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Seattle’s electric vehicle paradox

Seattle is among the nation’s hottest places for electric or hybrid vehicles, but is this really the right time to own an all-electric car?

By Skip Ferderber

December 04, 2012.

If you live in the greater Seattle area and own an all-electric or hybrid car, congratulations! 

You’re part of the vanguard that has made Washington among the Top Ten states in the nation during 2012 for gas-saving (or gas-eliminating), environmentally friendly vehicles.

Washington has taken to the new-generation cars like the proverbial duck to water. The reasons are many: a tech-savvy, environmentally-aware population, a relatively affluent population, and strong efforts by both public and private interests to make the all-but-inevitable transition relatively painless. 

Perhaps you’re getting ready to make the plunge. If so, what should you consider when you’re thinking about having one of those shiny new toys parked in your driveway — if, in fact, you even have a driveway? And if so, which of the many new technologies — plug-in all-electric vehicles (EVs), electric/gas hybrids or some other variation — should you buy?

According to a recent report  by the respected Edmunds.com automotive website, 5.7 percent of all EVs and 3.1 percent of hybrids sold nationally have been purchased in Washington.

Roughly 43 all-electric, plug-in hybrids and diesel-powered vehicles will have U.S. introductions through 2015. (Edmunds’ overview of current and future vehicles is here.)

That’s the good news. But to Seattleites still wedded to the relative simplicity of gas-powered vehicles, the learning curve for understanding the technology of today’s new EVs and hybrids is steep. And then there’s sticker-shock.

According to Dan Davids, president of the nonprofit PlugIn America  consumer group, today's forward-thinking cars fit into four categories;

(Please note these are “Cliff Notes” descriptions; virtually every major car manufacturer is developing new combinations of these technologies.)

“On the surface,” said Davids, "the learning curve may appear to be steep, but once you actually drive one of these, you’ll find them easy, simple and enjoyable to live with.”

Of the four categories, all-electric vehicles offer the greatest promise to end our dependence on gas and improve the environment.  At the same time, they remain the most problematic in public acceptance, according to several experts.

Washington is among the nation's better prepared states with both public policies and public-private partnerships in place designed to aid the future of all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles.  

By the end of 2012, electric EV charging stations planned for the tri-state West Coast Electric Highway, stretching from the Canadian border to San Diego along Interstate 5, will be completed throughout Washington and Oregon. Charging station installations along a second “green” highway, U.S. 2 between Sultan and Wenatchee, are also done. Federal funds have been used for both projects.

According to a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) spokesperson, drivers of all-electric vehicles along these highways now have access to Level 2 charging stations roughly every 30 to 40 miles, enabling them to take long drives without “range anxiety”: e.g., the fear of running out of electricity with no place to power up. Level 2 is the de facto 240 volt AC engineering charging standard for virtually all plug-in electric vehicles' full charges, which take four to six hours. (Most electric vehicles use the same electric port on their car to fully charge their EV at home with Level 1 charging: basically 110 volt AC household current.)

In Seattle, the city has installed 66 Level 2 charging stations: roughly two-thirds to power city fleet vehicles, the rest in public garage locations, including Seattle City Hall, Seattle Center, the Downtown Seattle Public Library, and other similar locations. As of late October, noted Sandra Pinto de Bader, of the Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, the city's Department of Public Works had issued an additional 555 charging station permits, of which 142 were for businesses.

Some businesses, such as hospitals, are installing on-site chargers, so that EV-owning health care providers can be sure to have power available for their trips to and from work.

According to Jeff Doyle, state Department of Transportation director of public-private partnerships, the department is playing a major role in promoting these technologies because the state’s highway system produces almost half of its greenhouse gas emissions — and the state Legislature has mandated that WSDOT must both reduce the system’s emissions and control the number of miles that people drive.

If driving miles can’t be reduced, he said, then the miles that people drive must be cleaner miles: thus, the state currently backs electric vehicles and electric fueling stations because it is both market-ready and the least-costly infrastructure to install. “We’re not trying to push people one way or the other,” he said.  “We’re just trying to help the private markets in all types of clean vehicle technology.” Future technologies could include hydrogen, bio-diesel or compressed natural gas.

Not everyone agrees with the state’s highway-centric concept. According to Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com, support for home charging may be a smarter proposition for state expenditures. “I think that is a better place for the government to help out than trying to promote interstate travel because I don’t think the battery range and charge times are there yet,” he said. PlugIn America’s David said research from Nissan indicates that motorists who drive the all-electric Nissan Leaf are only driving 26 miles per day, which may make the large-scale installations of public chargers seem less critical to the success of electrical vehicles.

In addition to helping foster low-mileage driving, the state and its public-private partnerships are trying to smooth out other details: conflicting laws, new signage, appropriate taxes for gas-free vehicles and other issues. The road is still a little rough.

