Mid-Columbia drivers charged up about benefits of electric cars

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 7, 2013 

Electric Car Owner

Madeleine Brown loves her electric car. "I don't have to buy gas, I don't need oil, I just have to plug it in every three days" she said. "It's perfect for around the town" she added. Brown drives a 2011 Nissan Leaf.

RICHARD DICKIN — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

The only expense that's gone up since Madeleine Brown of Richland bought an electric car in 2011 is car washes, she said.

It costs about a penny a mile for the electricity to drive it, and maintenance costs have been nonexistent, she said. But she washes it more frequently than her previous car because of pride of ownership.

She owns one of 135 electric vehicles registered in Benton County, according to the Mid-Columbia Electric Vehicle Association. Eleven are registered in Franklin County. That's 24 more than were registered in both counties at the first of the year.

Now is a good time to consider buying an electric car, said Michael Kintner-Meyer, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory employee.

A battery-only electric vehicle that can travel up to about 100 miles on a charge, such as a Nissan Leaf, has a lower overall cost of ownership than cars powered by gasoline, diesel, biodiesel or a combination of electricity and gasoline when a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for electrical vehicles is factored in, according to a study by Pike Research cited by Kintner-Meyer.

Costs covered in the study included purchase price -- which often is substantially higher than combustion-engine cars -- plus maintenance, fuel and resale value for a car driven 120,000 miles.

Not included in the Pike Research study is the benefit of buying an electric car in Washington. The state has exempted new all-electric car purchases from sales taxes through July 2015.

More important for some buyers are the benefits Kintner-Meyer said they offer to the environment, national security and the electric grid.

'Range anxiety' for owners

The trade-off is range -- the distance the cars can drive on a single charge.

About half of the time daily driving is less than 25 miles, and 80 percent of the time it is less than 50 miles, Kintner-Meyer said.

But electric vehicle drivers do report some cases of "range anxiety."

Garrett Brown, who works at PNNL, said realistically his Nissan Leaf can be driven 72 to 75 miles before recharging.

He tested whether it could go a full 100 miles on a drive to Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, but got nervous and turned around before he got there, he said.

Meters in electric cars show how many miles are left on a charge but they are really "guess-o-meters," he joked.

Brown has driven his Leaf to Kirkland from the Tri-Cities, but it took some planning and 16 hours, most of it spent charging his car along the way, he said. He later figured he overcharged and could have reduced the time by about four hours.

The trip had some other hiccups, despite his careful planning.

He had arranged in advance through the George Chamber of Commerce to charge the car at a business there. But winds that reduced the miles he could travel between charges had him asking for a charge at a coffee shop in Schwana before he got there, he said. Then a quick-charge station in Wenatchee was not operating.

There are charging stations available to the public in Washington, mostly on the West side, but owners showing off all-electric cars at a recent event put on by the national lab and the local electrical vehicle association said it's most practical to own one of the cars if you have a second car for longer trips or rent one occasionally.

A charge requires about eight to 12 hours on a 120-volt outlet, or one to three hours if a 240-volt outlet is installed for an all-electric vehicle with a range of up to 100 miles.

That's what Bill Peterson of Benton City has.

He bought a Nissan Leaf for the frequent trips he and his wife make to the Tri-Cities. He figured he spent $400 a month on gas for their Honda Pilot and Dodge pickup before he bought the Leaf. Now he spends about $40 a month for gas, with the rest of his transportation energy coming from the solar panels at his farm that provide electricity for the Leaf and other needs.

Electric motors perform better than gasoline motors, another plus for buying an electric car, Kintner-Meyer said. They have the highest torque right out of a standstill.

"You can burn tires," he said.

Performance is one of the reasons Mel Hatcher of Kennewick bought his all-electric Tesla Model S in February.

"Everybody ought to own one," he said.

He drove Audis for more than a decade and rates their handling on the road as better than the Tesla.

But for raw power and speed, the Tesla compares to a 1960s-era muscle car, he said. It can go from zero to 60 in 4.2 seconds and is smooth, quiet and comfortable.

But the practical advantage of the Tesla is its substantially longer range than other all-electric cars, traveling as many as 265 miles between charges.

