Kicking gas

Kingfield company is the first in the state and among a handful nationwide focused on plug-in conversions for hybrid cars. 

About five years ago, Shayna Berkowitz made a commitment to never again buy a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.  

The staunch environmentalist, political activist and cancer survivor was tired of contributing to what she called the “crisis of oil consumption.” She was tired of adding carcinogens to the air, tired of using a mode of transportation she thought was outdated.

“I felt like we were living in a time where we needed to make changes and changes needed to happen,” she said. “And we had the technology, we had the knowledge and it was either going to be biking, walking and mass transit or something else.”

That’s when Berkowitz, who lives in the Bancroft neighborhood, started looking locally for someone to convert her old Toyota RAV4 to 100-percent electric power, but her search only turned up hobbyists. So she partnered with Eureka Recycling’s Alex Danovitch, whom she knew from a compost project, to launch a new company.

“We came together and decided to take a look at how we could fill that need, meet that need, because if I was looking for that then we were sure that other people wanted that, too,” Berkowitz said. “People were ready for change. So that’s how we founded ReGo Electric Conversions.”

After two years of research and development, ReGo is planning an official launch Aug. 19 in a section of the Mulroy’s Body Shop building at 3920 Nicollet Ave. S. An open house is scheduled for July 12. Though the company — staffed with 11 eco-passionate local employees ranging from electricians, engineers and auto mechanics to hobbyists — has performed complete electric conversions, its focus is converting hybrid vehicles to plug-in hybrids.

 

Taking the next step

The cost of converting a gasoline-powered vehicle to an all-electric drivetrain is still prohibitively expensive — upwards of $40,000, Berkowitz said.

“The market’s not ready for 100-percent electric,” she said. “And that will change.”

When major vehicle manufacturers introduce electric cars, the parts, knowledge and infrastructure that follow should improve affordability, she said. Until then, ReGo has other ways to meet its “triple bottom line,” which emphasizes benefiting people and the planet in addition to making a profit.   

Right now, the main product is a conversion package that allows Toyota Prius owners to plug their cars into any standard outlet for a charge, rather than relying solely on the stock system, which draws a charge whenever the brakes are applied. A new lithium-ion battery pack, installed in the spare-tire well, is part of the deal, as is a tire-filler that negates the spare.

ReGo will install the package within 24-hours for just shy of $5,000 and claims the conversion will allow a Prius to travel the first 20 miles below 35 mph on electric power alone and reach 60-85 mpg (the norm for a stock Prius is 40 mpg), depending on driving habits and conditions. A fully depleted battery system can charge in four to six hours at a cost of roughly 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

The company offers a 60-day 100-percent satisfaction guarantee and will refund a customer and remove the conversion kit for a 15-percent restocking fee if requested.
A purchase also includes a two-year full warranty on parts and labor and customers are eligible for a federal tax credit equal to 10 percent of the conversion cost.

And there’s one more benefit. For a Prius driver who travels 20 miles a day, the installation should reduce the car’s yearly carbon footprint by 4,000 pounds, said Danovitch, who left Eureka Recycling to help start ReGo.   

“We’re continuously looking for ways to innovate, looking at what’s the next step down the road,” he said. “We don’t think this is the ultimate solution; this is just a really fantastic opportunity for people to kind of take a next step, people who have already chosen to drive hybrids. But down the road we’d like to look at ways to convert existing gas vehicles to hybrids and ultimately convert all vehicles to 100-percent electric.”

The company is also looking at converting other hybrid models to plug-ins. The Prius, all generations of it, is the focus now because of its abundance. Berkowitz and Danovitch said they’re not encouraging anyone to buy a new hybrid because 10-percent of a car’s carbon footprint over its lifetime comes from construction.

“If people are interested in taking this next step, there are plenty of used hybrids out there,” Berkowitz said.

 

The challenge 
is the opportunity

ReGo is the only company of its kind in the state and is among only a handful throughout the country.

Being new has its challenges, and ReGo has spent years seeking out specialists, researching products and practicing its services. The company also developed a cold-climate focus. Since Minnesota’s harsh winters tend to quickly drain battery life, finding ways to maintain battery temperature was important.     

“The challenge creates the opportunity in our minds,” Danovitch said. “If everybody was doing this stuff, there wouldn’t even be an opportunity for us to have this business.”

One of the better-known U.S. conversion companies is Massachusetts-based Hymotion, which provided a plug-in kit for mayor R.T. Rybak’s Prius, converted by a Denny Hecker dealership in 2007. At the time, the city hoped to work with Hecker to develop a conversion site in North Minneapolis, but those plans quickly disappeared following Hecker’s legal troubles.

Now the city is among ReGo’s first customers. The company is scheduled to convert one of the city’s five Priuses, which will serve as the mayor’s new car.
John Scharffbillig, director of fleet services for Minneapolis, said the city will run tests on the newly converted car for six to eight months before deciding whether to convert more of its vehicles.  

“We’ll look at converting additional Priuses as money allows,” he said. “Budgets are tight. We’re looking at what’s our return on investment, what’s our fuelsaving cost, to be very fiscally responsible with the citizen’s money here.”

The plug-in conversion with ReGo ended up being roughly half the cost of going with an out-of-state company, Scharffbillig said, and the location will allow the city to easily service the vehicle if needed. Rybak said he was eager to work with ReGo.

“The reason for converting my car is first, we want to continue to convert the fleet and second, as a practical matter, my car has gotten more attention than almost anything I’ve done as mayor and that will help this local company,” Rybak said. “So if I’m going to be getting attention for anybody creating green jobs I want it to be someone creating them in Minneapolis.”

ReGo has already appealed to other local Prius drivers as well. Lynnhurst resident Barbara Wiener was scheduled to get her Toyota converted earlier this month.  

“It really right now feels like what we’ve all been waiting for, at least as a transition to full electric-powered vehicles,” she said.

She said she was impressed with the company’s grassroots approach and efforts to tap into different facets of the community; something Berkowitz said has been a priority from the start.

Choosing Mulroy’s Body Shop — a business with an eye toward the environment — for the location was part of that effort. Mulroy’s makes a point of using eco-friendly paint and recently had the largest solar-panel array in the city installed on its roof.

Building owner Pat Mulroy said his business repairs a lot of Priuses and he expects to work as a team with ReGo, which shares his shop.

“I see our customers going back and forth,” Mulroy said.

He said he’s been hunting for a used Prius, so he can become a customer, too.  

Berkowitz followed through on her pledge to never again buy a gas-powered vehicle. Her RAV4 was ReGo’s first 100-percent electric conversion and she drives it year-round, charges it overnight for pennies and can fly by gas stations at highway speeds.

She said ReGo is a hybrid-conversion company, at least right now. But if others are interested in learning more about a full-electric conversion, she’s happy to chat.

“We will sit down and talk to anybody who’s trying to do the right thing,” she said.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.