Doyle pointed out the following example. State legislators offer a sales tax exemption on electric cars, but have been less successful in defining the specifications of what constitutes an “electric car.” The Chevy Volt qualifies under federal regulations as a candidate for a  federal tax break: Its large battery makes it an electric car. But since the state defines “electric car” as one powered only by electricity, and the Volt has a small gas engine — even though it only powers the car’s electrical engine — the state offers no tax credit for the Volt.

“This did not put [GM] on an even footing with the full battery electrics, at least in our state tax code,” said Doyle, “even though, at the national level, they recognize it as part of the whole technology you’re trying to incentivize.”

Washington state may also be particularly well-suited to all-electric travel in “fuel” costs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that Washington has the nation’s third lowest average electric rate per kilowatt hour: 6.6 cents, outdone only by Wyoming and Idaho. By contrast, California has 13.01 cents/kWh average and Florida 10.58 cents.

According to Dan Edmunds, that regional power cost advantage may auger well for Washingtonians in considering an all-electric vehicle.  “I think there’s still a lot of potential there where you live,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s a more compelling case because the fuel is really cheap.”

But the practical issues of all-electric car ownership today may well outweigh the pluses.

Range anxiety remains one of the major stumbling blocks to all-electric vehicle ownership. How far will your all-electric car let you drive without needing a fresh charge? Will there be chargers available when I arrive at my destination? How long will the charging take?

A July 2012 Motor Trend article traced the triumphant journey earlier this year of some EV vehicles along U.S. 2 from Seattle over the Cascades to show the feasibility of EV travel over long distances. The article noted, however, that the vehicles used for the trip could utilize Level 3 or DC Fast Charging installations, which can charge vehicles in roughly 30 minutes. By contrast, Level 2 chargers can take four to six hours.

Only two vehicles, the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi I-MiEV, are currently capable of accepting Level 3 charging; both were used on the Motor Trend trip. No other EVs sold worldwide are similarly equipped; all others depend on Level 1 (household current) or Level 2 charging.

The paucity of Level 3 chargers and the cars that can use them may well be dwarfed by another issue: whose Level 3 charging standard will dominate the car industry. In a battle reminiscent of the Betacam-VHS technology wars, the Japanese CHAdeMo fast-charging standard, backed by the Japanese auto industry and currently available, is at odds with the SAE Combo Charger: a new and different standard backed by U.S. and German auto manufacturers, although no cars nor infrastructure are yet available. 

The realities of urban life, in which many people live in multi-family dwellings instead of single-family homes, is another issue for the nascent EV industry. Most early adopters have homes with garages in which to install EV charging stations. The next wave of owners, however, may be “garage orphans”: people living in multifamily dwellings without garages. Sandra Pinto-DeBader of Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment, noted that Seattle has joined 10 other cities in applying for a $50,000 grant to study this issue from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds.com market analyst, called the urban dweller issue a thorny one. “If you think about electric cars in general, the places where they make the most sense, urban dwellings are not necessarily home dwellings in which it’s easy to put a charger on your wall,” she said in a phone interview. “If you live in an apartment or a condo, which most urban people do where this car makes the most sense, it’s a big issue."

The gas-powered EV is the most workable for people who have short distances to drive, and for families who have a second car to provide longer-range transportation, she continued. “The problem with [plug-in] electric vehicles is almost a chicken-and-egg,” she said.  “There’s no infrastructure in place yet. The burden falls on the automotive companies: You’re going to have to set up infrastructure if you want people to buy a car.”

Then there is the price issue. Plug-in electric vehicles are simply more expensive, often in the $40,000-plus range. Even with a federal tax credit — up to $7,500 depending on the size/capacity of the vehicle’s battery — the cost of ownership may be daunting no matter what the environmental tradeoff.

Caldwell said, “You’re paying a price premium over what you would pay for an internal combustion engine. What is really interesting in this whole situation: how far internal combustion engine economy has come. It’s not unusual to see standard [non-EV] cars getting close to 40 miles per gallon because they’ve made so many changes with their engines."

“At current gas prices," Caldwell added, "it doesn’t make sense [to trade up to an EV]. If gas reaches $9 a gallon, perhaps we would be having a different conversation. If you’re buying a new car, that’s one thing. But to trade in your existing car just to get 10 miles per gallon better, that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

Despite the financial and technological issues, what of the new generation of vehicles would the experts buy? Caldwell thinks a hybrid is the better answer than the all-electric EV: “Hybrids will be the winning solution for most people because it is what people are used to on a daily basis . . . People have to get over the hump of plugging in their car.”

Skip Ferderber is a Mukilteo-based journalist given to fits of joy over technology that makes sense. He is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, edited Millimeter magazine in the motion picture and television technology industry, and is a contributing writer for HD Video Pro Magazine. For many years, he owned a PR firm specializing in production technology, and still consults occasionally with industry clients.

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Printed on November 23, 2014