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Richard Lane said he can convert a car with a regular internal combustion engine over to battery power in about 200 hours. The process costs about $20,000. ((Giacomo Panico/CBC))

Ottawa motorists are being driven like never before toward technology that allows them to run a car without gas, say those who help convert cars to electric power.

"The entire industry has gone absolutely crazy," said Richard Lane of Ottawa's REV consultants, who has been converting vehicles to electric power for more than two decades. "Myself, my volume has gone up three times."

Juergen Weichert, a spokesman for the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa, which helps people convert their own vehicles to electric power, said that in the past few months his group has also seen a significant increase in both membership and interest from the public in electric vehicles.

Susan Lawrence, who lives in Manotick, a village in Ottawa's southern outskirts, is among those who have gone electric with Lane's help.

Her 1990 Volkswagen Jetta used to run on gasoline, but now several batteries sit under the hood where the engine used to be.

"It's just such a great feeling, to go down the road, and not pollute at all, not cause global warming, nothing," Lawrence said. "It's just wonderful."

Lawrence purchases electricity through Bullfrog Power, which provides electricity from renewable sources only, such as wind and low-impact hydroelectricity.

People who charge their vehicles using the regular Ontario grid draw their power from sources that may generate greenhouse gas emissions or other pollution. In Ontario in 2007, for example, more than 25 per cent of electricity was generated by burning coal and natural gas. More than 50 per cent was generated from nuclear power, which could indirectly cause other kinds of pollution. However, these people are still eliminating direct tailpipe emissions from their cars.

Conversion costs $10,000 to $20,000

Lane said he can convert a car with a regular internal combustion engine over to battery power in about 200 hours. The converted car is ready to go after being plugged in overnight, will run in the winter, can hit highway speeds and has a range of at least 60 kilometres.

But the price might be a shock — each conversion costs $20,000, and therefore isn't a quick way to save money, despite the high prices at the gas pumps.

"You're not going to come out ahead in the deal, but if you're interested in the environment, it's a great project," Lane said.

Weichert said do-it-yourself electric conversions can cost between $10,000 and $20,000, and require a fair bit of skill and lot of patience.

Just recently, the group received a grant from an Ontario government foundation to develop a course on electric car conversion.

The process requires removal of everything that makes the car "noisy, smelly and polluting," he said, including the internal combustion engine, the radiator and the water pump. Those must be replaced with an electric motor, a controller that directs how much power goes to the wheels and a battery charger.

Weichert said demand for electric vehicles definitely exists and such vehicles are being manufactured in Canada, but so far regulations and a lack of political will are keeping many of them off the roads.

For example, the Zenn, manufactured by Toronto's Zenn Motor Company and the Nemo, manufactured in Quebec, are four-wheeled electric vehicles that can travel at a maximum of 40 km/h, but the only province that will allow them on the roads is B.C. However, this summer, Quebec launched a pilot project to test the use of low-speed electric vehicles on its streets.

Transport Canada, which has allowed low-speed electric vehicles since 2000, recommended a few months ago that the use of such vehicles be restricted to gated communities and campuses, department spokeswoman Maryse Durette said Tuesday. She said this is due to the low safety requirements for such vehicles. The only such requirements are that they have an identification number, seatbelts (but not necessarily seatbelt anchors), a windshield, headlights and a maximum speed capability of 40 km/h.

However, Durette said it was only a recommendation: provinces and territories have the authority to decide what is allowed on their roads.

Corrections

  • The original story stated incorrectly that the power to charge Susan Lawrence's electric car comes from the Ontario electricity grid, which includes coal and gas-fired power plants. In fact, Lawrence purchases electricity from Bullfrog Power, which sources power from renewable sources only.
    Jul 22, 2008 11:05 AM ET