If the stars align the way some local officials and a company that specializes in green technology are hoping, a new plant to build small electric pick-up trucks could be operating in Williamsburg by the end of the year and bring with it 300 to 500 jobs.
Brooks Agnew, Vice President of Engineering for Green Star Products Inc., said that the company hopes to start production soon.
"There is already an existing facility in Williamsburg that we have been looking at for a couple of years," he said. "If the state is conducive and influences us enough, we will take over that building and use the 11 acres that is with it to build other buildings. Hopefully things like sequencing and storage will come along with it."
Agnew said the company has looked at other states, such as Utah last week, but that building somewhere in the eastern part of the country would be preferable.
"The problem with building an electric car in the west is that all the suppliers are in the east," Agnew noted. "When you look at demographics, what you are really looking for is how long does it take and how much does it cost to get my parts to my door for assemblage.
"Kentucky happens to be smack dab in the middle of 73 percent of the population of the United States and less than an eight hour drive from every supplier that we need. It makes sense to be in Kentucky."
Whether the company locates here, will depend largely on the state of Kentucky, and how fast grant money can be distributed out of Washington, D.C., Agnew said.
"We are ready to go, and at least 24 months and maybe as much as five years ahead of any competitor as far as producing an electric car on a manufacturing scale," he said.
"We have experience at it. We have technology to do it. All we really need is the space, time and underwriting from the federal or state government to be able to do it."
Taking a test drive
Several local dignitaries gathered at the Corbin Speedway Tuesday morning to see a demonstration by Green Star of their electric car engine, and to test drive one of their vehicles, a 1994 Geo Metro that had been converted to electric use in 1995.
"This is not a golf cart with doors," Agnew noted. "It is a real car. It has been crash tested. You basically get 200 miles per gallon equivalent if you were to buy gasoline at the same price."
"It has more pick-up than a truck," noted Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White Jr., who test drove the vehicle and has been in talks with the company for 18 months. "It really will surprise you how much power it has.
"It has a lot of room. I’m 6’4" and 260 pounds and I had plenty of room in the vehicle. I think it would serve the purpose as a commuter vehicle very well and save people a lot of money."
Rep. Charlie Siler, who was the first volunteer to drive the vehicle Tuesday, said he feels it would be excellent for commuting to and from town.
"With an improved battery situation, it could be a good on the road car that would go 200 or 300 or 400 miles, but we are not that state of the art yet," Siler said.
"I am impressed that they came to Williamsburg or to Whitley County. For the past 25 years we have been building infrastructure in this county."
A proven vehicle
Agnew said the test vehicle Tuesday still holds the world’s record for the Pike Peak Hill Climb for a production electric vehicle and for the longest distance on a single charge.
"In this car on lead acid batteries, if you drive it carefully, you can drive about 80 miles, which is more than most people commute anyway," Agnew said.
"When you get to work, you just plug it into a regular wall socket, and it will charge up while you are at work."
Agnew said the modular electric motor can be converted to just about any vehicle and not just a 1994 Geo Metro.
The electric motors were also installed in several dozen Ford Ranger pick-up trucks that were all plug in electric in the 1990s.
"We can make any car you want electric," Agnew said. "The question is whether it is practical. It all comes down to amp hours and pushing that weight and stopping it."
He noted that during the last Olympics, China refitted some buses with diesel electric motors and some modifications that cut down on pollution and made a statement about making a green move.
"Really, it doesn’t matter how heavy something is. The whole train system in the U.S. is all diesel electric. It is just a matter of transferring that technology to cars," Agnew said.
In 1992, Green Star started producing electric modules to power vehicles in response to a mandate by California to make 10 percent of their commuter fleet electric by 2005, and sold the electrically modified cars to the public in 1994 and 1995.
After Detroit attorneys succeeded in beating the initiative down in 1995, the company shuttered the program.
"People didn’t want to buy an electric car when gas was 95 cents per gallon," Agnew said.
At that time, the company started pursuing bio-diesel technology, and has bio-diesel plants.
After gas prices ramped up to over $4 a gallon last summer, Agnew said shareholders started calling up with requests to drag the electric car out of moth balls.
"75 percent of the nation drives less than 30 miles one way to work," he noted. "Why not produce a pick-up truck for $20,000 to $25,000 that will go 80 miles on a charge and let the market determine if it is a good fit or not."
Agnew said that the first commercial vehicle that will come off the line will be an intra-city delivery truck with a variety of backs available on a core vehicle that will go up to 80 miles on a single charge.
He said there are some options, such as increased battery capacity or a changed battery types that could get operators more miles per charge.
"The nice part about that small pick-up, when it is built here in Williamsburg, it will be the most American made small pick-up truck in the country, and it will have the highest payload of any small pick-up truck in the country," Agnew said.
While new vehicles built in the U.S. have to go through crash testing before they can be sold to the general public, Agnew said there is a market called the Commercial Delivery Market that includes things like, airports, universities and hospitals where the vehicles would be sold first.
"There are thousands and thousands of vehicles right in Kentucky that are gasoline powered now that really need to be electric, and they don’t have to have airbags and tempered glass windshields and stuff like that," Agnew said. "Commuters, regular consumers, have to have those items."
He said the company has signed a deal with a company called CEE, which got the Smart Car into the country and through testing.
"It will take a couple of years. We don’t want the market to wait a couple of years," Agnew said. "We are going to produce the truck so the commercial market can get all the bugs out of it and really put it through its paces.
"When it is ready, crash tested, and the government says the average consumer can drive it safely on our highways, we will release it for mass production."
Since the fully assembly line doesn’t have to be finished before the commercial vehicles are built and released, Agnew said the trucks would first be built in China where the companies partners are located, and then be sent to the U.S. where they would be converted to run off an electric engine.
"Our plan is to do 10 of those vehicles as quick as we can get them done, maybe by the end of the year," he said.
Building vehicles here
"We will actually build the whole truck here. The frames and bodies and major components will be stamped in China and shipped to us," Agnew said.
"They will be assembled, welded and painted here. They will have U.S. transmissions and U.S. rear axels. Brakes, wheels, tires, glass, seatbelts, all that stuff will be U.S."
Tom Gruenwald, Chief Financial Officer for Green Star, added that 70 percent of the parts will be U.S. made.
"That will actually be 2 percent more American than any other small pick-up truck in America," Agnew said.
While most small trucks made in America weigh 4,400 pounds, they really only have a 500 pound effective payload, Agnew said.
"These trucks will come out dry weight, 1,900 pounds, and they can carry 1,500 pounds. The Chinese really know how to build a small pick-up truck," he said.