All charged up, but nowhere to plug

2011-10-16T00:00:00Z 2011-10-17T12:45:05Z All charged up, but nowhere to plugBy Bowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

After Valparaiso resident David Garfin finished whipping a white plug-in hybrid sedan around curves in Northfield, Ill., he wondered what took so long.

Garfin admitted there are barriers to acceptance of electric vehicles. But with a potential $7,500 federal tax credit and the opportunity to buy a vehicle that's better for the environment than other performance sports cars made the decision easy for him.

The final price tag could be more than $100,000 if he takes delivery of the vehicle later this year.

"It bothers me to drive something that's 19 miles per gallon when there's something out there's that's better," Garfin said.

Most vehicles that run on electricity don't cost six figures. Regardless, vehicle costs, lack of available charging stations and "range anxiety" give potential car buyers pause.

As electric cars are coming with automakers racing to develop various types of vehicles, questions remain on how quickly buyers adapt to or support the trend. 

Carl Lisek, co-executive director of the Merrillville-based nonprofit South Shore Clean Cities Inc., estimated there could be fewer than a dozen electric vehicles on Northwest Indiana roads, not including the Think City vehicles 10 region municipalities received in September. Many electric vehicles haven't been made available for sale in Northwest Indiana, but people in the region are still playing catch up in terms of understanding the technology.

"There's a lack of knowledge in northern Indiana on the benefits of electric vehicles," Lisek said.

Local governments take notice

Budget constraints and gas price shocks in recent years have forced municipalities to be doubly conscious on how to spend dollars for fuel to complete tasks ranging from public safety to street cleaning.

Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist if his colleagues in municipal government aren't sold on green technology, they will be interested in saving another type of green -- money.

Soderquist estimated it costs about 92 cents a week to charge a vehicle the Parks Department uses for tasks which could include emptying 55-gallon drums. At least $150 a week was spent in gas to fill a 1978 Chevrolet truck previously commissioned to do the same tasks, he said.

"It's a huge marketing tool in sharing success stories with my colleagues on how they can do better and save money," Soderquist said.

The city of Lake Station now has six vehicles that can run on electricity used for a variety of tasks ranging from code enforcement to emptying park trash receptacles.

Dyer town officials admit the charging posts outside the town hall haven't gotten much use since they were installed two years ago. At least one station is now used regularly to charge a Think City vehicle the town was able to receive through a grant.

"Certainly there's no charge, everyone's welcome to (them)," said Interim Town Manager Rick Eberly.

Eberly said electric vehicles with limited range may not work for many families as a primary vehicle, but it has some "real good application" as a secondary automobile. He said one drawback is that the Think City vehicle takes at least 16 hours to fully charge at the town hall charging station.

Ready and waiting

Hybrids have captured about 4 percent of the automobile market, but a research firm is projecting plug-in hybrids and battery electrics to capture less than 2 percent of the market by 2017, said John Gartner, research director for Pike Research of Boulder, Colo..

"I think we're not there yet," Gartner said. "The penetration rates Pike Research is expecting is similar to the slow and steady growth that hybrids had. ... We're still a ways away for it being a mass market vehicle."

High gas prices could tip the scale toward increased acceptance of electric vehicles, he said.

Earlier this month, the sight of a new charging station at River Oaks Mall in Calumet City surprised Lansing resident Rashedda Cole so much she got out her vehicle to inspect the parking lot installation. She said it's great that the electric vehicle technology exists, but the prices are too steep for many interested car buyers. 

"I wouldn't," Cole said about buying the vehicle. "I know it's good for the environment. If I had the money, if I were a millionaire, then maybe. It's sharp but I wouldn't spend $40,000 on it."

Another key in how fast people take to electric cars is how long they will be waiting for their vehicles to charge, 350Green LLC CEO Mariana Gerzanych said. Electric vehicles under development will have to be able to accept electricity from the higher voltage, fast charging stations that could recharge a battery within an hour in order for more people to buy in.

Making the pitch

Employees from local automobile dealerships ranging from General Motors to Nissan say buyers are interested and excited about the potential of electric vehicles. Robert Coffey, sales associate at Nissan of Chesterton, said there's interest in vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf because of the marketing the automaker has done, but also for the potential the vehicles hold.

"This is definitely bringing a new excitement to the dealership," Coffey said. "... It's going to bring about a change. We're all excited about seeing the shift from gas to electric."

Many people describe "range anxiety" as one of the biggest barries to higher levels of electric vehicle adoption. Range anxiety is the fear of driving in an electric vehicle and then the battery dies without access to a charging station. Dealership employees and automakers say their plans to roll out or sell vehicles that also run on gasoline or use gasoline to power key vehicle components. Micheal Thiele, a sales consultant at Team Chevrolet in Valparaiso, said GM's pitch to customers is that the Volt "is more car than electric" to help people overcome range anxiety.

Lisek of South Shore Clean Cities said he and his wife Lorrie have been driving a Think electric vehicle for three months and it has saved a lot of money in traveling between work and home.

"I'm not saying it's (electric vehicles are) going to replace every vehicle on the common road," Lisek said. "We'll always have a demand for fossil fuels in the U.S., but we as Americans want choice."

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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