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Recharging electric cars no big deal

When it comes to electric vehicles, Dennis Harkema is a true believer. Harkema lives in Estacada and owns Secret Gardens Plant Services, a company that sells plants to businesses and cares for them throughout Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington. Harkema can drive 200 or more miles a day, and he does it in an all-electric Nissan Leaf.

“It can carry all the plants and supplies I need and it doesn’t use any gas at all,” Harkema says.

His last car, a Dodge pickup, cost him about $2,500 a month, including gas at about eight miles per gallon. The Leaf is saving him around $1,500 a month, even with monthly payments and insurance.

“The savings really work for me, but the most important thing is the environmental benefits. I’m 60. I grew up during the hippie era and I’ve always been very conscious of saving the planet.”

And with the Portland area’s fast-growing network of public charging stations, Harkema has ample opportunities to recharge his battery on the road.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Dennis Harkema is saving $1,000 a month since he switched to a Nissan Leaf for his plant business. “The charging infrastructure is really falling into place,” Harkema says.

The Leaf and most other EVs have onboard navigation systems that include the locations of nearby charging stations. Online maps also are available, such as at www.plugshare.com.

Lower gas prices are crimping demand for EVs. But the other major concern of would-be EV buyers — range anxiety, the fear they’ll get stranded with a battery out of juice — is fading fast. Oregon now boasts more than 700 public charging stations, with 277 in the Portland metropolitan area.

It’s also getting easier to find EVs for sale or rent in the Portland area.

Car2Go, a short-term car rental company, has added 30 all-electric Mercedes-made SmartForTwo cars to its Portland-area fleet. Members can now drive an EV whenever they want without having to buy one.

Manufacturers also are introducing new EVs in Oregon well ahead of other states. Two of the newest models include all-electric versions of the Chevy Spark and Honda Fit subcompacts. California is the only other state where they are available.

Perhaps the biggest news is the recent completion of Oregon’s portion of the West Coast Electric Highway. Portland General Electric recently announced it’s now possible to reliably drive an all-electric vehicle from the Washington border to the California border using Quick Charge stations installed by PGE, which allow motorists to recharge at strategic locations in 30 minutes or less.

“The West Coast Electric Highway is open for business,” says Stan Sittser, project manager of PGE’s transportation electrification programs. The most recent stations were installed at a Burgerville in Southeast Portland and an Elmer’s restaurant in Woodburn through the company’s Oregon EV Highway Pilot program.

The project, first announced several years ago, is intended to make it possible to reliably drive an EV along I-5 from British Columbia to the Mexican border. Quick Chargers at strategic locations will allow properly-equipped cars to be recharged in far less time than the 12 hours needed for lower-powered Level 2 chargers.

Although EVs are still only a small share of all vehicles on the road, they are rolling up a significant number of miles. Most Leafs and Volts are enrolled in a monitoring program conducted by Ecotality, the company that won the U.S. government contract several years ago to lead the public battery-charging infrastructure efforts. The company is also tracking the SmartForTwo EVs in Portland’s Car2Go fleet.

The 556 Oregon EVs registered with Ecotality logged 1.2 million miles in the third quarter of 2012 — a 40 percent increase over the second quarter. Ecotality is finding that the longer a person drives an EV, the greater distances they go between charges. In other words, the company says, range anxiety diminishes as drivers grow more confident about how far their EV will travel and the possibility of finding charging stations when needed.

The company also found that Chevy Volt drivers are becoming obsessed with using their car’s electric battery mode as much as possible, to limit use of their on-board gas-powered generators and thus save on gasoline purchases.

They have a new term for that: “gas anxiety.”