News & Opinion » News

Charge up and go


[UPDATED AND REVISED 11/1/16]Cruising Route 66 in your Chevrolet or Pontiac V8 was once the ultimate expression of the American spirit — embodying freedom, restlessness, and the wide open road.

But more than a half-century later, electric vehicles are inspiring a much different American spirit: one concerned about the steep fiscal and environmental costs of fossil fuels.

EV's barely make up a toenail in the full body of today's US auto market, but they're poised to play a much larger role in the not-so-distant future. Dozens of people showed up at an electric car promotion at I-Square in Irondequoit last month to learn more about EV's and to take one for a test drive.

The event was sponsored by the Electric Auto Association, Plug In America, and the Rochester chapter of the Sierra Club. Similar events have been held all across the country in recent years.

Bill Labine, who has been a member of the Electric Auto Association for more than 20 years, attended the Irondequoit event. He says that building EV's used to be a favorite pastime of engineers and tinkerers; he once had a Chevy pickup that had been converted to an EV. But those days are long gone, he says.

A dark blue 2016 Chevrolet Volt sits next to an off-white Nissan Leaf in the driveway of Labine's home in Avon; he installed two electric charging units on the side of his house. A large cable from the charging units easily connects to the electric receptacle on both cars. His charging demonstration is so simple it's anticlimactic.

"Most of us charge at night, so if you're one of those people who recharge your cell phone at night, it's really the same thing," he says.

The evolution basically went from gas-powered engines to hybrid gas-and-electric vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Volt, to pure electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf. The pace of innovation since 2010 has been fairly rapid.

Just over 65,000 EV's were sold nationwide from January to June 2016. That number may seem small in comparison to the total market, but many in the green car industry see opportunity.

Excitement over Tesla's Model 3, an all-electric car, is the clearest example: it was the largest pre-order of a car in history.

"In case you weren't paying attention, something amazing just happened to the automobile industry," wrote Ion Yadigaroglu for Crunch Network, a technology and innovation website. "The fact that within days of launch, about 400,000 people paid $1,000 each for a car they will receive in 2018 is simply astounding."

But the road to EV acceptance, as with most major technical advancements, has been bumpy. A study commissioned by the Sierra Club shows that the industry has trouble getting dealerships to properly display EV's. And dealerships have been slow to educate their salespeople about them, the study says.

Also, the list price of EV's and cost of operating them isn't as straightforward as it is with traditional gas-powered vehicles. In the latter, the consumer buys or leases the vehicle and pays whatever the price of gas is at the pump. Right now, it's about $2.30 a gallon for regular gasoline.

But it's a little different with EV's. Labine says the list price for his Chevy Volt was about $34,000, but he was able to negotiate that to about $30,000. The federal government offers consumers of electric and plug-in hybrids a tax credit between $2,500 and $7,500, depending on the size of the battery. Labine's Volt qualified for the $7,500 credit, further reducing his purchase price.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has approved state rebates of up to 2,000 on purchases of EV's, but the funds have yet to be allocated. Though the state and federal government sweeteners are helpful, the savings for buyers aren't as immediate or as impactful as the dramatically lower energy costs.

"I've gone 1,000 miles in the Volt and haven't used a half-tank of gas," Labine says. "I go to gas stations to wash the bugs off my windshield."

Labine installed a second electric meter on his home so he could track the energy for his vehicles separately from the electricity for his home, which is all electric.

"Last month, my total bill for September was $103 for my house and my cars," he says.

But he says that the cost of electricity varies depending on where you live and how energy-efficient of a consumer you are. Labine updated his home, an older structure, to conserve as much energy as possible.

There's no question, however, that the drastic reduction in emissions is what drives many EV sales.

"My wife makes emission-control parts, but she doesn't even need them in her own car," Labine says.

EV's are similar to cars of most makes and models when it comes to handling and comfort – from minimalist to luxurious. With its sculptured front and raised back end, the Volt, for example, has a sleek feline-styling compared to the more muscular Chevy Camaro.

Volt also has keyless access and push-button starting, and the instrument panel resembles an electronic game more than a dashboard. The driver is constantly informed of every aspect of power usage and driving range in an interior that is so quiet, it's hard to even tell the car is on.

The biggest challenge for EV's is overcoming what green car experts call "range anxiety," which is a fear of running out of energy and not knowing where to recharge.

The early plug-in all-electric vehicles, those without some type of alternative energy source, have a range of about 80 miles, which is often reduced if you use electricity while driving, such as turning on the heater. Commuting long distances in those EV's has been an issue for some drivers.

But some EV's that are about to come onto the market promise a driving range of 200 miles, which should reduce fears about running out of energy.

Easy access to private and public charging stations is another concern for some potential EV buyers. Charging stations aren't as abundant or as visible as gas stations, but that's changing; the City of Rochester has 24 EV charging stations around the city and charging is free for now.

And tools such as PlugShare, which is an app and a website, and the website tell drivers where to go for a charge, Labine says.

"You whip out your iPhone and you see that the city has charging stations," he says. "You can tell which ones are in use and which are available. It's really not that difficult. There are even all these people on PlugShare who will say, 'You need a charge? Give me a call.'"An earlier version of this article stated that Governor Cuomo approved a rebate on EVs of about $1,000 and should have said up to $2,000.