Sparking a Plug-In Car Culture

Electricity is in the air as we face a spike at the pumps. But what about the static?

The issue of range anxiety is far from trivial when you might be traveling over 140 miles to get to where you’re going. Sure, you’re saving some 700 gallons of gas per year by opting for a Nissan Leaf, enough fuel to drive across the U.S. 5,000 times in a gas guzzler. But to convince drivers to adopt lithium battery packs over the pumps, we must first ease range anxiety by increasing charging opportunities both at home and in cities attempting to amp up their green infrastructures and technology.

City governments are spurred on by President Obama’s economic stimulus package, setting aside $2 billion in grants for making advanced batteries along with tax credits to cover the manufacturing, as well as $7.5 billion in loans for producing the advanced technology for batteries and vehicles.

The vision of an electrical energy system across the nation promises the creation of hundreds of thousands of new green jobs – along with the irresistible reduction in emissions from foreign fuel – a huge drain on our air quality and economy.

In San Francisco, where road thrill accounts for 50 percent of all emissions, civic leaders are charging ahead to become the EV capital, first installing three vehicle-charging stations – called Smartlets – in front of City Hall in 2009 – and promising 90 stations by the end of 2011.

The first stations were  part of a pilot project to lay the groundwork for a charging infrastructure to power a growing electric fleet, from car-sharing Zipcars and City CarShare, as well as a plug-in car in the City’s municipal inventory. The city – which now boasts the highest number of hybrid car owners in the U.S. – hopes residents will take advantage of electric vehicles as they become more widely available.

“Buyers now have anxiety over range and  how chargers will get built in their homes or offices, and if we can reduce the fears we will be on our way to saving the planet,” says San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, who has partnered with car makers, station builders and civic leaders to expand the green grid throughout the Bay Area.  “Removing the man made obstacles from bureaucracies will go a long way because people will buy the cars with publicly-available charging stations in jurisdictions and in homes.”

In fact, the makers of the stations say they are igniting an entire charging industry, bringing together agencies needed to collaborate to convert to an EV culture.

“We will be giving away 4,800 stations with $37 million in grants from the Department of Energy and every time one is installed, three people go to work, so we are creating tons of new jobs,” says Richard Lowenthal of Coulamb Technologies, which builds the stations. “We went from sending three stations to San Francisco to 25 a day throughout the country, and our new industry is seeing a growth of 400% each year.”

Framed by TreeHugger as “gas stations of the future,” will the Smartlets along our sidewalks prompt us to trade in our SUV’s and truly cross over to the Leafs, Volts and Karmas coming on the market?

Nissan tells me it stopped at 20,000 Leaf reservations last year. Nearly 7,000 of those went on reserve in 65 hours when opened to customers, a rate of 100 per hour. Committing to $99 each, 75% of the people registering came from Nissan targeted areas like Seattle, San Diego, Oregon, Tennessee and the Phoenix/Tucson region.

“People are ready,” Nissan PR chief Katherine Zachary told AutoblogGreen, adding most of the reservations are from California but a fair amount also are from places like Georgia where extra state incentives for plug-ins are dangled. Still, the cost of an all-electric that can go 100 miles when fully charged could outweigh the savings for some consumers.

The cars are priced in line with the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius – as low as $25,280 after tax savings (MSRP $33,720 minus federal savings of $7,500), and lease for around $379 per month with an initial payment of $1,999 – excluding the cost of a home charging dock and installation.

“When I heard the price, I was ecstatic because I knew it would mean Nissan is going to sell a lot of these, and that’s going to help our country,” Paul Scott, VP of Plug In America told the Christian Science Monitor. “We think world-of-mouth on this car is going to be better than any consumer product since the iPod.”

And as with iPods and cell phones, the prices of new technology are sure to come down once an EV nation demands mass production, responding to a user-friendly charging industry on its way from a slow burn to an ecstatic boil.

Images: Nissan; Gas2; Chevy




Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.