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Spark for sustainability earns Western professor national electric vehicle award | WMU News


Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Dr. Paul Pancella’s dedication to electric vehicles (EVs) is getting national buzz. The Western Michigan University professor of nuclear physics received a City Captain Award in Plug In America’s 2022 Drive Electric Awards Oct. 27 in Manhattan Beach, California, for his leadership and advocacy.

“The EV movement is important to all of us who want to improve our transportation systems while simultaneously reducing the considerable negative impact that our internal combustion vehicles are having on the global climate,” says Pancella, who leads the Kalamazoo Electric Vehicle Association, which he helped found in 2015.  “Adoption of EVs must accelerate quickly as we continue to power our electric grid with cleaner energy sources in order to head off the worst effects of climate change in the not-so-distant future.”

Plug In America is a national coalition of advocates for accelerated use of plug-in vehicles. The nonprofit’s awards, now in their fifth year, honor individuals and organizations that have demonstrated inspiring leadership in the electric vehicle movement. 

“EVs are now moving into the mainstream in the United States. More and more, you can see them in every town from coast to coast. That would not be possible without leaders such as these in the EV movement,” says Tonia Buell, Plug In America awards committee chair. 

Pancella stood out as a City Captain having helmed 10 National Drive Electric Week and Drive Electric Earth Day events. He’s also earned a reputation around Kalamazoo and the broader region for his EV knowledge.


While wide availability of hybrid and completely electric vehicles is relatively recent, Pancella has been invested in the movement for decades. The oil crises of the 1970s fueled his initial interest, leading him to study electric and other alternatives to gasoline-fueled cars. He watched General Motors experiment with battery power in its EV1, but the excitement was short-lived as the company discontinued the model shortly after debuting it in the late 1990s.

“As the first decade of the new millennium unfolded, I got more and more impatient with auto manufacturers who kept promising to mass produce EVs in the next few years. In late 2008, I converted my own 1992 Honda Civic hatchback to full battery electric power. I started making contact with other enthusiasts in Michigan, and it kept rolling from there,” he says.

Pancella’s passion for sustainability is evident on Western’s campus, where he has taught physics classes on energy and the environment, given presentations about EV conversion and spoken with various stakeholder groups about the importance of alternative energy. He supported the establishment of the Office for Sustainability at Western, serving for a time as interim director, and also led the committee which wrote the University’s first Climate Action Plan in 2012. 

Jeff Spoelstra, current director of the Office for Sustainability, applauds Pancella’s leadership, knowledge and commitment to the cause.

“He built and drove the all-electric ‘Hondatron’ before electric cars were cool. For years he has ridden an ultra-efficient recumbent bicycle around campus and community. And he remains interested in helping my team and WMU monitor and adjust our electric vehicle charging network practices in the years ahead,” says Spoelstra.

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