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Is Nevada ready for electric vehicles?

4 November 2011

Reno Gazette Journal
Written by Yun Long

An electric vehicle is easy to fuel — just plug it into an outlet and leave it — but creating an infrastructure to support the cars takes much more work.

With high gas prices and a tighter wallets, experts across the country hope electric cars can be an answer to many people’s transportation needs, while at the same time reducing that nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

“Two-thousand twelve is the year of the electric vehicle in Nevada,” said Travis Johnson, NV Energy electric transportation program manager.

NV Energy and a statewide task force are working to make Nevada EV-ready. Despite its environmental and economic benefits, barriers exist that could prevent mainstream adoption.

“Electric vehicles don’t solve all of our problems,” Johnson said. “They just help solve most of them. If energy security and low-cost energy are your concerns, EVs are for you. If urban air quality and greenhouse emissions are your concerns, EVs are for you. If you are simply ready for another option, EVs are for you.”

The Specs

By 2015, major car makers will have the ability to produce more than 1 million electric vehicles per year.

The price of electric cars now ranges from $29,125 for the Mitsubishi i to $109,000 for the Tesla Roadster. Those who buy an electric car can receive up to an $7,500 tax credit.

Electric cars could account for 64 percent of light-vehicle sales and make up 24 percent of the market in the U.S. by 2030, according to a 2009 forecast by the University of California, Berkeley.

The battery-charged electric vehicles work for short commutes, because they can go 73 to 100 miles per full charge. About 80 percent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles per day.

The extended range EV, such as the Chevrolet Volt, is ideal for longer commutes since the gas generator increases the normal 40-mile battery driving range by an additional 300 miles.

Local Push

The 116-member task force includes city, county and state officials from both the north and south, as well as from the University of Nevada, Reno, MGM Resorts and others from the private sector.

The group, which was formed in February, hopes to establish a charging infrastructure plan, promote fleet vehicle adoption, ensure that city codes and standards on EV charging systems are handled promptly and without excess delays and to secure federal grants for further EV adoption in Nevada.

Johnson has been an advocate for electric vehicles, and he promotes their advantages with NV Energy’s fleet of eight electric cars, which will increase to 13 by mid-November.

He has been test-driving the battery-only Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, promoting the company’s mission of increased awareness of the alternative-fuel vehicles.

The electric car doesn’t rely solely on gas. It gets power from the electric grid, which relies on other sources such a nuclear, natural gas, coals, geothermal and other renewables.

“So, as the grid gets greener, so do EV cars,” Johnson said.

The national agenda to use energy more efficiently includes six goals: increase vehicle efficiency, electrify the vehicle fleet, deploy alternative hydrocarbon fuels, increase building and industry efficiency, modernize the energy grid and deploy clean electricity.

A major part the strategy is to decrease the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. The U.S. spends $1 billion each day for oil, which is responsible for 70 percent of the national trade deficit, according the U.S. Department of Energy.

Task Force

The Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Readiness Task Force said its biggest task is the charging systems needed to fuel the cars. Public charging stations are necessary, but questions such as who will own them and how much to charge remain unanswered.

In addition, more stations are needed for drivers. With little more than a dozen charging stations in Reno and Las Vegas, the state — and its population — is underserved.

“Our goal is to get enough charging stations to give drivers confidence to buy an EV,” Johnson said. “And later, they will learn that they won’t need them as much as they thought.”

Permitting for home-charging stations is another area of concern. Most people could use 120-volt outlets to charge their vehicles, which is standard in U.S. homes, but a 240-volt outlet significantly cuts charging time.

“Level-two charging, a 240-volt, will put between 12 and 25 miles of (driving) range back in the car per hour,” Johnson said. “At level one, the120 level, around five miles of range per hour will be regained when plugged in.”

The problem is residents need to get a permit to install a 240-volt outlet. The task force is working on ensuring all permitting agencies known the latest codes and standards when issuing permits and to efficiently process such applications.

Stressing the System

NV Energy will have to perform minor improvements to its infrastructure to support electric cars and the increased demand.

If users charge their cars in off-peak hours, such as between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., Johnson said the electrical grid can handle more than 1 million vehicles without massive infrastructure improvements, which would trigger rates increases.

NV Energy offers an electric vehicle time-of-use rate. It incentivizes people to charge at night because it gives a 10 percent discount on off-peak rates, which would be a more efficient use of the utility’s electric grid.

The EV rate applies to the whole household energy consumption. It charges more for energy use during peak times such as during the day and less during the middle of the night when demand drops off. The standard rate, which most customers use, costs the same not matter what time energy is used. Both plans have a basic service charge of about $9.

As a point of comparison, an owner of a 25 mpg car that used $3 per gallon gas would spend $120 to drive 1,000 miles.

For electric vehicle owners who drive 1,000 miles, it would cost an average of $24 a month to power the car on the EV rate or $36 on the standard rate plan.

Johnson said that most of the charging should be done at home or at a workplace or retail unit. Few public charging stations would be required.

NV Energy has 13 charging stations across the state. All except two in Las Vegas are open to the public. Once the system is more established, the utility will begin charging for use.

Einstein Bros Bagels on Kietzke Lane also has a new charging station.

Reno’s Champion Chevrolet will have a charging station after its remodel is completed, and it, too, will be available to the public. Nissan of Reno plans to have four charging stations for Nissan lease owners only.

In September, California-based 350Green agreed to build more than 400 charging stations across the nation, mostly in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Indiana. And more retailers are adding charging units across the country, Best Buy and Walgreens among them.

There is additional savings in maintenance. Electric vehicles don’t have as many moving parts as a car with a gas-burning engine, so maintenance costs will decrease. The Nissan Leaf, for example, only needs to be brought in once a year to have the battery checked. The Volt requires a little more maintenance because it still has a gasoline component.

There is about 50 percent less carbon dioxide emitted by an electric vehicle than a gas-powered car.

Volt hits Nevada

The next generation of electric vehicles will hit Nevada streets in November.

The Chevrolet Volt will be made available to the rest of the country — including Nevada — after a limited release last year.

But it might be hard to get one from Champion Chevrolet. Four of the five 2012 Volts the dealership will receive already are spoken for at their release. And the fifth must be kept as a demonstration vehicle for the next six months.

The Volt’s retail asking price is about $40,000, Champion owner Jack Stanko said.

Prices could fall as technology improves. The most important component, the battery, is getting more advanced.

“The batteries are much better now than they were (a decade ago),” Johnson said. “And that is what the game-changer is.”

Nissan and GM offer an eight-year, 100,000 mile warranty for their batteries. GM has tested the Volt battery for about 150,000 miles.

The Volt is not 100 percent electric. It uses an gasoline-powered generator to power the vehicle when it gets low.

“The setup with the Volt is the perfect combination,” Stanko said. “With all-electric cars, the problem is how long it can run on the battery, and it’s mostly for short commutes. The Volt can go 300 miles on a trip.”

Champion expects another shipment in the first quarter of 2012, Stanko said. Those who are interested in buying can be put on a waiting list.

Nissan of Reno has almost 60 people on its waiting list for the Leaf, said Peter Fletcher, sales and electric car specialist at Nissan.

All major car makers will offer electric vehicles soon, Johnson said. By 2013, more than 15 models will be available.