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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

EV buzz

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

KINGSTON — Electric-vehicle sales are on the rise, prices are dropping, 13 models are in showrooms and new public charging stations are on the way.

It seems the EV, in all its varieties, is at least gaining some traction with consumers. Sales, though below projections, have tripled since 2012.

As the shift from novelty to a viable product continues, the vehicles and the infrastructure for recharging are improving.

During the July 11 "Take Charge Two!" electric-vehicle conference at the University of Rhode Island, Paul Young of charging-station maker Juice Bar noted that 100 years ago automobile gas was bought in a hardware store. Today, there are some 120,000 gas stations in the United States.

EVs are charged at home, at work and new public stations are going in daily. Rhode Island has about nine public stations and is shooting for 50 more by the end of August. According to National Grid, contracts have been signed for 26 new charging stations.

Young said conspicuous charging stations attract more EV drivers. After lackluster use, the charging stations at T.F. Green Airport and the Wickford Junction train station, owned by Juice Bar, are getting more use, he said. “The cars are finally here now, people are really going to start buying the cars," he said.

Charging stations are becoming more user friendly and accessible. Massachusetts has about 200 public stations. Rhode Island has until the end of August, when federal stimulus money disappears, to install 50 new charging stations. 

Municipalities have been reluctant to host the stations due to worries of giving away electricity and from having to cut through a bunch of local red tape. With the exception of Kohl's, most retailers haven't embraced charging stations either. Kohl’s, however, has learned that charging stations keep customers shopping longer.

"It's a huge marketing opportunity," said Al Dahlberg, head of Project Get Ready Rhode Island and a planner and advocate for charging stations.

National Grid is partnering with Rhode Island and Massachusetts to run charging stations. The utility is also ramping up residential charging infrastructure. “The interest level is absolutely building,” said John Gilbrook, project manager for National Grid. “(We are) on the precipice of a major shift in transportation.”

New charging stations are easier to use, and national standards are being developed for members of charging networks. Universities allow students to pay for charges with school IDs. Public garages are including charging costs on parking passes.

Green benefits

The environmental benefits of driving EVs instead of gas-powered vehicles haven't resonated with consumers, according to Abigail Anthony of Environment New England. A Nissan Leaf releases 60 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a traditional economy car, she said, because electricity from the power grid is cleaner than gasoline, it’s easier to control emissions from a single power plant than from thousands of cars and electricity from the grid also contains a mix of renewable-energy sources.

Don Wineberg said he hopes to install solar at his home in Jamestown to charge his Tesla Model S. “The number one reason that people buy (EVs) is for the environmental concern," he said. "That was true for me."

Wars fought over oil, global warming and sea-level rise prompted Wineberg to embrace domestically produced electricity to fuel his vehicle, which gets 210 miles to a charge. “I wanted to get off of that (oil) addiction,” he said.

Chevy Volt salesman Paul Dragich of Masse Chevrolet in East Providence said most EV buyers want to own the car of the future. “Everyone just wants to be part of the cutting-edge technology," he said.
The cost, however, is still too steep for many consumers. Anthony said other incentives could help, such as access to preferred driving lanes, state tax credits and discounted registration fees.

Top models

Some 41,000 EVs were sold in the United States in first half of this year. But EVs are still a small segment of the market. The Nissan Leaf has seen the biggest sales increase. Others are lowering prices and leasing costs.

A $7,500 federal tax credit is still available for EV purchases.

The top plug-in models are the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, Smart ForTwo, Ford Fusion Energi, Ford C-Max Energi, Ford Focus Electric, Toyota Prius Plug-In, Honda Fit EV, Toyota Rav4 EV. Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Honda Accord Plug-In. Coming soon are the Chevy Spark EV and the Fiat 500e.