Community Alliance editor Mike Rhodes test drove the all-electric Wheego LiFe at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Photo by Pam Whalen.

Electric Cars: The Future Is Rolling into Fresno

Plug-in all-electric cars are now affordable, and they may be a great deal if you are in the market for a new car. These automobiles are not the golf carts or the $100,000+ roadsters that were the only plug-ins available until late this year. They are small to midsized cars that have the speed, comfort, safety and acceleration of internal combustion vehicles. After tax credits and rebates ($7,500 federal, $5,000 state, $3,000 local), a new electric vehicle will cost you about $20,000. In addition, PG&E will give you a discount on your electric bill through the E9 pricing plan and you will never have to buy gasoline or have your oil changed again.

Advocates for all-electric vehicles say there are two primary reasons why the transition to electric vehicles is picking up steam. They say we have hit what is called “peak oil,” which is the point in time when we have extracted half of all of the oil available on the planet. We have already drilled in all of the easy places, and from now on oil extraction is going to be increasingly more expensive and dangerous. The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the war in Iraq are examples of what we can expect to experience regularly as oil becomes more precious.

The second reason for this transition to electric vehicles is that the exhaust from gas-powered cars and trucks literally is killing us. Our current mode of transportation is a major source of air pollution, leaving many in the Central Valley gasping for breath with asthma. More than 9,000 people a year die prematurely in California from the effects of diesel engines alone, according to state records.

The first two midsized plug-in cars available from local dealers will be the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt. The Leaf, which will be available in December, has already sold out of its initial run of 20,000 cars. Unless you reserved your Leaf earlier this year, you will have to get on a new waiting list that will open early next year. The Leaf costs $32,720 (before the tax credits and rebate), goes 90 miles per hour, carries five passengers and has a range of about 100 miles.

For some drivers, the 100-mile range of the Leaf will be perceived as a problem. Nissan reminds potential buyers that electric cars like the Leaf are intended for city driving and that 70% of us drive less than 40 miles a day. To accommodate longer trips, charging stations are  sprouting up that will give an 80% charge in 30 minutes. These will be set up at businesses, parking garages and other public spaces so you can stop for a short time, get a cup of coffee, and charge up your car. Most charging will take place at home using a 110- or 220-volt power cord.

The Chevrolet Volt is also a plug-in car, but it also has an internal combustion engine so it has an unlimited range. The Volt costs $40,280 (before the tax credits and rebate) and comes with a full 100,000-mile/8-year warranty. Chevrolet says the electricity needed to run the Volt will cost about $1.50 a day.

In addition to the more traditional automobile manufacturers, numerous small companies are entering the electric car market. Wheego produces a two-seat car ($32,995) that has a top speed of about 65 MPH and will travel 100 miles on a charge. I drove a Wheego recently and was impressed with its acceleration, quietness and overall handling.

Another small company selling plug-in electric cars in this region is Zap in Santa Rosa. Its vehicles ride on only three wheels and are technically classified as motorcycles, which are not eligible for the tax rebates. The Zap Alias roadster, which sells for $35,000, is in production, but if you ordered one today it would not be delivered until September 2011.

Zap also has a sedan, the Xebra, that has a range of about 50 miles and can go 40 MPH.  It sells for $12,500 but is not qualified for rebates or tax credits.

There is one company in Fresno that specializes in electric cars. Valectricar, at 6286 North Blackstone, Suite 102, has a line of short-range (25–30 miles) vehicles that travel at 25–30 MPH. Most of these vehicles look a lot like golf carts, but Valectricar says they are street legal and safe.

On the other end of the plug-in car range is the Tesla Roadster, which goes 0–60 in 3.7 seconds, travels 245 miles on a single charge and costs $109,000 (before tax credits and rebate). Tesla must realize that the Roadster is outside of the price range of most mere mortals, so they have now designed the Model S-Sedan that costs $49,000. The sedan will go 300 miles on a single charge and 0–60 in 5.6 seconds. It is expected to be in production and ready for distribution by 2012. One of the great things about Tesla is that the company is building cars in Fremont, California, in a converted factory that had been used by Toyota to produce Corolla and Tacoma vehicles.

Most industry analysts agree that the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt hit the sweet spot in pricing for anyone looking for a moderately priced new car. If demand is any indication of the desirability of electric cars, then they are likely to be extremely popular, because you have to get on a waiting list to buy just about any mid-range all-electric car in the United States.

To determine your eligibility for the $7,500 federal tax credit and the $5,000 California tax credit, you should talk to your accountant or tax preparer. The $3,000 rebate is from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. For details, see http://www.valleyair.org/transportation/removeII/LMD.htm.

Opponents of these new cars are going to argue that, because most electricity is still made with dirty coal and natural gas, they will not improve air quality in the Central Valley. That is a problem, but the solution is simple. This county, state and country desperately need to develop a program of energy independence, converting as fast as possible to solar, wind and other alternative, sustainable sources of energy. The conversion will create jobs, improve our air quality and eliminate the right’s rationale for invading more countries to secure those nation’s oil reserves for our automobiles.

A personal solution to the dirty electrical energy dilemma is to install solar panels at your home. Doing that will provide you with clean electricity to power your nonpolluting plug-in car. Don Loweburg of Offline Solar, one of the Community Alliance newspaper’s advertisers, can help you with that.

 

  • Mike Rhodes is the executive director of theCommunity Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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