Originally created 04/09/06

Sparking a change



Golf course superintendent Shane Schutte swore by gas-powered carts for heavy duty maintenance work on the course.

Electric ones just couldn't get up the hills. They ran out of juice too soon.

Pulling several-hundred-pound trailers? Wasn't happening.

Now, he might as well be an electric cart spokesman.

"I'm going to be switching all of my gas to electrics because I'm so pleased," said Mr. Schutte, the superintendent for Columbia County's Bartram Trail Golf Club.

While electric golf carts have been popular for years because of their easy maintenance and quiet sound, buyers have been hesitant to switch to electric-powered utility vehicles. The old thinking was that electric batteries weren't strong enough for heavy work on the course.

That mindset is starting to change, say leaders at E-Z-GO and Club Car, the world's largest golf and specialty vehicle makers.

"Electric utility vehicle sales are increasing with improvement in technology and efficiency," E-Z-GO spokesman Ron Skenes said.

Even so, when it comes to consumers wanting heavy-duty utility carts, gas is still the leader, Club Car spokesman Michael Read said.

Both cart manufacturers estimate about 75 percent of the utility vehicles they sell are gas operated.

For fleet cars, however, it's almost the opposite. The National Golf Foundation estimates 65 to 70 percent of these cars are electric-powered.

Although gas is still preferred for utility vehicles, it's likely to trend away from that gradually, he said.

"With the technology that we've recently introduced, we would expect that to start shifting more and more to electric," he said.

Though the shift is occurring, it will be a long time before electric sales can match gas sales, Mr. Skenes said.

"It's an issue of range and the utility vehicle job," he said.

But superintendents such as Mr. Schutte have become impressed with the improved power of electric vehicles.

Both Augusta-based manufacturers have seen improvements to their 48-volt electric models over the years.

New technology better regulates the amount of energy the vehicles draw from batteries. Lower consumption means longer battery life. Regenerative braking limits the downhill speed of golf carts and generates electricity that pumps back into the battery.

"The technology is what turned me to the use of electric carts," said Mr. Schutte, whose course uses Club Car vehicles. "They have a lot more power than the older ones, which allow me to go a full day without having to recharge my vehicle."

Gas still has a leg up. Despite improvements, electric vehicles still can't power a 4X4 utility vehicle, Mr. Read said.

Greg Moore, golf pro for the Clubs at Cherokee Valley in Travelers Rest, S.C., still relies on gas-powered utility vehicles.

The last thing you need is a utility vehicle running out of juice during a maintenance emergency, he said.

"There have to be a lot of improvements in order for me to have confidence they (battery-powered cars) will last," he said.

That said, Cherokee Valley's golf car fleet is converting to all-electric E-Z-GO cars. Mr. Moore said previous generation electric golf cars couldn't handle the hills at Cherokee Valley, but now they are "more than able."

Added improvements to battery-powered utility vehicles could sway Mr. Moore to convert the club's turf fleet to electric. And, with high gas prices, the prospect of converting becomes more attractive.

To help customers choose the most economical vehicle, Club Car recently introduced an online tool called the Energy Cost Estimator, which compares its gas and electric vehicles based on the size of the fleet, the amount of days the course is open and the cost of electricity.

Even with high gas prices, however, neither Club Car nor E-Z-GO said they have felt a negative impact in sales.

"If prices stay high over the long run there could be an impact," E-Z-GO President John Garrison said in a prepared statement.

A demand for gas carts will always exist, said Susan Rutt, E-Z-GO's vice president of engineering.

"I don't ever see them completely going away," she said. "There's always some sort of need."

Reach Tony Lombardo at (706) 823-3227 or tony.lombardo@augustachronicle.com.

GAS


Pros


- refueling is quick and simple with no recharging required


- longer range of use


- higher resale value

Cons


- more maintenance


- not as quiet as electric cars


- higher purchase price

ELECTRIC

Pros


- quiet operation


- simple maintenance


- lower purchase price


- new technology has increased its range and power

Cons


- must be recharged at night


- batteries require water once a month


- might not have the same range as gas car


Source: E-Z-GO and Club Car