ELECTRIC VEHICLES:

Geeks, 'early adopters' turn Calif. into test track for plug-ins

DEL MAR, Calif. -- Malcolm Hebert backs his red Nissan Leaf out of the driveway of his home and heads down a hill toward the Pacific Ocean. Navigating streets in his beach neighborhood, Hebert passes gasoline stations where premium fuel costs $4.49 a gallon.

Hebert calculates his savings driving the Leaf. His wife commutes in a Volvo that uses top-grade gas and gets about 20 miles per gallon.

"Instead of spending $9 a day" on the Volvo, he said, electricity to recharge the Leaf each night "is about $1.20.

"I was in the gas lines in 1973," Hebert added, referring to the OPEC oil embargo in that year. "I didn't like it. I wanted an alternate means of transportation."

Hebert, an electrical engineer at utility San Diego Gas & Electric Co., this spring joined a group of early adopters who have purchased electric vehicles. Living in California, he is also at the center of what is seen as a prime market for launching both the cars and the electric vehicle infrastructure.

San Diego, Los Angeles and the San Francisco-Silicon Valley areas are among the top spots for efforts to move drivers to vehicles that don't use fossil fuels or use only small amounts of gasoline. Infrastructure gradually is being rolled out in those regions.

In an effort called the EV Project, ECOtality North America is installing 14,000 residential and commercial charging stations in Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Washington state and Washington, D.C. Those are expected to serve about 8,300 electric cars.

Funding for the project included $114.8 million from the 2009 federal stimulus law and matching money from ECOtality. The current total of the venture is $230 million with Nissan North America and General Motors Co., maker of the Chevrolet Volt, also participating.

State money also fuels the rollout. California's Bay Area Air Quality Management District in February awarded $3.9 million in grants to ECOtality, Coulomb Technologies of Campbell, Calif., Auburn, Calif.-based Clipper Creek and AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif. The money will fund installation of an electric car charging network in the region.

How quickly electric cars can merge into the mainstream is open to debate, however.

The current economics of the electric car are unattractive, said Peter Huber, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

"Today's electric vehicles are a huge battery with a tiny car wrapped around it," Huber said, with those batteries costing about $10,000 each. "Batteries are very expensive," Huber added. "They're basically killer expensive."

While President Obama has said that he wants 1 million electric cars in use by 2015, that will run $10 million for the batteries alone and "somebody pays that," Huber said.

It will be years before electric cars make up more than a sliver of the country's vehicle fleet, predicted Phillip Gott, managing director at IHS Automotive Consulting. States where electric vehicles and infrastructure are arriving will serve as a test of how the cars perform in real-world conditions.

"Early adopters are going to buy them and they're going to love them," Gott said. Other drivers, he said, "They're going to take a pass.

"It requires a mindset change on the part of the consumer," Gott added. "The seeds for that are planted now."

California is a major farmland for those seeds. To some it seems counterintuitive to sell cars with limited range to drivers who are known to love their cars, travel long distances and sit in traffic. The Nissan Leaf travels about 60 to 100 miles on one charge, depending on driving conditions.

But those in the electric car business believe that the personality and environmental ethic of many Californians fits with electric vehicles.

"The consumer desire for electric vehicles is high," said Andy Hoskinson, San Diego area manager for ECOtality North America. "That's evidenced by San Diegans' appreciation for the environment, the environment that they live in here."

The area boasts something else that is important for the battery-operated cars: good weather. Electric cars perform best in temperate climates, Hoskinson said. Running the heat or air conditioning sucks juice from the battery, paring how many miles can be driven on a charge. San Diego's winter temperatures rarely dip beneath 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night, while daytime temperatures in the hottest months rarely hit above 80 degrees.

"The climate, it's not something that you can replicate," Hoskinson said.

Nissan Leaf owner Victor Kruger, 57, of San Diego, previously lived in Minnesota. He said he told his daughter there to not even consider buying an electric vehicle.

"The heating is a very big burden on the car," Kruger said. "If you're in Minnesota and it's 10 below," and you're driving on the highway, you might only get 50 miles per charge, he said, adding, "It wouldn't be quite as useful as in California."

Limited range

The Leaf costs about $33,000, but the early buyers received big tax breaks: $7,500 from the federal government and in California a $5,000 incentive.

