"EVs are selling at a faster rate than hybrids were when first introduced," explained Rafael Reyes, executive director of the Bay Area Climate Collaborative, a nonprofit that's leading several initiatives to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Moderating an April 2 discussion about "The Promise and Reality of Electric Cars" that was organized by Acterra, a local non-profit environmental group, Reyes asked how many attending owned an EV. About half of the 70 persons in the audience raised their hands.
Without counting the "conversion" EVs built by hobbyists, Bay Area roads currently host 7,000 plug-ins, Reyes said. Holding up his cell phone and reminding us how unusual, and clunky, they were 15 years ago, Reyes predicted that EVs would take off just as fast.
He ticked off the reasons why: "An EV fuels at half the cost of a gasoline car, and they need only half the maintenance. For the environmentally conscious, a fully electric EV will deliver about 70 percent lower emissions than a gasoline vehicle — and if it's charged by solar cells or wind power it's truly a 'zero emission' vehicle."
Moreover, the Federal tax credit of $7,500, combined with a California state rebate of $2,500, brings the price within reach for many.
Calling himself a "gearhead," Gary Lieber is co-founder of SF Bay LEAFs, an organization of Nissan Leaf owners. "It's amazing how fast it's happening," he said. Noting that Nissan has now sold 75,000 Leafs worldwide, he added, "Everybody's reporting record sales right now. And Silicon Valley has quickly become 'ground zero' for innovative ideas in personal transportation."
There are a number of motivations for getting an EV, he said. "The coolness factor, the savings, the environmental responsibility — these mattered to the early adopters. Today the motivation is a little less about environmentalism and a little more about saving a few bucks."
"The standard objections to EVs are dropping away," Lieber said. If you can drive 1,500 miles for $45 worth of electricity, you can no longer assert that an EV is too expensive, he said. And the question of "range anxiety" is being overcome by improved, lighter-weight batteries.
Beyond battery power and the call for "clean" electrons not produced by burning fossil fuels, a whole new set of EV-related issues is emerging:
* Should electricity rates be modified for EV users?
Paul Stith, executive director of Project Green OnRamp, explained how the California Public Utilities Commission is exploring this question, since EV drivers want predictable information about how much it will cost them to charge up every day. A five-cent per kilowatt hour overnight charging rate is going up to 10 cents, in part because other ratepayers are objecting to preferential rates for EV users.
* How do you stop people from parking all day at a charging station site?
Jim Helmer, president of LightMoves, said cities need to rethink how parking spaces are used, converting many to charging stations and putting a price on the electricity — along with a time limit for parking there. "We also need to develop some etiquette. I don't want to see a plug-in Prius in a public charging site," he said, because that car can get home with its gasoline assist.
Paul Stith added that the seven EV charging sites in downtown Palo Alto are already in such demand that you need to arrive by 5:30 a.m. to get plugged in. Charging for the power, time limit signs and an indicator signal when the car is charged could help smooth out this access issue, he said.
* Where can we put all the needed charging stations?
Everywhere! Stith said that Washington state now has a model ordinance requiring developers to put chargers in home and office buildings, and Sonoma County is looking at such a law to support its eco-tourism initiative of a "no carbon" trip from SFO to Sonoma vineyards.
Helmer said 50 percent of California drivers don't have their own garages, so publicly available sites will be essential. However, putting charging stations along the freeways makes little sense. "You need to put chargers where people are spending a longer amount of time — homes, offices, grocery stores. Investing in a system of EV chargers along the highways should be a lower priority," Reyes stressed.
* Where will we get all the energy we need for EVs?
Conservation is one answer. In his previous job as director of transportation for the City of San Jose, Helmer explained how he set up the first on-street, public charging station across from San Jose City Hall, using the same pole where an energy efficient LED street light had been installed. "You get from 50 percent to 75 percent energy savings by switching from older lighting to LEDs," Helmer said. "What could we do with all this energy not being used at night?"
* How will we pay for road repairs when gasoline tax revenues decline?
This is already becoming an issue. The recession has reduced vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and "smart growth" planning means that people are living more closely together. Clearly, the source of funds for road repairs will have to change. Reyes thinks that the funds will be there for reallocation: If the Bay Area's goal of 100,000 EVs by 2020 is met, the region will collectively save $120 million to $200 million a year, he said. "These funds could be invested into our local economy," including roads and other infrastructure.