Paris Autobarn fills niche for green service and EV sales.
By Amy Paradysz
The worn stereotypes about used car dealers are all wrong when it comes to Tony Giambro, the 34-year-old owner—or chief sustainability officer—of Paris Autobarn in Maine’s western foothills. There on East Main Street in South Paris, he’s been leading an experienced four mechanic crew in being the greenest service station in New England. And, since February, he’s been selling a mix of used cars with an emphasis on electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids.
“I worked at a dealership for nearly 10 years as a Honda technician, and I saw a lot of things I didn’t want to incorporate into my own business,” Giambro said, explaining that he has found healthier and greener alternatives for everything from tires and transmission oils to cleaning products and office paper. “There are a few shops in the country that do what we do, but none of them take it to this level. I don’t think a lot of people expect to see this here, but we’re only an hour’s drive from Portland.”
The service station and shop are in what looks like a sprawling red barn with 45 solar panels on the southern roof. Giambro’s house is next door, with 20 more solar panels on the front lawn. Three EV charging stations sit in front of the shop, and a couple dozen cars spill out of the front parking lot onto Giambro’s side lawn.
“I realized a long time ago that climate change is a major problem,” said Giambro, who drives a Tesla Model 3 EV with a license plate that reads ZROGAS. “It’s infuriating that the general public doesn’t do a whole lot about it, like it’s this far away problem. But it’s actually right here, right now. Driving electric is definitely a good step in the right direction.”
Driving electric is easier than most people think, Giambro said, and getting easier all the time as more charging stations appear. Though the majority of the state’s charging stations are in the population centers along the coast of Southern Maine, stations are as far-flung as Machiasport, Millinocket, Fryeburg and Rangeley Lake. The small towns of Paris and Norway together have 11 charging stations. The more people see charging stations, the more they can see themselves going electric without drastically changing their habits.
“The infrastructure that has been added in this area has helped in Norway, Paris and the surrounding towns,” said Giambro, who also chairs the transportation working group of the Center for Ecology-Based Economy (CEBE). “There are chargers popping up all over the place as a result of CEBE’s work.”
CEBE installed a charging station in Norway in 2014, another charging station in South Paris in 2016 and a solar-powered charging station on Route 26 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in 2017. The opening of each station was celebrated with an EV Expo. “Every year that we’ve done these events, interest has grown,” said Scott Vlaun, executive director of CEBE. “We’ve created this market, and Tony has jumped in and has been buying up used EVs from all over the Northeast and turning them around really quickly. Consequently, there are a lot more EVs in this community.”
The natural inclination may be to try to ease in halfway with a hybrid, and Giambro concedes that may be best for someone who drives hundreds of miles a day and can’t afford a recently released long-range EV. But he finds that people tend to overestimate how much they drive (75% of Americans commute fewer than 80 miles, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists). Or they worry about charging time, even though most EVs fully charge at home overnight.
“The longest I’ve had to stop at a Supercharger is a half hour,” Giambro said. “And, in that period of time, you’re gaining several hundred miles of range back.” On the other hand, EVs are much easier (and cheaper) to maintain: no engine oil to change, no transmission fluid, no spark plugs, no engine air filters, no fan belts.
“Basically, it’s just tire rotations and alignments,” said Travis Ritchie, Paris Autobarn’s office manager and education outreach coordinator. “The biggest thing I’ve found is that you have to remember to put washer fluid in since you no longer go for oil changes.”
Ritchie grew up a stone’s throw away. By the time he earned a degree in Space Studies from American Military University, he was a family man wanting to stay local rather than pursue a career in rocketry. Working on EVs at an environmentally minded shop, he has been able to satisfy both his technical side and his desire to be part of a forward-looking industry.
“I’ve been researching alternative energy and alternative fuels since high school,” said Ritchie, who was the first employee on the Paris Autobarn team. “As soon as my daughter Luna was born, I committed to trying to make the world a better place for her and doing something good for society with my 40 hours.”
At 34, Ritchie has a side business growing microgreens, he’s on the school board in Mechanic Falls and he and his wife each drive a Nissan Leaf EV: his black, hers blue.
“We plug them into the wall when we get home, and when we wake up they’re fully charged,” Ritchie said, demonstrating how easy it is to plug in at Paris Autobarn, where there’s a universal charging station and two Tesla-specific charging stations open to customer use. “Eventually we want to sell only cars that have a plug,” he added.
Heading in that same direction, CEBE is helping to build the infrastructure for a future—a quarter-century out—when more than half the cars on the road will be EVs, according to a recent prediction made by Bloomberg NEF, Bloomberg’s primary research service. “We’re a climate action organization,” Vlaun said, “and transportation accounts for quite a bit of our carbon footprint. But the other part of it is air quality. Norway has thousands of cars going through town every day. What if half of them were electric?”
Meanwhile, even drivers of gas-powered vehicles can make greener choices at Paris Autobarn, from canola-based Nokian tires to extended service filters that allow up to 30,000 miles between oil changes to bio-based and biodegradable transmission oils and engine grease.
“Here, we don’t use chemicals that are hazardous to our health, 99 percent of them anyway,” said Paris Autobarn’s lead mechanic, John Cates, who has worked on cars for three decades. He sees the automotive industry as a whole trending toward sustainability, just moving in that direction so slowly it barely looks like movement at all.
“The dealerships I worked for tried to do little things to say they were greener,” Cates said. “But nobody took the giant leap that Paris Autobarn took.”
FUN FACT: The first Mainer to buy (rather than lease) an EV was Fred Garbo of Norway, who is now on his third EV.
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This article appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Green & Healthy Maine HOMES. Subscribe today!