Getting plugged in with electric cars

The number of Clark County residents driving electric cars is small but increasing

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

Published:

 

Amid the minivans and SUVs in the parking lot at the soccer field, Jo Roberts' electric car stands out.

She's one of a small but growing number of Clark County residents unhooking from the gas pump.

"We have a lot of electricity from hydropower, so it makes complete sense to me. Fuel prices are only going up, and I want to have less dependence on oil," said Roberts, who lives in downtown Vancouver with her husband and two tween sons.

She drives her recently leased Nissan Leaf to her job as a research director of an herbal supplement company in Sandy, Ore., but only once a week, and telecommutes the rest of the time. "The main portion of my driving is running kids back and forth to school and activities," Roberts said. "They love it."

Electric cars, though hardly common, are merging into the mainstream as their prices shrink and their ranges grow, making them a viable choice in family-centric Clark County.

Only 312, or nine-hundredths of 1 percent, of the 362,203 licensed vehicles in Clark County are electric. The state tracks electric cars that can travel faster than 35 mph because it charges owners a $100 annual fee in lieu of the gas tax.

Lease for less than gas

Around here, you're more likely to spot a Nissan Leaf than a Tesla Roadster, the first highway-capable all-electric vehicle in serial production in the United States. Ridgefield resident Steve Erickson said electric car evangelists like him may fantasize about owning a Tesla, which Consumer Reports named the car of the year for 2014, but the price tag is a barrier. Consumer Reports paid nearly $90,000 for the Model S Tesla it tested. The Ford Focus electric, Chevy Spark and Mitsubishi iMiEv ring up at about a third or less of that. Nissan has captured the lion's share of the still tiny market for electric cars. A base-model Leaf runs about $30,000, and Nissan offers leases for $199 a month.

People who never would have considered leasing a vehicle are signing on the dotted line.

"The last 10 cars I bought, I paid cash for," said Erickson, a financial adviser. "When these (electric cars) were first coming out I said, 'I don't want to be stuck with big brick cellphone.' We're in the third year of our lease, and there's a lot more choices out there."

His kids, 3-year-old Ian and 7-year-old Grace, race each other to greet him when he returns home from work, each hoping to be the one to plug the car into the garage outlet. They pinch their noses at the smell of exhaust.

Although Erickson, Roberts and other electric-car drivers say they do so to reduce dependence on foreign oil or shrink their carbon footprint, they also have their eyes on the bottom line.

Erickson pays about $30 extra a month on electricity to charge his car. Before, he spent about $300 a month on gas for his 40-mile round-trip commute to his office in Vancouver.

Like Erickson, other drivers of electric cars are more likely to have relied on used cars in the past, according to research by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. The 2013 report also found plug-in car owners are likely to own a second gas-powered vehicle.

Range anxiety

That's handy to have if a family ever wants to drive farther than 84 miles, the average range for the Leaf.

Roberts, who's still getting accustomed to her Leaf, makes sure it's fully charged when she sets off for work and then plugs it in at the office.

"It's for peace of mind," she said.

Erickson's wife, Alisha, was driving their Leaf soon after they acquired it when it almost ran out of juice near the freeway exit to their house. She called Nissan for the free roadside assistance it offers to Leaf drivers.

"Range anxiety was a big deal," Alisha Erickson said.

Electric cars show remaining battery power on the dash console.

"Now I know it's like a gas tank," Alisha said. "It makes you aware of how much you are using. We have to pay attention rather than just consume."

"The car teaches you how to drive more efficiently," her husband added. "Now I actually drive gas vehicles differently."

Erickson doesn't have to be as careful as when he first started driving his electric car three years ago. Dots now crowd the online map of electric charging stations (afdc.energy.gov/locator/stations), with outlets at Fred Meyer, Walgreens and other stores.

Because electric car batteries can lose power in temperature extremes, Erickson plugged into charging stations more frequently during last winter's cold snap. It was the first time he ever noticed any competition for the outlets.

If forecasts for a global surge in electric car production bear out, that's likely to happen more often.