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Monday, October 29, 2012

Humming down the highway

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff
Despite sluggish sales and public skepticism, advocates for electric vehicles (EVs) are optimistic that battery-powered cars will take hold in Rhode Island.
Since EVs rolled out nationally in 2010, car buyers have mostly steered clear of plug-in vehicles. Some 41,000 have sold so far in the United States — well short of the 1 million targetd for 2015 by President Obama. Low demand prompted Toyota to cancel one of its EV models. GM scaled back production of its plug-in hybrid, the Volt. Globally, sales of Mitsubishi and Nissan models are down from last year.

Analysts say poor sales are largely the result of high sticker prices, as first-generation EVs cost as much as traditional, low-end luxury cars.
Next year, however, consumers are expected to have more electric vehicle choices, with lower prices and longer battery life, as several new EV models arrive in showrooms. Ford, Tesla and BMW started selling lower-cost EVs this year. New EVs are expected in 2013 from Honda, Volkswagen and Smart. Lease incentives for current models such as the Volt, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius have decreased to a range of $199-$299 a month.
To attract more EV drivers locally, National Grid, the state Division of Planning, the advocacy group Project Get Ready and URI’s Ocean State Clean Cities set a goal of increasing the number of charging stations in Rhode Island from six to 50. Massachusetts by comparison has 120; Connecticut 60.
The Top 50 project seeks to install charging stations at shopping malls, hotels, beaches and other high-traffic locations where drivers visit long-enough for a one- to three-hour charge.
“People need to see the (charging) stations are here, they’re reliable and they’re available,” said Andrew Shubel, manager of the project.
Currently, Rhode Island has charging stations at the Wickford Junction train station, Schneider Electric in West Kingston, Cardi’s Furniture in Warwick, T.F. Green Airport, and at Nissan and Chevy dealerships.
Organizers of the Top 50 project will subsidize the cost of the equipment and much of the installation charge for new charging stations. The property owner or business need only invest 10 percent of the construction cost, or about $800. To qualify, the owners must make the charging station available to the public and offer free charges for at least one year.
Al Dahlberg of Project Get Ready said EVs are following the path — or “hype cycle" — that are common to new technologies: expectations start high, followed by an ebb in enthusiasm, and concluding with a slow and steady increase toward approval among consumers. So far, EVs have followed the cycle, at least in the peak and drop-off of expectations. “Right now, we’re in the trough of disillusionment,” Dahlberg said.
John Gilbrook of National Grid said demand, while slow, is on an upward slope and should improve rapidly as prices and choice of vehicles proliferate. “A year from now, things will be different,” he said.
Scott Miller, a developer of charging stations, said consumers will eventually appreciate the benefits of driving without an internal combustion engine, which will reduce air pollution, end oil changes and provide better handling.
“Once people get into these cars and start driving them, they’re never going back," he said.