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Fill ’er up...with electricity. This car was one of several alternative-fueled vehicles on display at the recent Electric Vehicle Demonstration and Forum at the Marlboro College Graduate Center in Brattleboro.

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Electric vehicles gain traction

Forum, fair show ways to wean ourselves from internal-combustion engines

BRATTLEBORO—Earlier this year, the town of Brattleboro, in partnership with individuals and private and public organizations, and funded by a grant from Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development, installed two new “level 2” electric vehicle (EV) chargers in the Transportation Center.

The timing was perfect. Without these new chargers, Taborri Bruhl said he doubted he could have made the round-trip between his home in New Haven, Vt., and the Marlboro College Graduate Center for the Electric Vehicle Demonstration and Forum on Oct. 25.

The former Marine officer and current high school teacher thanked the town of Brattleboro for charging the battery on his Nissan Leaf for free while he attended the EV fair, and gave a 30-minute presentation on EVs.

On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, the northern half of the graduate center’s parking lot hosted the EV fair, where spectators, alternative-energy fans, and industry representatives examined, test-drove, and showed off a variety of vehicles powered partly or fully by energy other than that supplied by fossil fuels.

Inside the graduate center building, public and industry representatives offered information, made presentations, and snacked on locally grown apples at the refreshment table.

Robin Bitters was outside with her car that looked pretty much like any other new car on the road. But something crucial seemed to be missing: a gas tank.

Bitters flipped open a panel just beneath the hood of her 2013 Nissan Leaf and pointed out a recessed console with two ports through which her car receives the only fuel it needs: electricity. One port looked to be about the diameter of a 220-volt outlet, the type used in a home to power a clothes dryer or high-BTU air conditioner.

No coincidence there, as Bitters’ EV can plug into any 220-volt outlet. It can also plug into the more common 110-volt outlet — that’s the same type we use to plug in our lamps, laptops, and blenders.

Whereas it takes mere minutes at the gas station to give a fossil-fueled car the fuel it needs to go, the Leaf takes all night to charge when plugged into a 110-volt outlet.

Bitters seems unperturbed by the requirement.

“I plug in my car at home every night while I sleep. While I recharge my battery, so to speak, my car recharges its battery, too,” Bitters said.

Just a few years ago, Bitters — and others with automobiles powered solely by electricity — would have had to either plan short car trips or else rent gas-powered vehicles for longer trips.

EVs (excluding hybrids, which are powered by an electric battery and supplemented by conventional fuels) were too new for most communities and private businesses to invest in chargers, so EV owners basically had one option for refueling their cars: plug in at home.

Even the all-electric Tesla Model S, which has the largest battery in its class, and is capable of the greatest average range on the road for an EV, gets only 265 miles on a full charge. That means that a driver leaving from Brattleboro couldn’t get much further than Trenton, N.J., before having to find a place to plug in overnight.

Playing catch-up

In the last few years, however, consumer demand and financial incentives from public-private partnerships have expanded EVs’ presence on roadways, leading to more — and faster — charging stations in parking areas. And more are needed in more areas.

EV sales in the state have mostly kept pace with those in the rest of the nation, which should come as no surprise, considering Vermont’s long history of environmental awareness in the public and private sectors.

According to Drive Electric Vermont online, as of this month there are 801 passenger EVs in the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles registration database.

“This is an increase of about 370 vehicles in the last year with an annual growth rate of 85 percent in the number of EVs. Electric cars are also spreading across the state, and are now in 58 percent of Vermont communities,” the site reports.

One of the industry reps at the indoor portion of the EV fair was John Gilbrook of ChargePoint (www.chargepoint.com), which bills itself as the world’s largest and most open EV charging network, with a mission to “help people make the switch to EVs and to provide an open charging network so they can plug in wherever they go.”

According to Gilbrook, ChargePoint has 19,000 charge stations nationally. Its website notes, “We’re growing rapidly, adding over 500 new charging ports every month.”

ChargePoint says it operates 19 charging stations in Vermont, or within a few miles of the border, some with multiple ports so more than one car can charge at a time.

Most of ChargePoint’s ports are known as “level 2” chargers — the same type that Brattleboro’s Transportation Center has.

Paul Cameron, director of Brattleboro Climate Protection, said the benefit of the newer “level 2” chargers is measured in time saved. A typical car can charge from dead to full in three to four hours, he said.

For those with more time on their hands, there are “level 1” chargers, such as the ones located near the northeast corner of Main and Grove streets, alongside the Stone Church.

Cameron reported plans for additional — and faster — EV charging stations in Brattleboro. He described plans for a Tesla-only super-charger at the Price Chopper plaza that will provide eight ports.

His organization, in conjunction with Green Mountain Power, is working on more charging stations in Brattleboro. The issue is cost, Cameron said, but after two rounds of grant programs resulted in the new “level 2” chargers in Brattleboro, new grant opportunities are expected.