"I would have purchased it without the rebate," said Kruger, a transmission engineer at SDG&E. "I really wanted one."

Those who bought from the first batch of the cars acted quickly. Hebert, whose car bears the license plate "Leaf Me," was one of several people at SDG&E who managed to secure the vehicle. They signed up with Nissan and then waited for the email that would allow them to put their name on a list.

The car is hardly a luxury vehicle, several owners said. The sound system is terrible, they said, the carpet quickly started balling up and some of the screws are not tight.

But for Hebert, a self-described geek, it is close to the dream vehicle.

"I'm in heaven," he said.

While many electric vehicle owners reported loving their cars, for most it is not the sole source of transportation. Several people interviewed said that they have two cars in their household, with a spouse driving the other one.

Most have relatively short daily commutes. Kruger's is 12 miles each way.

"If I have to go to Orange County," about 100 miles north, Kruger said, "I take the gas-powered car."

Nissan early on cited the range of the car as about 100 miles on one charge. But Hebert and others said that real-world driving cuts a chunk from that number.

After buying the car and reading the manual, Hebert discovered that to best extend battery life, recharges should be to 80 percent of capacity.

"They don't tell you that up front," Hebert said. "So it's obvious, Nissan's selling this car as 100 miles. They're going, you can drive this car 100 miles between charges. That's their sales pitch.

"But not if you drive on the freeway," Hebert added. "If you want to drive fast, you gotta pay."

As he pulls on to the freeway during a recent drive, Hebert hit 73 miles an hour but then slowed to about 68 mph, the maximum he said he drives on a highway. Anything faster will drain the battery too quickly, he said.

Even limiting his speed, Hebert, said, he can only go 58 freeway miles on one plug-in when charging his car to 80 percent .

Many factors affect how many miles the Leaf can go on one charge, including driving speed, traffic and whether the air conditioning is used, said Tim Gallagher, a Nissan spokesman.

The range can be anywhere from 60 to 70 miles driving very fast for extended time to 120 miles at moderate city or highway speeds, Gallagher said in an email.

Hebert has learned the Leaf's limited range. One day he went out to lunch while at work, took a different route back and used 20 extra miles. He drove home that night with the heater off to conserve power. When he pulled into his driveway, the car had less than 5 miles of power left, he said.

"I made it home so it was fine," Hebert said, but the drive home "was hairy."

Charging up

The limited range of electric cars makes access to chargers important, some analysts said. While "the pace of charging station installation is accelerating," IHS Automotive analyst Aaron Bragman wrote in a report last month, "to date, there are still only a relative handful available and only in select geographies."

There are three ways to power the electric cars. The regular home outlet will work, but at 110 volts will take 20 hours or more to repower a Leaf. The majority of the chargers in the homes and public places are what is called a level two, which are 240 volts. There also is a level three or rapid charger that hits 480 volts.

The 8,300 electric car owners in the EV Project received a $1,500level two ECOtality charger and $1,200 worth of installation at their home. That allows drivers to get a full charge in about four or five hours, with many opting to re-power overnight when rates are lowest.

Installation of public chargers also is under way. In San Diego, ECOtality last month put 10 power stations in Balboa Park, a popular area that features museums and theaters and sits adjacent to the San Diego Municipal Gym. In addition ECOtality put a charger at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, a resort with golf and restaurants. Others are planned for a number of Macy's retail stores in San Diego.

In San Francisco and surrounding counties, ECOtality through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District grant will install 1,500 residential and 20 rapid chargers. Other companies that are part of that grant also plan to put chargers in public areas.

Those charging stations are meant to make it possible for people to drive longer distances in a day. But some are skeptical that the public stations will make much difference.

A level three charger can repower a Nissan Leaf in about 30 minutes. ECOtality has plans to place a few of those in strategic locations, including along freeway corridors. But Gott, with IHS, said many drivers might not see the speed of those chargers as very rapid.

"I said who's kidding who," Gott said. "That's not a fast charge." With a gas vehicle, Gott said, he "can add about a 60 mile range "in five minutes."

Moreover, Gott said, studies of the public charging stations in other countries with electric vehicles show that they are rarely used. But in places where there are public chargers, he said, people with electric cars tend to drive their vehicles farther on one charge.

