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Despite sputters, many see spark in EV market

PCC students, others hope to drive future of transportation


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland Community College automotive student Jason Miller checks out the inside of a Think City electric car at the National Alternative Fuel Vehicle Day Odyssey at PCC. 
Electric vehicles, those cars of the future, have taken a beating in the press in recent weeks.

The recent failure of A123 Systems, a Waltham, Mass., EV battery maker, spurred a wave of critical articles and columns. The company declared bankruptcy after receiving a $249 million federal grant to help build three manufacturing plants.

The Detroit News and Wall Street Journal published pieces on the same day that practically called EVs a failed experiment. They both said consumers are reluctant to buy EVs because of their higher prices and driving range limits between charges.

“Despite high gas prices, established automakers and start-ups are struggling to convince Americans to buy the cars. In Washington, the political consensus in favor of electric vehicles has evaporated,” the Detroit News reported on Oct. 18.

“More than any single failure, the larger lesson here is the eternal one about the folly of government industrial policy,” the Wall Street Journal opined.

ReVolt Technology, a Swiss EV manufacturer with a Portland plant, also declared bankruptcy after receiving nearly $12 million in federal, state and city funds, adding to the gloom.

But things didn’t look nearly that bad on Oct. 19 at Portland Community College’s Sylvania campus. For five hours, hundreds of people crowded into PCC’s Automotive/Metals building for a forum and trade show on electric vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles. Many were students enrolled in PCC’s automotive services program, where they are learning how to maintain and repair EVs along with conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

“We’re all planning to work in shops or own them, and we need to know how to work on EVs and hybrids,” said student Daniel Steele, who has one more term to complete before earning a PCC diploma.

First-term student Nick Prater said he and the other students are researching how to recondition and rebuild EV battery packs when they reach the end of their life spans — something that could save thousands of dollars in replacement costs.

“We’re just beginning to figure out how to do it,” said Prater.

The event featured a number of the newest alternative fuel vehicles, including the all-electric Nissan Leaf, the extended range electric Chevy Volt and the hybrid Ford C-Max, which will be offered as a plug-in hybrid next year.

It was also attended by automobile dealers and representatives of Clean Cities, a public-private partnership started by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1993 to reduce petroleum consumption.

Rick Wallace, a Clean Cities spokesman who works for the Oregon Department of Energy, called the reported demise of EVs premature, saying all-electric and plug-in hybrids are still in the early stages of development.

“They said the same things about hybrids 10 years ago — that they are too expensive and too complicated for anyone to want them. But twice as many EVs were sold this year than hybrids when they were first introduced,” said Wallace.

Think little cars

Price is still a stumbling block for many buyers, however. EVs cost thousands more than equivalent gasoline-powered cars because of their higher development costs and smaller productions runs.

But one vehicle at the PCC event showed demand could skyrocket if prices fall. The Think City, a small two-seater all-electric car that was manufactured by Think Global in Norway, can travel about 100 miles on a full charge. The company went bankrupt in 2011 and had to liquidate its assets, which included hundreds of cars being assembled in Indiana in various stages of completion.

The cars were originally priced at around $36,000, which was unreasonably high for such a small vehicle. But after the company declared bankruptcy, the Oregon Department of Energy worked with courts to sell the vehicles for $16,000.

After deducting a $7,500 federal tax credit, the price dropped to just $8,500, making them cheaper than almost any other car on the market.

Think City owner Joe Mayer, a PGE employee who brought his car to the PCC event, has helped round up potential buyers. According to Mayer, about 110 Oregonians have bought the bargain-priced cars. Demand has been so great, in fact, that unfinished vehicles have been shipped over from Europe, completed in California, and trucked up to their new owners in Oregon.

“Everyone is happy with them,” says Mayer.

On the rise

The PCC event was one of more than 60 similar gatherings across the country co-sponsored by Clean Cities and the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium. Started in 2008 and called Odyssey Day, it was intended to promote petroleum-free transportation choices. The PCC event was one of the few to take place at a training facility for EV and hybrid technicians — both future ones and those looking to maintain their certifications.

“PCC has had automotive classes since 1968, but around four years ago the college realized that hybrids were going to be a small but significant percent of the cars being serviced. That’s when we developed a curriculum for them. All-electric vehicles aren’t all that different because they also have electric motors and battery packs,” said Russ Jones, instructor and chairman of PCC’s automotive services department, who also attended the event.

ECOtality Vice President of Corporate Development Colin Read agrees. ECOtality is the company that won a U.S. Department of Energy grant to help install a network of public electric charging stations across the country. The company also collects and analyzes data sent electronically from the stations that shows how they are being used. ECOtality recently recorded its 1 millionth charging event. The cars it is monitoring have traveled more than 42 million miles.

“EVs are not going away. In fact, EV sales are on the rise. Fifty-thousand EVs are expected to be sold in this country this year, as many as have been sold up until this year,” Read said during a telephone interview.

Read believes that word of mouth is an important factor in the sales growth. His company’s data shows that the longer people own an EV, the farther they drive it between charges. In Oregon in the first quarter of this year, EV drivers averaged 22.4 miles between charges. The distance increased to 22.6 miles in the second quarter and is on track to jump to 27 miles in the third quarter, Read said.

“Range anxiety is something people have before they buy an EV,” he said. “Once they own one, they get more and more confident that it can meet their daily needs.”