He frequently drives it to Seattle to visit relatives. But he still has to watch his speed on the drive, keeping his cruise control at about 64 mph rather than 70 to arrive with about 30 miles left on his charge, he said.

In the Seattle area he recharges for the drive home, often at charging stations at a Tesla dealership or a Walgreens.

Paying a premium

The long range and power of a Tesla come at a steep price.

A Tesla, after the federal tax credit, costs $62,400 to $72,400, according to consumer information from the Sierra Club. An all-electric Nissan Leaf costs $21,300 to $27,340 after the tax credit, and the Ford Focus EV costs about $32,495 after the credit.

The all-electric Smart car, which has space for just two people, costs less at about $18,250 after the tax credit, but it also has a little shorter range than the larger all-electric models offered by Ford or Nissan.

If you want to buy a Tesla, you'll need to look to the Seattle area or Portland, but at least three all-electric cars are sold or leased in the Tri-Cities or at dealerships in smaller Mid-Columbia towns.

Nissan Leafs and Ford Focus EVs are available now in the Tri-Cities, and Leskovar Mitsubishi plans to start stocking an all-electric Mitsubishi compact for the first time in a few weeks.

Other companies make all-electric vehicles but they can be more difficult, or even impossible to come by, in the Mid-Columbia.

Honda offers the Fit EV, but only for lease and only in California and Oregon in the West, according to the Sierra Club. Fiat recently began making an all-electric compact, but it is available only in California.

Kintner-Meyer said at least nine electric or hybrid electric vehicles now are available, including a Brammo Enertia motorcycle he has seen on the PNNL campus. Four more vehicles, including models from BMW and Volkswagen, should be available by at least 2015 or already are sold elsewhere in the United States, he said.

Chevrolet Volts also have been popular in the Tri-Cities, according to members of the local electric vehicle association. It is a hybrid model that can travel about 30 to 40 miles on a charge -- good for getting just about everywhere in the Tri-Cities -- before switching to a gasoline-powered engine, Brown said.

Over time, the range of electric cars declines as the battery ages.

Brown said it's not clear how long a battery on a Nissan Leaf, for example, will last or what the replacement cost will be. However, a Leaf driven on a daily commute from Kent to Shelton still has 80 percent of its battery power after 90,000 miles, he said.

He anticipates driving his Leaf for 20 to 30 years at a rate of about 7,000 miles a year. He expects it to still get 50 miles on a charge then, enough for trips from north Richland to Kennewick, he said.

But Peterson has hedged his bet, choosing to lease rather than buy the Leaf he drives because he was concerned about battery aging.

'People will do the right thing'

A key part of Hatcher's decision to buy a Tesla was its environmental benefits.

Once more infrastructure is in place, "people will do the right thing" and buy zero-emissions electric cars, he said.

Of course, producing the power for electric cars may produce greenhouse gases. But converting to electric cars still would be better for the environment, reducing greenhouse gases by 27 percent, despite a reliance on coal to produce electricity, Kintner-Meyer said. And emissions from smokestacks rather than tailpipes are cheaper to clean up.

In the Northwest, driving an electric car is particularly good for the environment, given that much of the electricity comes from hydropower, a renewable resource, Hatcher said.

Electric cars also can benefit national security, diversifying the "fuel" supply for transportation in the United States, Kintner-Meyer said.

"There won't be any single fuel that could impact significantly the U.S. transportation needs as does crude oil today," he said.

The idle capacity of the electric grid could supply 73 percent of the needs of today's cars, pickups and vans without added generation capacity, he said, if changes were made in the management of the grid.

PNNL has developed technology that would allow vehicles to be charged when electricity is most available and possibly less expensive by continuously monitoring the grid and varying the charging rate in response. The majority of charging for electric cars would be done at night when other demand for electricity is low.

The Mid-Columbia Electric Vehicle Association plans to observe National Plug In Day with a Tri-City event the afternoon of Sept. 29, but details have yet to be announced. To contact the Mid-Columbia Electric Vehicle Association, email Brown at MCEVAGarrett@yahoo.com.

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