"The charging infrastructure is a psychological crutch," Gott said. "It is necessary to have it to support the use of electric vehicles."

For the most part, Gott said, "the true focus of recharging the vehicles still needs to be at home for the 60 million people who have a garage and at work for those who don't."

Hebert, who drives his Leaf mostly to work and for an occasional errand, said that the existence of public chargers wasn't a factor in deciding to buy the car.

"When I bought this car," Hebert said, "I said I had to be able to charge out of my garage."

If rapid chargers were in convenient areas, he said, "am I going to take a chance and drive to my cousin's house in Redondo Beach (about 100 miles north)? Maybe, just for fun."

A few people have the option of re-charging electric vehicles at the office. Google Inc. last month said it was adding 71 new electric vehicle chargers to its Mountain View, Calif., campus, bringing the total number of chargers available there for employees to more than 200, with another 250 on the way (E&ENews PM, June 9).

The company has said that it wants to electrify 5 percent of its parking garage for workers who commute with plug-in EVs and plug-in hybrids.

"Our expanded charging system has already helped several [employees] decide to buy new EVs of their own, and we hope others will, too," the company said in a blog post the day of the announcement.

Grid woes?

Some experts contend there is a challenge to widespread adoption of the cars because they could be taxing on the electrical grid.

The rapid chargers require "a special plug and a special charging station, one which is currently beyond the capacity for many regional utilities -- 480V power is more likely to be found in industrial areas, not residential communities, and the chargers themselves are extremely expensive (tens of thousands of dollars)," Bragman of IHS Automotive wrote last month.

In addition, IHS Automotive said, "there is also no global standard for Level 3 charging plugs," with U.S. automakers favoring one type and Japanese automakers pursuing a proprietary plug.

There are questions as well about whether rapid chargers will shorten electric cars' battery life, several people said. The rapid charge produces more heat, Hebert said.

"Nobody knows how long these batteries are going to last," Hebert said.

There are challenges in adding cars to urban areas, analysts said, where many people do not have garages to put a level two charger.

San Diego resident Victor Bianchini, a retired judge, lives in a condominium complex and recharges his Nissan Leaf via a standard 110 volt outlet and an extension cord. It takes about 22 hours to gain a full charge, he said.

Bianchini, 73, takes mostly short trips. When he drives in traffic, he said, he finds he actually gains battery time. Braking sends energy back to the battery, he said. He doesn't drive the car every day, however, and also owns a gas-fueled vehicle.

Others say what is happening now should be looked at only as a pilot program, where Nissan, ECOtality and others study the habits of electric car drivers. The cars will evolve, the batteries will evolve and the charging station will change, said Larry Makovich with IHS CERA.

"What happens now has no bearing on what future will look like," Makovich said, comparing the current electric vehicles to cell phones in 1985.

Battery swaps?

Another company wants to make inroads in the electric vehicle infrastructure business, but with a different model than the businesses selling charging stations. Palo Alto, Calif.-based company Better Place is testing a system where car batteries would be replaced instead of recharged.

"We're trying to make the cost of an electric mile cheaper than the cost of a gas mile," said Joe Paluska, vice president of global affairs and public policy for Better Place.

Drivers could use chargers at home and work, he said, but for the longer drive would stop at battery switching stations. In about five minutes, Paluska said, workers would pull out the depleted battery and replace it with a fresh one.

The company will run tests in California and Hawaii. In San Francisco and San Jose, using a $7 million grant from the state's Metropolitan Transit Commission, the program will use electric taxis with replaceable batteries. That test is scheduled to start in early 2012 and will increase in size over two years.

The Better Place system at the end of this year goes live in Israel with 50 battery switching stations and in Denmark with 15 battery swapping spots and 1,000 charging locations. In those countries the electric cars will be from Renault Fluence Z.E., selling for €23,000 without a battery.

In the Better Place model, the company takes ownership of the batteries and drivers buy packages of battery replacements. A four-year contract with unlimited miles runs €399, Paluska said. The lowest priced package is €199 and covers 15,000 kilometers per year.

But in Denmark where gasoline is the equivalent of about $8 a gallon, and where gasoline cars are heavily taxed, Better Place is hoping their model will seem like a bargain.

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