Saving the Plug-In Hybrid 

A state agency changes course and steers away from strict new rules that would have bankrupted a small Berkeley company.

The California Air Resources Board backed away last Friday from strict new regulations that would have put a Berkeley startup company out of business and dealt a severe blow to the nascent plug-in hybrid industry. The board's staff had proposed the new rules on the theory that transforming a hybrid car, such as a Toyota Prius, into a mostly electric vehicle would increase smog, even while acknowledging that such conversions slash greenhouse gas emissions. But the board overruled its own staff and unanimously ordered the agency to work out a compromise with plug-in hybrid companies, such as 3 Prong Power of Berkeley.

"We had a major victory," said Daniel Sherwood, president of 3 Prong Power, which opened last year inside Green Motors on San Pablo Avenue. "We couldn't have asked for a better outcome." Sherwood credited a story in the East Bay Express, published a little more than a week before the air resources board meeting, with helping save the plug-in hybrid industry, which has grown rapidly in the past year. After the story came out (see cover story "Who's Killing the Plug-In Hybrid," January 14), the Sacramento-based air resources board received more than 130 comments on the proposed strict new rules, the vast majority of which were opposed to them.

The board, led by its president, Mary D. Nichols, ordered the air resources agency staff to devise new regulations ensuring that small startups, like 3 Prong Power, can stay in business. 3 Prong Power and its competitors convert used Priuses into mostly electric vehicles that get up to 150 miles per gallon by putting a large battery in the car's trunk that can be plugged into any wall socket and recharged in four hours. The proposed rules that the board voted against would have required the small companies to undergo extensive emissions testing that would have cost up to $125,000 and provide customers with ten-year warranties on batteries that only last two to three years. Sherwood and his business partner Paul Guzyk said the rules would have bankrupted them.

While the board refused to adopt the new regulations on after-market-parts companies like 3 Prong Power, it did approve similar rules on new car manufacturers that plan to begin selling plug-in hybrids in the next year or two. General Motors plans to unveil the Chevy Volt in 2010 and Toyota may begin selling a plug-in Prius in late 2010 or early 2011. Both companies can easily afford the emissions testing and warranty requirements, and neither opposed the new rules. The board's staff had argued that plug-in conversions could add to California's smog problems because of how the electric battery interacts with the car's gasoline-powered engine.

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