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Friday, April 12, 2024

This Oregon company wants to build electric cars in Costa Rica

In early September, some of the people seemingly best placed to help Costa Rica reduce emissions from transportation — the Achilles heel of the country’s carbon neutrality goal — held a forum at the Jade Museum in downtown San José to talk about how to do it.

On the panel was the author of a bill that would cut taxes on electric cars imports, a representative from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute and one from a consortium of public bus companies. Vice Minister of Energy Irene Cañas was also there.

But for believers in the private sector’s superior ability to effect change, there was a surprise guest at the end. During the question-and-answer period, Karla Hill stood up and announced that she had just moved her business to Costa Rica from Oregon and planned to manufacture affordable electric cars for the local market and beyond.

Hill said Costa Rica’s commitment to renewable energy, its army-ditching history and its ambitious goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021 inspired her to move the company, Venus Motors, to Costa Rica to help the country sever its ties with fossil fuels once and for all.

“We believe Costa Rica can show Latin America and the rest of the world what can happen if you embrace the change,” Hill said in an interview near her home in Brasilito, Guanacaste.

Hill said the newly-registered Venus Motors Costa Rica plans to convert gasoline or diesel engines to electric and build its own electric cars, starting with its signature “Veep.”

The company eventually wants to set up 10 small assembly plants around the country. It’s starting with two: in Grecia, Alajuela, and Filadelfia, Guanacaste. Hill said some 45 people would be employed at each plant.

She said the company’s goal is to begin assembling cars in March.

From Venus Motors 1.0 to 2.0

In the U.S., Venus Motors occupied a niche of the niche electric car industry. The Bend, Oregon-based company builds electric components for the custom vehicle industry, along with the Veep, a jeep-like, all-electric car.

Hill said there are over 300 car shops in the U.S. equipped to build cars using Venus’ engine and drivetrain.

She hopes the company can make a big impact in a small country like Costa Rica. “We can be a drop in the bucket in the U.S. but we can make a real difference in Costa Rica.”

Hill said she was inspired by a recent TED talk given by Monica Araya, a Costa Rican environmentalist and founder of Costa Rica Limpia, which seeks to empower citizens to “green” the country’s future. But Hill’s dream of moving to Costa Rica was seeded much earlier.

She read a book in 1989, “The Greatness in the Smallness” by Hungarian philosopher and healthy living guru Edmond Bordeaux Székely.

Székely — after translating ancient texts, penning dozens of books, traveling all over the world and founding the renowned health spa Rancho La Puerta in Baja California, Mexico — retired to Costa Rica in 1975, according to a new documentary about his life. He died here in 1979 at the age of 74.

“The Greatness in the Smallness” is a tribute to Costa Rica’s democratic history and its achievements in education and health care.

“I was inspired,” Hill said of the book. “I wanted to live in a country and pay taxes in a place where they’re not fighting wars over oil and they’re doing worthwhile things with their taxes.”

Hill said she’s had her sights set on Costa Rica ever since. But she promised herself that she wouldn’t come as a tourist.

So when Grupo Solaris, a Costa Rica-based firm that provides solar and LED lighting, reached out to Venus Motors about bringing its Veep car to Costa Rica, Hill decided to bring the whole company down.

Glen Nickerson, business development director for Grupo Solaris, said the company was looking for an electric vehicle producer to complete the company’s array of renewable energy products and services. It settled on Venus because of the flexibility of the company’s vehicle design — multiple body styles can be attached to the rolling chassis — and because of its promise in making electric vehicles affordable.

“Venus has the target market models that can be assembled simply using commonly available tooling to keep the final price at a reachable level,” Nickerson said via email.

Hill emphasized the ease of working on the cars they produce, saying the parts involved “are recognizable by any mechanic in the world.”

“We can ship these components anywhere and teach someone how to put them together,” Hill said.

Costa Rica’s car-making history

Costa Rica certainly isn’t known as a vehicle manufacturing hub. But the country does have some experience in the field.

In the 1970s, the GM “Amigo” was built here, part of the firm’s attempt to establish itself in developing countries by offering inexpensive, locally-made “Basic Transportation Vehicles” or BTVs.

Fast-forward to the present: Grupo Purdy Motors, the local Toyota importer, began assembling Hino trucks here this year.

At first, Hill said, Venus Motors will import most of the components needed to build electric vehicles from the company’s suppliers in the U.S. But Venus hopes to source components as close to Costa Rica as possible in the future, she said.

Venus Motors is looking to open a shop in Sarchí — renowned for its locally made wood and leather furniture — that would employ craftspeople to make interior upholstery for the company’s vehicles.

As for the price tag, Hill said Venus Motors can make electric cars for a baseline $30,000 with financing options. Car owners can charge their cars through a regular 110-volt electrical outlet at home and avoid gas stations — and gas prices — altogether.

Electricity is much cheaper than gasoline in Costa Rica, and it comes almost entirely from renewable sources.

“This is the only place we can plug a vehicle in and have it be a truly clean energy vehicle,” Hill said.

A bill making its way through the Legislative Assembly could give the electric car market here a boost by exempting electric cars and their components from an array of import taxes and offering perks like free parking.

The bill also calls for setting up electric car charging infrastructure around the country. But it is currently stalled while legislators debate whether to include tax breaks for hybrid electric-gas vehicles and hydrogen-powered vehicles, among other issues.

Venus Motors Costa Rica is still in the early stages of setting up shop here. But come this time next year, Hill hopes there will be Venus electric cars on Tico roads.

“We’re going to help Costa Rica meet its carbon-neutral goal by 2021,” Hill said. “This is going to be a model that other people stand up and notice.”

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