Running on kilowatts


SOLO: LIFE WITH AN ELECTRIC CAR. Noel Perrin. Norton. 192 pages. $18.95.

BACK in 1900, Baltimore banned gasoline automobiles from the roads in the city's parks, decreeing that only electric cars could be driven there "because they were clean and quiet," according to environmentalist, literary scholar and author Noel Perrin.

"What Baltimore did once for the sake of horses, it could do

again for the sake of the atmosphere," Mr. Perrin writes in "Solo: Life With an Electric Car," his engaging account of his purchase of an electric vehicle (EV) in California and his journey across the country with it.

Mr. Perrin's decision to buy an EV was prompted by the scorn of a student in his environmental studies class at Dartmouth. She questioned his commuting to school in a gas-guzzling pickup, since he routinely taught that conventional, gasoline-powered automobiles are the single largest polluters in the country, responsible for half of the nation's air pollution. The sky, if not exactly falling, certainly is befouled by cars, and its defilement imperils the planet and our health.

After a long search, Mr. Perrin located the Solar Electric Engineering Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif., and ordered a Ford Escort that had been converted to an 18-battery, 23-horsepower vehicle with solar panels on the roof and sides. It cost $15,700, and he dubbed it "Solo."

Supposedly able to go 60 to 65 miles per hour for 45 to 60 miles before needing a recharge from an ordinary electrical outlet, Solo in fact couldn't even make it out of California on its own. Its speed and distance figures held up only on flat terrain. Mr. Perrin had to buy a used Toyota truck to haul Solo over mountains between California and his Vermont home. Purchasing an electric car for anything other than short-distance commuting is "crazy," Mr. Perrin concedes.

Yet Mr. Perrin insists that we are going back to the future, returning in effect to 1910, when EVs comprised nearly half of the cars then on the road. Nearly every major automaker is experimenting with electrics, he says, some preparing for mass production of them.

Why? Because California, that environmental bellwether and car-crazy state, has a new "zero emissions" law that will require 2 percent of all the new cars sold there in 1998 to be "completely non-polluting -- which at the moment means they have to be electric," Mr. Perrin writes. By 2003, 10 percent of the new cars in California -- some 200,000 -- must be non-polluting, most likely electric. "That's a market worth having," he writes, and General Motors, Ford, Nissan and others are aiming to supply it.

Of course, laws can be amended and deadlines delayed, but prognosticators other than Mr. Perrin have predicted that California's initiative will lead to some 1 million EVs humming along the world's highways by the year 2000.

Written in a breezy, conversational style, "Solo" is by turns an off-beat travel book and informative environmental sermon made palatable by its good-natured, reasonable tone. As Mr. Perrin tools and tows his EV across the country, it is fun to go along for the ride.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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