A look at SAVA’s EV Lowrider conversion project

As California transitions to zero-emission vehicles, a charter school is equipping students with the skills for clean energy jobs and electric vehicle adoption.


Every Friday, high school students at Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy (SAVA) in Sacramento slowly but surely transform a 1964 Chevy Impala into an electric vehicle, also known as an EV. They are part of the school EV Lowrider Conversion Projectthe first class of its kind in California.

“A lot of this prepares them for the job market,” said Galen Hartman, the SAVA instructor for the class.

From the mechanical to the technical side, the program is designed to provide students from underserved communities with a unique combination of skills to prepare them for the green career pipeline needed to achieve California’s clean energy goals..

Hartman said the class wouldn’t be possible without leaders like ShaVolla Rodriguez, a longtime member of the Sacramento lowriding community.

Amid the EV revolution, Rodriguez thought converting a sleek, classic car into an electric vehicle would be a great way to introduce young people to the wide range of job opportunities that might otherwise not have been accessible to them.

“Who wouldn’t want to be part of building one of these beautiful cars, with the beautiful paint jobs, the pinstripes and the engraved metal, the hydraulics?” Rodriguez said. “Just all the things that make it a lowrider, but to be able to say: you as a student were able to build one of the first EV conversions.”

She started talking to everyone about the idea, including Neil Lubin of the California Automobile Museum and Jaime Lemus, director of transportation and climate change at the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District. They helped recruit partners from the academic, private and public sectors to be part of the project.

They felt strongly that a class like this was needed in the Sacramento area due to the large, tight-knit lowrider community and the developing automotive industry as it transitions to zero-emission vehicles.

Thanks to the trio’s vision, SAVA was eager to make it a reality and so it did. IIn early 2023, students trickled into the auto shop for this flagship class.

Many community organizations were excited to support this project, including: SMUD, Sacramento Metro Air Quality Management District, Sacramento Lowrider Commission, Ohm Electric Cars and the California Automobile Museum.

The program also partners with businesses in the greater Sacramento region. A local dealer, King City Classics, donated the 64′ Impala, while Joseph Munoz, owner of Street Certified Customs, and Ash Dalal, a trained engineer who owns Ohm Electric Cars, teach some of the curriculum.

“We had no idea it would turn out the way it has,” Rodriguez said.

However, not everyone was enthusiastic when the program started.

“My first initial reaction to this was ‘Why?’” said Wyatt Showen, a SAVA student enrolled in the EV Lowrider Conversion project. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful car.”

After joining the class, his concerns were quickly put to rest. From the practice-oriented learning to the excursions: Showen is pleasantly surprised by how much he has learned.

“It means a lot to the world because I can put on my resume that I did this,” Showen said. “I can help promote this in other areas so that it becomes a new normal.”

His distinctive skills have seen him receive a number of job offers since the program’s inception.

For student Nayeli Rodriguez, the lesson is very personal. Like her mother, ShaVolla Rodriguez, she grew up immersed in lowrider culture. Although she is a member of Duke’s Car Club and considers the Sacramento lowriding community her family, she was still eager to take the class.

“I was nervous at first, but now it’s more exciting that I get to learn all these new things. It just feels…words can’t even describe being a real lowrider working on the lowrider. It’s just super exciting,” she says.

A year into the class, Rodriguez still can’t believe she’s helping convert a lowrider into an electric vehicle. As excited as she is, Rodriguez doesn’t feel like many people are into electric cars.

Jaime Lemus said he has heard similar sentiments from the Hispanic and Latino community in Sacramento. Financial barriers are one of the main reasons why zero-emission vehicles are difficult to adopt. he explained, especially within communities that have been historically underserved.

The City of Sacramento launched “The clean cars 4 all,” an incentive program that allows eligible residents to trade in their old cars for a new hybrid or electric ride for up to $9,500. This was created to provide communities from disadvantaged backgrounds with a fair way to switch to zero-emission vehicles.

Lemus has also heard that representation is part of the problem.

“The community is saying, ‘These cars are just not cool. They just don’t represent us.” Lemus said.

That’s why he thinks this lesson is so important. By converting a vehicle iconic to the Latino and Chicano community, he hopes it will encourage more people to see themselves driving an electric vehicle.

This switch is essential for purifying the air.

Cars and the automotive sector are the largest sector of air pollution here in the region,” said Lemus. “We also know that most of our communities of color are located near the major roadways, which means you have the most air pollution in those regions because of the amount of congestion there.”

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, air pollution is linked to chronic diseases and cancer.

For him and many other stakeholders, this is more than just a class that converts a lowrider into an electric car.

“It is not our intention to convert every classic car. Our intention is to change the mindset (of communities) together with the vehicle and introduce our children to the new steering or electric vehicle technology that will be the future. Lemus said.

The conversion is expected to be completed by the end of May. SAVA will continue converting classic cars into electric vehicles under their recently launched Green Energy Pathway to help prepare students for clean energy jobs and electric vehicle adoption.

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