March 17, 2010

High price of gas has a sunny side: Innovation

— Bill Drinkwater spends a lot of time in the basement tinkering with his latest creation, a three-wheeled car that may soon carry him to town at 40 mph.

But this is not your typical 62-year-old tinkerer, and his electric-powered car is more than a retirement hobby.

Drinkwater, who lives in Belmont, is one of a loose network of Mainers who see hard times ahead and are using their Yankee ingenuity to prepare. The way we travel will change dramatically, he says, as global warming and tightening oil supplies make our current way of life too expensive.

''Things seem to be collapsing pretty quickly,'' he said.

Drinkwater grew up in Camden, but left Maine for about 20 years to experience a series of adventures, including a stint in the Army.

He hitchhiked through Central America and spent a summer ''roaming around the wilderness'' above the Arctic circle in Alaska. He also spent years panning for gold in northern California.

''I scratched out a living but the adventure was fantastic,'' he said.

Drinkwater returned to Maine after injuring his back looking for gold. He spent time in a wheelchair, and still uses crutches 18 years later.

Last year, Drinkwater saw a documentary about life in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union. He saw the way Cubans had to adapt to a massive disruption in oil and food supplies as a lesson, and a warning, for the rest of the world.

Drinkwater went to work on his car.

''I've always designed stuff and come up with ideas,'' he said. ''It just struck me that that's something I could do that would be good for the world.''

Drinkwater works in short spurts because of his disability, and he expects to finish by May. His three-season, single-person vehicle has one rear wheel and should top out at about 45 mph, he said.

''In the future everyone will be driving slow. They're going to feel lucky if they're driving at all,'' he said.

He set up solar panels in his yard to charge batteries for the car, which should go about 50 to 60 miles on each charge.

The car is expected to cost between $3,000 and $4,000 and the solar power system will cost another $7,000, he said. On the other hand, insurance will cost less than $200 a year, and the fuel is free.

Drinkwater documents the progress on his Web site ( His site also links to the home page for a man in Norridgewock who is selling solar-electric car kits for $4,500, and plugs a commercial electric car dealer in Falmouth.

He also spreads the word about clean transportation as much as he can, and spoke to a group of University of Southern Maine students this week about emerging technologies.

Drinkwater insists he's no radical or survivalist. And, he said, the car's message is supposed to be a hopeful one: People can adapt if they set their minds to it, and know how to hold a wrench.

''As the price of oil edges up, people will see that electric vehicles are viable,'' he said. ''My philosophy in life has always been if you want to do something, just do it.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

Read John's blog at:

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