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Felix Kramer is a lifetime runner, author, entrepreneur and environmental advocate. He has a motivation to be the first to “start things that have never been done before.”

So, people familiar with his work can understand why he was the founder California Cars Initiative (CalCars) in 2002, and why, two years later, CalCars became the first to convert a Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).

And now, Kramer and his wife recently became the first people in the world to own two of the new mass-produced plug-in cars: the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF.

Volt and Leaf: Welcome to the family!
Kramer and his wife Rochelle Lefkowitz used to drive a Camry Hybrid and Toyota Prius Hybrid, until this January when they decided it was time to upgrade.

Now, they have a Volt and a LEAF parked in the driveway, and could not be happier with their purchase.

Many are getting well over 100 miles a gallon, some even reach 160 miles per gallon.
–Felix Kramer, Founder of California Cars Initiative

“They are fun to drive and really well built,” Kramer told SolarChargedDriving.Com in an interview. “We enjoy both tremendously. It seems like a miracle that we can drive both vehicles.”

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According to Kramer, the cars are sold out for 2011, and carmakers are making them as fast as they can. There are already applications for 2012 models.

“I think they will sell as many as they can make,” Kramer says.

Kramer explained that the LEAF is all-electric vehicle that has no meaningful gasoline mileage equivalent, and the Volt is a hybrid that reaches exceptional gas mileage.

“Many are getting well over 100 miles a gallon, some even reach 160 miles per gallon,” Kramer says of the Volt.

The Kramer’s Volt is averaging a much lower gas mileage, between 60 and 70 mpg, in large part because they use the car for long-distance drives.

“This is the first time we have had a plug-in car that could drive from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe without recharging. It’s a 220-mile drive, including that we go over a pass, and once we get there we drive locally. That means that the first 35 or 40 miles are electricity, and the remaining are hybrid,” says the plug-in vehicle enthusiast.

To charge up the cars, Kramer has a 4 kW solar system on his roof. In 2006, REgrid Power installed the photovoltaic modules, which were provided by SunPower.

Kramer usually charges the cars during off-peak hours or at night, and the panels return electricity to the grid during the daytime.

A ‘start-up’ individual
“I’ve been a start-up person my whole life. Everything has involved communications, and I like to start things that have never been done before,” Kramer explains.

Kramer was involved with energy conservation and solar in the 1970s, and that’s when his interest in solar was first sparked.

“I was the director of a non-profit organization in New York City that dealt with solutions for multi-family, low income houses, and the organization worked with wind turbines in urban areas,” he says.

When Kramer lived in New York, he was an Executive Director for the NYC Sun Day, which is a three-day solar energy festival. Kramer also wrote some of the first books that teach people about computers, and he launched NYC’s first start-to-finish desktop publisher—Kramer Communications—which he sold before relocating to California.

It is the greatest success of my life. It’s the thing I’m most satisfied about and made the biggest difference.
— Felix Kramer, Founder California Cars Initiative

When Kramer moved West in 1997, he founded eConstructors.com, which was an online marketplace for web design and development industry.

“In 2001 I sold the company, and didn’t get rich off of it. Then I started CalCars,” explains the experienced entrepreneur. .

“It is the greatest success of my life. It’s the thing I’m most satisfied about and made the biggest difference,” he reflects.

CalCars and Kramer’s motivation
California Cars Initiative is a non-profit that Kramer founded in 2002. It focuses on building awareness about plug-in vehicles encouraging their widespread production and adoption.

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“We define our goal as putting plug-in cars on the map and getting companies to produce them,” explains Kramer. “They’re the only car that gets cleaner as they get older.”

Clean energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hyrdo-electric power can be tapped to ensure that plug-ins are far cleaner than their gasoline counterparts.

“The best way to get them cleaner is to power them from renewable energy,” notes Kramer “If people have the physical opportunity and the place, very shortly after they get a plug-in car they can get solar power so that they can set-off car with renewable energy.”

