January 16, 2008

State's first all-electric car not legal in Racine -- yet

Green only goes so far. Despite Mayor Gary Becker's plans to turn Racine green with solar arrays, rain gardens and compliance with the Kyoto Accords, don't rush out to buy that all-electric car the Wisconsin Department of Transportation licensed for sale here Friday.

The one from Canada that gets 35 miles on a fill-up of ... um, electricity from any household outlet. The ZENN is its name, and it's cute as a button, smaller than a Mini-Cooper and costs $12,700. ZENN stands for Zero Emissions, No Noise.

You could buy one in Janesville, from Green's Auto, the state's only ZENN dealer. Just don't plan on driving it home: It's not allowed on Janesville's streets. It's not allowed on Wisconsin highways either(top speed is just 25mph). And even if you got it home, you can't legally drive it in Racine anyway.

Did we mention how cute it is? How cheap to run? Holds two adults and a few bags of groceries.

Truth is, however, it's not officially a car, although it looks like one: It's a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, an important distinction that marks a compromise between efforts to go green and federal safety standards. The ZENN has a full complement of headlights, turn signals and brake lights -- unlike electric golf carts, for example -- but what it doesn't have are air bags.

While the state is allowing the Department of Motor Vehicles to register the ZENN (providing a single turquoise license plate), it is not mandating that municipalities allow them on city streets. Rather, the state is allowing communities to pass ordinances permitting them.

So far, according to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the ZENN can be driven in 35 Wisconsin communities, including Glendale, Green Bay, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Beloit, Rice Lake, Eagle River and Waupun. Just don't try to drive it from one to another.

As Sgt. Bernie Kupper of the Racine Police Department told me, "If you live in the city, you stay in the city. If you're in a subdivision, you have to keep it in the subdivision."

Kupper said the city had a request about an electric vehicle last year, but nothing came of it. City Attorney Rob Weber quickly produced a copy of Green Bay's ordinance, which limits Neighborhood Electric Vehicles to streets where the speed limit is no more than 35 miles per hour.

Will the ZENN someday be legal on Racine streets? All it will take is someone wanting to be freed forever from the pump. And a city ordinance.

ZENN Motors' website is HERE.

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