There are a lot of upsides to plug-in electric vehicles, which is why state and federal officials are pushing hard to bring them into the mainstream. The technology promises to help reduce our reliance on imported petroleum products; the cars can be charged overnight or at times when the electric grid is less taxed; and they produce zero tailpipe emissions.
Massachusetts is hoping to follow the lead of California, where more than 100,000 vehicles sold in recent years. But despite generous subsidies to buyers, they haven't caught on here; and it's not clear that they will. So what might it take to finally bring electric cars to the masses?
Richard Elrick is Energy Coordinator for the Town of Barnstable. At a new electric vehicle charging station in Hyannis - one of three the Town recently installed - he opened a small cover on the side of the car, and attached a hose with a handle on the end to a receptacle inside the car.
It resembled a scene at a gas station. But instead of pouring fuel into a tank, Elrick was charging the car’s battery pack – a process that takes several hours. The charging station cost $4,000 to purchase and install – a price tag the town normally couldn’t afford. But it doesn’t cost a driver anything to recharge.
“Essentially, the State picked up about 95% of the cost,” said Elrick, “and we just had a small – I think it was a thousand-dollar – installation segment that we had to be responsible for. So they picked up the great majority of it.”
There are generous rebates on electric vehicle purchases, for both municipalities and regular drivers, and these deals are part of an aggressive push to get more electric cars on the road. State officials tout their low maintenance, zero emissions and environmental friendliness. New Bedford has also taken advantage of the state incentives, installing eight charging stations around the city. The director of New Bedford’s Energy Office, Scott Durkee, said electric vehicles are ideal for city fleets with short, predictable daily driving routes.
“If someone’s going to Boston every day, it may not be appropriate. But for organizations like our inspectional services, our health department, our traffic department, which drive 10, maybe 15 miles a day, it makes perfect sense,” Durkee said. “The savings are astronomical. Our average fleet that we have is about 20 to 25 cents a mile driven…the electric car is about 6 cents a mile driven. On top of that, you don’t have the maintenance. There’s no combustion. And so it’s just a much cleaner system.”
The subsidies are offered through the Mass. Department of Energy Resources, where Meg Lusardi is Acting Commissioner.
“In 2008, Governor Patrick signed the Global Warming Solutions Act. And that set aggressive targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Lusardi.
A task force came up with ideas on how to achieve those reductions, resulting in the charging station subsidies. Barnstable is one of only a few Cape towns to participate. Charging will be free at the Barnstable stations at first. But the Town may start collecting fees if the added load over-taxes the electricity grid. Richard Elrick says that depends on whether the “if you build it, they will come” theory holds true for charging stations.
“It’s a chicken or and egg kind of a process that we’re working through. What’s gonna need to happen first? Are we gonna have more electrical vehicles on the scene, or are we gonna need more charging stations to make people feel more comfortable?” Elrick asked.
For consumers, the State offers rebates of up to $2,500 for Massachusetts residents who buy or lease electric cars. But not too many residents are taking advantage of them. Meg Lusardi said the State has issued 241 of the rebates since the program started in June, and they’ll be available until the $1.8-million in first-year funding is used up.
“We wanna make electric vehicles mainstream. We want people to be comfortable with the technology,” Lusardi said.
Most major car companies now produce electric vehicles. There’s the Nissan Leaf… the Chevy Volt…the Ford Escort EV. But consumers have some concerns. First, the cost. These plug-in models don’t come cheap, costing anywhere from $24,000 to $81,000 – prices that are way out of the ball park for many drivers. And consumers who are willing to spend the money need to be convinced they’ll be able to keep their electric vehicles charged up.
Tony Provost is the owner of Bourne Nissan, which has 4 EV charging stations. He said most electric vehicles currently get between 80 and 110 miles per charge. And that can cause “range anxiety” – the fear that your car won’t make it to your destination before the charge runs out. There are only about a dozen locations on Cape Cod and the Islands where members of the public can go to recharge their cars. But Provost is confident that range anxiety won’t be an issue for much longer.
“When the charging stations are everywhere, they’re never gonna second-guess it. Plus, when you drive, you have a GPS of where all the charging stations are. Just like iPhones…within 4, 5 years, everybody will understand the cars, everybody will want one, and I think more manufacturers will come out with them,” said Provost.
According to Richard Elrick, consumers today are skittish about electric cars in the same way their ancestors were about 100 years ago when the gas-powered automobile was first invented.
“People were uncomfortable with the mechanics of an automobile…the access to the fuel that it was using…the roads that hadn’t been developed yet. And so there is no doubt a period of transition,” Elrick said.
It’s anybody’s guess how long that period of transition will last for electric vehicles. With gas prices falling dramatically, and internal-combustion engines more efficient than ever before, it won’t be easy convincing drivers to abandon their trusty gas-powered cars. Those who do will have to wait for the charging infrastructure to catch up…and hope that eventually, the wait will be worth it.