Energy Adviser: Electronic vehicles keep plugging along

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Most of us are reluctant to plunk down $30,000 to $50,000 for any vehicle, especially one that's powered by a plug. Despite our reluctance, the electric vehicle market is slowly charging up.

As of January, there are 2,740 electric vehicles operating in the state. That's up from the 2,021 counted in September 2011. The popular Nissan Leaf grabbed 63 percent of the current count. Clark Public Utilities even has one in its fleet of company vehicles.

Today, about 300 electric charging stations operate within the state according to the Washington Department of Transportation. Nearly 6,800 operate nationwide. Compared to the 121,466 gas stations counted by the Census Bureau, that number may look small. But remember, EVs are in their early adoption phase. Like the first gas-powered cars, higher cost, limited availability and few fueling stations dampen their appeal for many.

A Nissan Leaf runs around $35,000 for the current model, but more options may be on the horizon. Most auto manufacturers plan to offer multiple models and are working to drop EV costs. Ford plans to expand to 900 certified dealerships this year to sell its Focus Electric, up from the 200 it had at the end of last year. Certified dealers must have an EV available for test drives and two charging stations β€” one in the service center and another in customer parking.

Electric Highway surging

Along the Interstate 5 corridor, charging stations are sprouting up, making EV travel easier. The Washington stretch of I-5 is part of an emerging 1,300 mile "West Coast Electric Highway" spanning from the northern California border to Vancouver, B.C. Nearly 1,000 charging stations are planned every 25 to 60 miles along this section of freeway.

Locally, there are six charging stations near I-5 in Clark County. Another seven are located in the east county, some close to I-205. You can find charging stations or plan a travel route using the Alternative Fuels Data Center website by simply entering your location or zip code.

Charging stations come in three levels. Level 1 uses 120-volts alternating current, the same as your home, and takes up to 11 hours to recharge a depleted EV battery. Level 2 uses 240-volts AC, about the same as your dryer. It charges an EV in four to six hours. Both Level 1 and 2 are fit for residential use.

Anyone can install a home charger and the utility does not require that customers inform them of an installation, but it is nice to have a heads-up for planning purposes. "We need to plan for the power usage, both in the short-term and for the future," said Lizzy Safranski, Clark Public Utilities' commercial programs manager. "So we'd like customers to call us before installing a charger."

Most chargers in Clark County are Level 2, with a smattering of Level 3. Level 3 chargers target commercial services and fully charge an EV in 30 minutes. The fast Level 3 charging time opens the market for charging EV service fleets and large vans or buses running on huge batteries. With such fast charging times, these chargers make ideal service station chargers. But they may require larger transformers than what is existing on site, and customers must work closely with the utility to install these chargers, Safranski said.

EV owners plug into the public charging station at Clark Public Utilities at I-5 and Mill Plain daily. The 240-volt, Level 2 charger provides a full charge in four to six hours β€” enough for driving 100 miles. To operate the charger, as well as any other local chargers, drivers pay for the energy used to charge the car using a registered Blink Charging Card. On average, during the past four months, customers have charged about 9 kilowatt hours per day at this location, and new EVs are seen in the spot regularly.Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.