and its city mileage doesn’t compare to the hybrids’. If the “American public” was convinced, there would be more than 5% of hybrids on the roads.
    Besides there are more people who choose conventional over hybrid as it is. And I don’t think the fuel economy picture is screwed up. At least not yet.

  • AP

    ex-EV1 driver, I disagree that the Tesla proves electric cars are viable, any more that a Ferrari Enzo or Porsche Carrera GT prove that carbon fiber bodies are viable. They are expensive toys. The Tesla is a Lotus (which are expensive to start) made of aluminum, and chock-full of batteries and an electric motor, making it that much more expensive. It is definitely a rich man’s toy.

    As for not using petroleum, not using it at all is one approach. I prefer using it more efficiently to make it last longer, keep the price down, keep pressure on OPEC, reduce funding terrorism, by increasing the fuel tax and refunding it on income tax (revenue neutral). Hydocarbons are great fuels! Then don’t subsidize ANY kind of car. A few people driving EV’s is like spitting in a bucket, but a fuel tax increase would produce results we could see.

    A tax shift to fuels is where we should be taking action. All this other stuff is “feel good” action that costs you and I (through the government) more than the benefit. A sustainable environment is important, but we can’t afford it without a sustainable economy and government.

    Shines, we’ll have to agree to disagree on part of this. I don’t think Toyota would make a conventional Prius, even though it would make sense for consumers.

    The Prius is their “image car.” Their very charge from management was to “change the automotive landscape” with technology. If there were a “conventional Prius,” it would undermine this by being close enough to the fuel economy of the actual Prius to make the extra thousands of dollars of batteries, motors, and electronics not worth while. It wouldn’t even have to be very close. By usual standards, Toyota should charge at least twice their cost for the extra hardware, which would add at least $10,000 more for the consumer.

    The “conventional Prius” would also be hundreds of pounds lighter, and it could have more luggage space (or passenger room, depending). With the drag coefficient of the Prius, its highway number would be great. It’s city number would suffer more, but dropping the mass of the batteries and motors would help there. It would be great for me, since I don’t drive that much in the city.

    Also, think about this: how much better is the hybrid Camry than the conventional one? Do people pay the extra money? No. Every hybrid Toyota makes that is also available with a conventional powertrain is a failure. The extra cost of the hybrid technology can’t stand on its own.

    But hybrids are one thing. Electric cars are much more difficult than the Prius, which is all-steel. Every pure-electric car I know of is either very small, made of aluminum, and/or has two seats. The amount of weight and room needed for batteries means either expensive lightweight construction or lack of room.

    And if you live in an area where you run the heater, it doesn’t come from “waste heat” from an IC engine, it comes right out of the battery (with electricity, the waste heat goes up the smoke stack at the powerplant-not doing you much good). Also, the energy in the batteries drops with temperature. The may be good in sunny California, but not in Michigan, and for sure not Minnesota. I wouldn’t even want one in iowa.

    But, Shines, I do see your point about the 5% hybrid market share – most people are not even biting on hybrids at this point, with cheap gas. But they are convinced that the hybrid technology is something to be amazed at, even though its incremental improvements come at great cost. Toyota gets quite a halo from it for how much sense it makes.

    I think that “image cars” are fine in high performance, but for the environment, I think it’s an insult. To really help the environment, it takes a lot more. Everyone needs to reduce fuel usage, not just a few.

  • Andrew2

    Hey Bear,

    If someone buys a Mercedes for $50,000, are you going to ask them when they will break-even?
    People who invest in electric vehicles do so to help us live a better life, to do away with foreign oil, to stop global warming, to stop foreign wars over oil, to stop global pollution, to enhance national security and to enhance our economic future.
    If you don’t invest in the future, you don’t have a future.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Well put Andrew2!
    TheTesla definitely does prove viability. It will blow away nearly any car in its class (super car).
    Anyone in the industry will also realize that at a startup rate of 100 vehicles per month, any car by Tesla will cost a lot of money to build., irregardless of the power plant.
    I think I see where you’re coming from on your priorities. You seem to just want to put the problems off by making the oil last longer, keeping the prices down, etc. I guess that’s your priveledge but, I fail to see how that’s really going to help anyone except yourself – certainly your right.
    I agree that I see no reason to subsidize any car. This, of course, is mainly because those determining where the subsidies go are in no way qualified to be making that decision, either because they are politicians or because they are automobile ‘experts’ which, of course, means they’re being paid by some industry that has a stake in a particular technology.
    If you want a good side-by-side vehicle comparison between and electric-assist (hybrid) drive and a pure ICE, look at the Civic, the Camry, and the Ford Escape. I believe their track records speak for themselves although I don’t quite see how you get ‘failure’ in there. There has been little effort expended to sell any of these cars. They don’t even offer the standard markdowns or sale pricing with them as they have to with their pure ICE dynasaurs.
    You’re definitely right that the efficiency of the EV means that one has to work extra to heat them. They may not even be viable in MN, WI, ND, ID, or AK. This, however, means that those folks in those states should be chomping at the bits to get the 36 million Californians into EVs in order to keep the pressures off of the oil that they depend on.

  • patrick

    Remember the fellow name Steve Jobs? He is the nerd who built a little computer in his garage 30 years ago. How many people has a computer in their home 30 years ago? How many computers we have in our home today? We had 3 computers plus an ipod touch.