When CalCars converted Kramer’s Prius into a hybrid vehicle in 2006, within a few months Kramer had solar installed on his roof.

According to Kramer, when people find out that he is powering his car by electricity, they often say, “Aren’t you just shifting pollution from the car to the power grid?” because they think that the U.S. grid is powered almost entirely by coal.

“They think they are saying something very profound,” Kramer explains, “Then I tell them about how the grid is getting cleaner. In fact, I and many other people run our cars off solar power.”

In fact, about 50% of the electricity in the U.S. is coal-based with some areas of the country, in particular, the Northwest, sitting on a grid that is up to 90% powered by renewable energy, mostly hydro-electric power.

Kramer further explains the dynamics of having a solar grid-tied system, “In fact, anyone who is not living in the middle of nowhere is on a grid-tied system. Although I’m conceptually powering from solar panels, in fact I’m powering from the grid.”

“You have a quicker pay-pack on photovoltaic system if you are using it to replace energy costs for a car, that equation also gets better as utilities start paying people back for the energy rather than turning the meter back to zero,” he says.

They said, ‘Why can’t we have these cars?’ That was a spectacular moment. It created a coalition that got car makers to build them.
— Felix Kramer, Founder California Cars Initiative

An EV moment catalyzes coalition
Kramer’s most cherished memory of his work with EVs was after CalCars converted his Prius to a PHEV in 2006. A couple of weeks later, the team flew the car to Washington D.C. where they rounded up members of Congress to look at the car.

“It was the first time that publically members of Congress could look at the car,” remarks Kramer.

“They said, ‘Why can’t we have these cars?’ That was a spectacular moment. It created a coalition that got car makers to build them,” the long-time plug-in advocate adds.

Today, Kramer thinks that the primary barrier standing in the way of quick adoption of plug-ins is the production rate of electric and plug-in vehicles.

“We are hoping to get one million on the road by 2015, which is a phenomenal accomplishment,” notes Kramer. “But when you have 900 million vehicles in the world, it will take 10 to 15 years before plug-in cars have an impact on petroleum use.”

CalCars knew that in order to make an impact in 10 to 15 years, people should convert already existing cars to EVs and PHEVs.

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“We need to start converting 10s of millions of existing gas guzzlers already on the road to an EV or PHEV, but people seem skeptical about it,” says Kramer..

“Now people are starting to get aware of it,” Kramer says of the PHEV and EV movement.

“Both technical solutions and business models for how to make money are growing, and once that happens we can vastly accelerate the arrival of plug-in vehicles,” Kramer predicts.

Spreading awareness
CalCars.org gets 1,000 unique visitors a day, according to Kramer, and the site has “had a very large impact on opinion shaping and reaching people in the industry.”

It’s fun to have an electric car, they drive great, and it’s fun to sit in your house and realize that your house’s electricity source is zero CO2.
— Felix Kramer, Founder California Cars Initiative

“We had a page on the website that was useful, that would track everything carmakers said about the hybrid. When they said something new, we would put that on the page, and comment on it,” Kramer notes.

“They would say, ‘Nobody wants this, it’s not practical.’ So, we quoted them, and that page had a big impact.”

The website has also featured pictures of celebrities and politicians who have EVs, which also had a large impact.

CalCars also coined the phrase Cleaner, Cheaper, Domestic—which refers to how electricity is cleaner than gasoline because it lowers production of CO2. CalCars notes that, for example, solar-powered EVs are cheaper and more domestic in terms of their fueling because with solar power it is no longer necessary to import oil in order to generate electricity.

“It’s really important for everyone to be talking about this concept as much as possible, and getting people excited about the benefits of it,” according to Kramer.

In the end, one of the greatest benefits to moving to plug-in vehicles is the sense of satisfaction it gives you, explains Kramer: “It’s fun to have an electric car, they drive great, and it’s fun to sit in your house and realize that your house’s electricity source is zero CO2.”

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