Smart Energy Living - May 2011

Electric Vehicles:
Electric vehicles bolt to starting line

By: Lisa Greim

After being eulogized in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” electric vehicles have risen from the dead. And, like other representatives of the Undead, they may have vengeance on their minds. 

Director Chris Paine’s new film, “Revenge of the Electric Car,’’ premiered this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Paine and crew spent three years exploring the super-secret efforts of General Motors, Nissan and Tesla to develop a marketable electric vehicle.

Edited to make the documentary look like a summer action thriller, the movie trailer features robot welders, bombastic music, engine noise, smoke, lightning and GM exec Bob Lutz recalling, “I got a flood of emails saying, ‘You sold out to the oil companies and you killed my grandchildren. I hope you rot in hell.’ ”

In the real world, things are moving more slowly.

Right now the only EV dealership in Colorado is the Tesla showroom on Pearl Street in Boulder. Electric versions of the Fiat 500, Honda Fit, Mazda 2, Audi R8 and Ford Focus are due to roll out in 2011 and 2012. Electric innovation has also spawned newcomers to the auto industry, including start-up carmakers like Fisker, Think, Wheego and Zap.

Car charging stations are easy to find in metro areas where you can buy a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, including cities in California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. In states like Colorado, one of the items being debated is whether pricey EV infrastructure should lead or follow vehicle sales.

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, data from BMW’s MiniE test program shows that three-quarters of studied EV drivers live within 20 miles of work and that “range anxiety” diminishes as people get to know their vehicles. Most important, two-thirds of respondents said that driving an EV changed the way they thought about energy use in other aspects of their lives.

In Colorado, the best place to recharge your plug-in EV remains your own garage, using a regular 120- or 240-volt outlet. Networks like ChargePoint and Arvada-based GoSmart Technologies are expanding, setting up locations and launching mobile apps that let drivers reserve time and be notified when their EV is charged up and ready to go. There are now public charging stations at Canopy Airport Parking at DIA, the Hyatt Regency at the Colorado Convention Center and the Elements hotel at Park Meadows, plus public buildings, including the University of Colorado, Boulder (on Kittredge Loop by the law school), and Superior City Hall.

Boulder-based Pike Research estimates there will be 1 million charging stations across the country by 2015. Analyst Dave Hurst believes that demand for electricity to power electric cars won’t burden the nation’s power grid, even in EV-heavy places like California.

Energy companies are planning now for more capacity and Smart Grid connectivity to enable EV owners to “gas up” when rates and demand are lowest.  And with rooftop solar arrays growing in popularity and coming down in price, powering a car with your home-grown solar electricity is expected to grow easier.

In April, Gov. John Hickenlooper joined with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to announce new steps to speed up the roll-out of electric vehicles. Chu announced $5 million in new funding for community efforts to deploy electric vehicle infrastructure and charging stations.

Additionally, the officials announced that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden will join with Google and more than 80 stakeholders  to make it easier to find charging stations around the nation. Drawing on Google Maps, this new collaboration will coordinate an online network of all U.S. charging stations and will serve as the primary data source for GPS and mapping services tracking electric vehicle charging locations. The data will be housed at the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center (AFDC)

 “Through this collaboration, key players from the electric vehicle and online mapping industries are coming together to ensure a consistent source of charging station location data that will allow consumers to find every charging station throughout the country,” said NREL Project Manager Witt Sparks.

As Colorado emerges from the recession, Hickenlooper noted that electric vehicles, along with myriad other transportation alternatives, will play an important role in residents’ mobility while protecting their wallets.

Find out more:

If you’re planning a road trip, the U.S. Dept. of Energy offers an alternative fuel finder to lead you to your next fill-up, whether it be an electric charge, compressed natural gas, liquid propane, hydrogen or biofuels.

The Sierra Club’s Go Electric campaign is promoting plug-in electric vehicles and advocating for incentives at the federal, state and local level, ranging from tax credits to HOV lanes for EVs.

Go Electric Drive offers a collection of resources for the EV buyer or converter, including a calculator to estimate how a household’s carbon footprint will shrink once weaned from fossil vehicle fuel.

And Men’s Journal writer Ezra Dyer offers this valedictory, based on driving a candy-apple red Nissan Leaf: “in terms of hushed, silky smoothness, this thing drives like a mini Rolls-Royce. … And since the low-slung battery pack drops the car’s center of gravity, the Leaf is actually fun to hustle on a canyon road.” 

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