Thursday, December 2, 2010

Plug-in electric cars are here. What questions to ask

With women buying nearly half the cars in the U.S. it seems natural that we would be seriously interested in the plug-in revolution gaining traction in the car industry. We like green, we like saving the planet. We also like saving money.
As consumers, women are a major factor in the "green" movement on all food and non-toxic household chemicals, for instance. So why not cars? These cars are zero-emission technology wonders! Right?
In the coming 12 months, car buyers will have three new hybrid-electric or all-electric cars from which to choose. The Chinese and the South Koreans are about 18 months out with their offerings.
In the next year, we'll see:
-The Chevy "Volt," a hybrid-electric now coming off assembly lines in Michigan. Volt maker, General Motors, expects to produce about 10,000 of the vehicles in 2011 and is beginning to sell them in a few selected markets including California. The cars won't show up in the Portland-Vancouver market until December 2011.
- Mitsubishi already is mass-producing an all-electric called the i-MiEV in other parts of the world, but won't introduce the car to the U.S. market until next year...probably December 2011 for the Portland-Vancouver market.
- The Nissan "Leaf"  which goes on sale December 2010.
Vancouver auto dealer Alan Webb...who eventually gets to sell all three of these cars at his various dealerships....told me that Nissan has a jump on the competition with the "Leaf", which he sees as part of a revolution that will transform the automobile industry over the next several years.
Webb likes the Leaf and has seen a lot of buyer interest. Car makers are planning more models. Ford will introduce a plug-in commercial van.
But even though the Portland-Vancouver is "greener than green," he says we won't see the "Volt" until next year. It's strictly a factor of size....we are not a big enough population center to be in the first-market tier.
What are the power companies doing?
Meanwhile, electric power companies are gearing up to address the new electric car demand for juice.
Portland General Electric has already ordered two Leaf vehicles and is partnering with ECOtality to install 2,000 charging stations around Oregon. PGE eventually expects to bring 1,000 Leafs to Oregon.
The power company is not worried about having enough electricity for all these cars.
PGE estimated that 90 percent of the battery re-charging will be done at home on either a 120- or 240-volt charger. Its studies show that the existing electric grid in the Northwest could handle the load even if there was a 75 percent adoption rate for the plug-in vehicles throughout the region.
However, in the long-term, upgrades to infrastructure may be required in particularly high plug-in vehicle adoption areas, it said. But right now, a plug-in recharge is expected to have less impact than "an air conditioner," said Elaina Medina at PGE.
Mick Shutt at Clark Public Utilities told me that there IS concern in the energy industry for how fast electric car sales take off. He said recharging their batteries will add (power grid) load even during off-peak hours. "Most likely people will come home from work between 5 and 7 p.m. and plug in their cars. Off-peak doesn't start until 10 p.m.," he said. "They are going to be looking hard at California where the Volt is now being sold to see what happens."
A lot of money is at stake and the power companies definitely want to make sure the electric car buyers are kept happy.
What will the cost?
The Leaf is going to sell for about $33,000. That's before a federal rebate of $7,500. See a review in today's Wall Street Journal called "Nissan's Electric Leaf: How far can it go?"
The Volt is priced about the same and will get the same rebate.
Likely the Mitsubishi "i" will be in the same ballpark.
It's an exciting time for car dealers who have something new to offer, said Alan Webb. And exciting for the power companies who want to accommodate the demand. Analysts forecast that plug-in electric cars could represent 22 percent of U.S. sales by 2020.
CONSUMER ADVICE for anyone thinking about buying an electric car or a hybrid-electric car.
1. Do your homework on total cost including the cost of a 220-volt at-home charging station, which will charge your car battery twice as fast as a regular 120-volt outlet.
2. Make sure you understand the battery range in miles. Ask what happens to the battery if you turn on the AC or drive at a faster U.S. Interstate highway speed. Range is particularly a big deal. There's new jargon in the industry....something called "range anxiety" as drivers watch their battery charge bleed out as they drive. They get nervous about where they'll get their next charge.

3. Ask about the battery and mileage warranties. The Leaf and the Volt are offering an eight-year, 1000,000-mile battery warranty.
4. Ask about how power companies in your area plan to ramp up charging stations and deal with power grid demand? Car dealers may not know the answers to that one.
5. What happens when the battery gets tired? How much will it cost to replace it? What happens to the old battery? Is there a charge for recycling it?
6. How much of a hassle is it to get the federal $7,500 tax credit or other money-saving credits from state or local government agencies?
On the Web:
Wall Street Journal review: click here.
Electric cars reviewed at Portland International Raceway Web site. Click here.
Portland General Electric has youtube explainer at
Energy Musings blog site looks at electric car tradeoffs. click here.
The Economist magazine looks at electric cars, positives and negatives. Click here.
Don Brunell with the Association of Washington Business raises concerns. Click here.
Happy hunting,

1 comment:

  1. The Volt has a $41,000 price tag. That is a little more than the LEAF. Also, there is a $1500 Oregon state incentive in addition to the $7500 federal incentive.

    If you are interested in plug-in vehicles on Oregon, then check out the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association webpage