State program will extend reach of electric vehicles based in Clark County

New charging stations bolster a growing trend

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A first-time Nissan Leaf driver, Wayne Nelson is still building his confidence in the all-electric car.

He can’t take it to the beach just yet. He’s driven as much as 110 miles on a single charge, but typically doesn’t venture far outside Vancouver, with charging stations few and far between in Washington.

That will soon change — a series of nine new high-powered charging stations is slated to be installed along Interstate 5 and Highway 2 by the end of the year. With stations planned for every 40 to 60 miles on stretches of I-5, Clark County will land in range of the new network.

Nelson, CEO of Clark Public Utilities, just might get to flex his car’s muscles a bit more. Perhaps gradually.

“I would probably try it as an experiment,” he said, using a recent business trip to Tacoma as an example. “I wouldn’t want to do it for a meeting that I had to be at.”

The announcement marks a big move forward in a trend that’s already gaining a foothold in Washington and Oregon. A handful of stations have sprung up in the area — including two at Clark Public Utilities’ Vancouver headquarters — with more on the horizon.

“The Pacific Northwest is really one of the key markets,” said Tonia Buell, a Washington State Department of Transportation spokesperson.

Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment will manufacture and install the charging stations on two main corridors: I-5 between the Canadian border and Everett, then from Olympia to the Oregon border, plus Highway 2 between Everett and Leavenworth. A separate federal program will install additional stations between Everett and Olympia, according to WSDOT.

WSDOT awarded a $1 million contract to AeroVironment for the I-5/Highway 2 project.

Vancouver finds itself uniquely in the cross hairs of a growing electric-vehicle trend, said Larry Blaufus, an energy and technologies manager with Clark Public Utilities. The city has been included in recent Portland-area pilot projects and studies. It also benefits from Washington efforts like the one announced this week.

“I think we fit in, in a big way,” Blaufus said. “We’re kind of a strategic piece.”

Of course, that landscape could change dramatically in the coming years. The federal EV Project aims to put thousands of electric-vehicle charging stations in six states, including Washington and Oregon.

Nelson mostly charges his Leaf at home these days. Plugging into an ordinary electrical outlet will charge the vehicle overnight, he said. That’s a “level-one” charge.

A level-two charge — that’s the category Clark Public Utilities’ chargers land in — still takes four to six hours at 240 volts. A 480-volt level-three charge can get a car ready to go in less than 30 minutes, according to WSDOT.

Washington’s upcoming stations will include both level-three and level-two chargers. They’ll be installed on private retail property such as shopping malls and travel centers near the highways, according to WSDOT, but exact locations aren’t final yet. For Southwest Washington, Buell said, Ridgefield, Longview/Kelso and Centralia are candidates.

Nelson isn’t the only electric-vehicle driver in Clark County. At least two others have visited Clark Public Utilities’ stations, and Nelson said he’s seen another cruising around Vancouver.

Nelson admits his interest in electric cars was lukewarm at first. Now, about a month after he began leasing his silver Leaf, he’s changed his tune.

“I love it so far,” Nelson said. “Absolutely nothing but positive things to say about it.”

Well, almost nothing.

“I’m not thrilled with the looks of the car.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.