Friday, September 30, 2011

Electric vehicles hit the road

By Eli Levitt and Johanna Ofner, Climate Policy Group

Thanks to a federal grant from the Department of Energy, Ecology recently installed an electric vehicle charging station at our Lacey Headquarters. If you’ve visited our facility, you might have noticed some rather unusual vehicles parked in front of it.

Have you seen the brand new Nissan Leaf? How about the yellow Volkswagen Plugbug? Or the green Nissan pickup truck with yellow lightning on the side?

What do these cars have in common? None of them have a gas tank and all three are owned by Ecology employees living in the Olympia area. All three cars run on electricity and emit no carbon dioxide or smog pollution during operation.

Rising tide in demand for electric cars

Just five years ago, the American public wondered Who Killed the Electric Car? The tables are turning and today the question for consumers looking to save energy and money on gas is "How do I get an electric car?"

We’ve noticed a rising tide of interest in and demand for electric vehicles. So we talked to Alex and Carl, two Ecology employees who recently went 100 percent electric. Alex is leasing a beautiful blue and very quiet Nissan Leaf. He got the keys this summer and is extremely satisfied with his new ride.

Carl and his wife retrofitted a light yellow 1974 VW Bug a few years ago. He enjoys testing his skills to keep their electric car cruising local streets. His self-described “Plugbug” is a fun ride with a much quieter and cleaner electric engine (trust me, the old VW bugs with gas engines sound like a jet engine compared to his car).

Say goodbye to the gas pump!

Alex used to drive a Geo Metro that got 47 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway and about 27 mpg in town. He sat down and decided to find a car that would use less energy and get better mileage. The Leaf has a range of 100 miles and gets 99 mpg-equivalent per mile according to – which is probably the lowest carbon emissions rate of any new vehicle on the market.

He did his homework – Alex carefully calculated that 90 percent of his trips are within about 80 miles of his home. So an electric car made sense to him: “I wanted to disconnect from gas entirely. And I was surprised to discover that demand for this type of car is very high in different cities throughout the country.”

Alex estimates that he saves about $100 dollars per month by switching from gasoline to electricity. This reflects not only his savings in fuel (he hasn’t bought any gas since getting his Leaf!) but savings on service, oil and other costs associated with a gas engine. The electric engine doesn’t use oil and his first scheduled service with the Leaf is to have the tires rotated at 7,500 miles! His carbon footprint from driving alone has declined as well. Alex took advantage of tax credits and other incentives to get a home charging station installed and to reduce the sticker price of the Leaf from $35,000 to about $27,000. He’s so happy with his electric car that he plans to keep it for many years to come.

Retro is in!

Carl, in contrast, built his electric car from a kit. He bought a classic VW bug and installed a pre-built electric engine and battery system. His total expenditures were around $11,500 (not including his time spent on installation and maintenance since this is a hobby for him). With a new charger and lithium-ion batteries, he hopes the vehicle will have a range of about 40 miles or more. Carl is very happy with his decision to retrofit: ”Not only are we saving emissions, we’re saving a car from being demolished and we’re making other people aware that it’s something they can do, too.”

Charging up on the Green Highway

In the future, we hope you’ll see many people driving electric vehicles on our local roads and highways. This year, Washington is investing in the infrastructure needed to support electric cars on Interstate 5 from the border with British Columbia to the Columbia River (West Coast Green Highway) and along US Highway 2. As thousands of drivers hit the roads in electric vehicles in our state, we hope you’ll notice these green vehicles and appreciate their contribution to cleaner air and reduced carbon pollution.

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