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Electric cars tardy in drive to NW fast lane

Technology limits could be bumps in road to success
by: JAIME VALDEZ Charging a Nissan Leaf all-electric car is as easy as plugging it in, says Art James, EV program manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation. James brought one of ODOT's five Leafs to the dedication of the first federally-funded public charging station at Wilsonville City Hall on Tuesday.

Portland State University is a leader in electric car research. It has partnered with Portland General Electric and Toyota to study the future of electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids.

But university officials were initially stymied when they tried to install public charging stations along a block of Southwest Montgomery as part of a project called Electric Avenue. Among other things, obtaining the proper city permits pushed the start of construction back to late July.

'When you want to work in the streets, there's a very lengthy process you have to go through,' says PSU spokesman Scott Gallagher of the project, which will be between Southwest Broadway and Sixth Avenue.

So perhaps it's no surprise that a much more ambitious project - installing public charging stations throughout the Willamette Valley - has run into problems, too. ECOtality North America of San Francisco originally hoped to install approximately 1,100 public charging stations in Oregon by the end of June.

But the first public station was only dedicated at Wilsonville City Hall this past Tuesday. Plans call for completing the installations by the end of the year.

Company President Don Karner says the installations are on track, however.

'The plan was always to install the stations in proportion to the number of electric cars on the road, and they are just beginning to be sold in large numbers,' says Karner.

ECOtality North America in managing the EV Project, the installation work funded via a $114.8 million federal stimulus grant. It was awarded as part of a public-private partnership to help introduce the all-electric Nissan Leaf to this country. It can go up to 100 miles between charges. Nissan delayed the first Leaf shipments by three months, so the first owners have only recently taken possession of them.

George Beard, PSU's point man on EV research projects, minimizes the impact of the delays.

'You have to take the long view when you're looking at introducing new technologies,' says Beard, PSU's manager of research and strategic partnerships.

The delay has allowed other automakers to steal some of the Leaf's thunder. Chevy recently introduced the Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle that uses a gas-powered generator when batteries run low. Toyota has announced plans to expand its line of Prius hybrids. And new compact and subcompact cars are arriving in auto showrooms that get more than 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

'No one ever said we were going to change over from gasoline to electric-powered vehicles overnight,' Beard says.

Conventional economy cars

Toyota officials introduced the new Prius v to automotive journalists in late May. Like the existing Prius, it uses both an electric motor and a gasoline-powered engine to average nearly 50 miles per gallon. The 'v' stands for 'versatility,' a reference to the much greater cargo space in the van-like rear end. It is the first of several new Prius models that will be introduced in coming years, including the small and sportier C subcompact.

Toyota officials repeatedly used terms like 'dependability' and 'proven technology' to stress that there is nothing experimental about the Prius models. The first Prius was introduced more than 14 years ago. Two million of them are still on the road.

'They all use the same hybrid system,' said Ed LaRocque, the company's national marketing manager for advanced technology vehicles.

At the same time, Toyota is working with PSU to develop a Prius that can run on pure electricity before switching to its hybrid system. PSU is testing a fleet of 10 plug-in Prius hybrids that can go up to 12 miles on battery power. Then they drive like a conventional Prius, until the batteries are plugged in and completely recharged. Company officials believe the plug-in Prius will appeal to people who only commute short distances. They plan to introduce it in early 2012.

The concept is different than the Volt, which is also a plug-in car. When the battery is fully charged, the Volt can travel up to 40 miles on electricity. Then an onboard gasoline-powered generator kicks on, providing electricity to the motor that drives the wheels. Like the plug-in Prius, the Volt's range is unlimited between charges, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only rates the gasoline-powered phase at 37 miles per gallon.

Because their technologies are so new, the Leaf and Volt both cost thousands of dollars more than equivalent gasoline-powered cars, even with up to $9,000 in available federal and state tax credits. The Leaf starts at about $32,000, while the Volt begins at about $40,000. This helps explain why, based on cost and EPA estimates, even the most committed environmentalists might consider the newest conventional economy cars.

For example, the new compact Chevy Cruze starts at about $16,000 and averages more than 30 miles per gallon. The slightly more expensive ECO version averages about 35 miles per gallon.

The new subcompact Ford Fiesta starts at about $13,000 and averages more than 33 miles per gallon. The new compact Ford Focus begins at about $15,000 and averages about 30 miles per gallon. The new subcompact Hyundai Accent starts at about $11,000 and averages more than 31 miles per gallon.

And the compact Hyundai Elantra starts at about $14,000 and averages more than 34 miles per gallon.

Consumers are responding. Nearly one in four of the vehicles sold in April was a subcompact or compact, compared to one in eight a decade ago.

Range anxiety

Despite that, for those committed to reducing their use of carbon fuels as much as possible, all-electric vehicles are the best alternative, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where so much electric power is already generated by water and the wind.

That is why public charging stations are so important. Beard and others believe that in addition to their higher price, the greatest obstacle to the proliferation of all-electric vehicles is range anxiety - the fear of running out of power on a trip.

The Leaf can be recharged at any standard 110-volt electric outlet. The problem is, it can take eight or more hours to fully recharge the batteries that way. A 240-volt outlet can do the job in half the time. A 480-volt charger can take the Leaf's batteries from 20 percent to 80 percent capacity in just 30 minutes.

Beard and other EV advocates believe that 240- and 480-volt charging stations must be readily available to make all-electric vehicles a realistic option outside of the urban core. ECOtality already has installed more than 1,000 240-watt charging stations in the homes of Leaf owners, including 170 in the Portland area.

Now the push is on to install the public ones. A handful already exist. As of June 1, ECOtality was in discussions with 235 public and private property owners to install about 1,100 more by the end of the year in Oregon.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Transportation also announced that it has chosen AeroVironment to install eight charging stations between Eugene and the California border by the end of the year at a cost of $700,000. Such chargers are planned for the coast, the Cascades and the Columbia Gorge in 2012.

Nissan says it has sold 2,167 Leafs in America, with the largest number - 1,142 - just last month. Only a handful have been delivered in the Portland area. That number is expected to grow, however, meaning more and more owners will be expecting federal and state officials to keep their promise of a charging system network along the major transportation corridors.