In Your Community: Electric Car Pioneer Merl Petzold

Merl Petzold last month in Grand Rapids at the dedication of the first public charging station.

Merl Petzold considers his shiny new Chevrolet Volt a plug-in electric pulpit.

The 76-year-old Grand Rapids man is the first customer to own a Volt and sign up for Consumers Energy’s plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) time-of-use rates. Petzold purchased the cutting edge car because of a concern for the environment that’s fueled by his Christian faith.

Simply put, Petzold, a retired General Motors Co. engineer, believes God created the world in a pristine fashion and humans should do their part to protect the earth’s environment.

When Petzold plugged his Volt into Consumers Energy’s first public charging station in Grand Rapids on March 17, his good friend and former pastor, Rodney Otto, attended the ceremony. He plans to take his pastor, David Fleming, of Our Savior Lutheran Church, for a spin in the Volt, which can travel up to 40 miles solely on electric battery power and help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“I suppose I turned the tables and I am preaching to them,” Petzold said with a chuckle. “I want my pastors to recognize this is something they should be committed to and speaking about. I hope I got their attention.”

Petzold worked for about 20 years as chief engineer of energy and environmental affairs at a GM plant in Grand Rapids. He became enamored with the Volt when it was displayed as a concept vehicle at the North American Auto Show in Detroit.

“At the time, they were still trying to solve the battery problems,” he said. “When they figured that out, I said ‘hot dog’ and I was hot after the car. I went to Berger Chevrolet and placed my order and a down payment on the first day that was allowed.”

The Volt sells for roughly $41,000, before a federal tax credit of $7,500. Petzold also plans to install a 240-volt charging station in his garage and will receive help from Consumers Energy, which is reimbursing the first 2,500 qualifying residential customers up to $2,500 toward the purchase and installation of the charging stations.

In the first two weeks of driving the Volt, Petzold used less than one gallon of gasoline. That’s because most of his daily drives ranged from 15 to 30 miles, allowing him to recharge the battery overnight.

Drivers can charge the Volt in eight to 10 hours with a standard 110-volt outlet or “refuel” in about half that time with a 240-volt charging station. Consumers Energy estimates “filling up” the Volt with electricity during off-peak hours will cost customers less than $1 in the utility’s service territory.

For his part, Petzold plans to keep spreading what he sees as the good news about the Volt — and Consumers Energy.

“The Volt has more than exceeded my expectations,” Petzold said. “Global warming is real and, though we can’t stop it, we can at least delay it. I’m glad GM and Consumers Energy have gotten active.”

— Todd Schulz