Elsewhere in Vermont, eight faster charging stations — known as “Fast,” “DC,” or “level 3” chargers — have been installed. As Bruhl shared in his presentation, these 440-volt outlets can replenish an empty battery in about 30 minutes.

According to the map provided by Drive Electric Vermont (www.driveelectricvt.com) — a statewide coalition of policy makers, industry leaders, and ordinary citizens “dedicated to promoting the spread of electric transportation in the state” — there are no Fast Chargers in southern Vermont.

Meanwhile, Greenfield, Amherst, and Northampton, all in Massachusetts, boast Fast Chargers.

Drive Electric Vermont’s map displays 43 EV stations offering all levels of chargers — 1, 2, and 3 — in Vermont, most of which are located in and around Burlington. Windham County features scant few.

There’s a financial opportunity for Brattleboro and surrounding towns to install more EV charging stations. Drive Electric Vermont’s map showing statewide EV vehicle registrations as of October 2014 points out that most of Windham County is in the highest percentile of EV ownership, putting this area on par with Burlington.

Weighing the costs

A relative lack of charging stations is not the only barrier to entry preventing drivers from purchasing EV or hybrid cars. Money is the other.

With any emerging technology, early adopters can expect to pay a higher price than those later to the party. EVs are no exception.

Drive Electric Vermont’s chart, “Plug-in Cars Available in Vermont,” which includes “All-Electric” and “Plug-in Hybrids,” lists the Smart Electric Drive as one of the least expensive all-electric models available. Its base-model MSRP is $25,000. This vehicle holds only two passengers.

For $5 less, one could purchase a gas-powered 2014 Subaru Forester Premium Sport Utility vehicle, which seats five.

At the higher-price end of the MSRP spectrum is the Tesla Model S luxury sedan; the base model for this all-electric car costs $79,900. For those who can afford a Tesla, the motor company delivers the car directly to their door.

The Model S was named 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year — “one of the quickest American four-doors ever built” — and received a rare National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) five-star safety rating. NHTSA says fewer than 1 percent of all cars achieve this rating.

Most of the plug-in cars available in (or near) this state, according to Drive Electric Vermont’s report, are in the $30,000 to $40,000 range and come from such automakers as Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz.

In response to political and environmental pressure to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, federal and state governments have begun offering financial incentives to consumers wishing to switch to electric and hybrid automobiles.

To offset the purchase price, the federal government offers three-quarters of the cars listed on Drive Electric Vermont’s list of plug-in automobiles the maximum credit: $7,500. The others are eligible for smaller tax credits.

An additional perk comes from VLITE (Vermont Low Income Trust for Electricity), a public benefit, nonprofit corporation, which, in conjunction with Drive Electric Vermont, offers Vermonters “an incentive by visiting one of 11 participating dealers across the state to receive $500 off the purchase or lease of a new EV, with the dealerships also receiv[ing] a $200 upstream incentive for each EV sold to support their work transforming the new vehicle marketplace.”

Brattleboro Ford on Putney Road is the only local dealer participating in this program, and potential buyers have their choice of three EV Fords. One is all-electric; the other two are hybrids.

Some EV drivers opt to lease their automobiles. One good reason is that the technology is still emerging.

As Bruhl explained in his presentation, “In two years, I give the car back and get a new one,” likely with new developments. When consumers lease EVs, the automobile company keeps the rebate, Bruhl explained, but that money is used to reduce the monthly lease payment. For his Nissan Leaf, he pays $199 per month.

Green Mountain Power (GMP) has a few incentives to help EV owners keep their costs low. Their “time-of-use” rate encourages drivers to charge their EVs overnight — typically between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. — when demand on the power grid and the cost per kilowatt hour are lowest.

The utility claims that electricity at off-peak rates “provides transportation for the equivalent of about 75 cents per gallon of gasoline, and even peak electricity can move you for the equivalent of about $1 to $2 per gallon of gasoline.”

Another option for EV drivers with solar panels on their homes, and who are still connected to the grid, is net metering: during months where the home has a surplus of power collected from the Sun, the homeowner sells the excess back to GMP, defraying the cost of electricity during low-solar-producing months.

Bitters participates in this program, and says that typically, the only months she has to buy power from GMP are November through February, and “most months, we are on the plus side with the solar energy we sell GMP.”

Even with the extra cost of either adding additional solar panels to a home, or upping their electric bill from plugging in EVs, the financial benefits are obvious, especially coupled with the environmental benefits.

Bruhl presented a comparison between the total cost of purchasing, fueling, and maintaining his “old beater Subaru” versus a new Nissan Leaf. He said driving the Leaf costs him $50 more per month to drive but he said he expects EV cars to meet gas cars in the “cost-to-run” within five years or so.

With some EV owners living entirely off the grid, their only costs are installation and maintenance of solar panels and small wind turbines. They pay nothing beyond that to fuel their all-electric cars.

Bruhl said his family home is completely solar- and wind-powered. He explained enthusiastically, “It’s a nifty feeling to drive down the road and realize you’re powered by sunshine.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #282 (Wednesday, November 26, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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