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Volt for a day: a peek into the future of electric vehicles

Posted: July 14, 2012 - 11:00pm

On July 4th I got to drive the Chevy Volt in the parade as part of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. After the parade, I revved it up the hill to Eaglecrest. It was great fun to experience the future of cars and you know what I discovered? The future was quiet – no engine noise — and dominated by energy awareness. If you’ve only 40 miles of charge available you pay attention to the energy use modes and the screens and the graphics showing your energy flow pattern and energy efficiency level are quite alluring and informative. You become so much more aware of your driving and the energy flow through the car. Putting the Volt in sport mode dropped my remaining miles in half. Fortunately, Fish Creek road is only 5 miles long.

Having everything relatively close is what makes Juneau an ideal candidate city to go all electric. With the average Valley commute being 22 miles, Juneau is not range limited by the current battery capacity of the Volt (40 miles in all electric, 350 miles in gas extended range). We need not have ‘range anxiety’ with the current fleet of available electric vehicles. The 2012 Ford Focus Electric gets 76 miles per charge according to EPA tests. One company, Tesla Motors, has a sports car with an all electric range greater than 300 miles. Here in Juneau that means driving to the end of the road as much as we want, all powered by local rain.

Yes, indeed it’s Juneau’s hydroelectric capacity and potential that makes the notion of going electric so appealing. Because we’re not replacing gas energy with coal generated electricity, like large swaths of the United States, going electric actually significantly reduces greenhouse gasses. We might need to revisit the capacity question if all of Juneau went electric all at once. This is an unlikely problem given the cost of these vehicles.

The Volt retails for about $38,500, the Focus $37,000 and the premier sport electric retails for about $50,000. Not cheap. But you do save lots by not pumping gas. A friend of mine at AEL&P did some approximations about comparative energy costs. He figures that a Chevy Volt using off-peak electricity rate of $0.0982 kWh (kilowatt hour) could drive 35 miles for a cost of $1.27. Using the most efficient gas vehicles, getting 35 MPG, it would cost $4.35 to drive the same distance. The $3.08 difference in daily energy savings is substantial and represents a 70 percent reduction in energy costs. Over time this can make that sticker price less shocking and could increase profitability for commercial users of electric vehicles.

The other factor that will bring the price down is reaching economies of scale so that new developments in batteries and infrastructure become more affordable. Auto analysts monitoring electric car sales and developments predict that the plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) market will develop and grow, but not at the scale or pace previously anticipated by key proponents of the technology. The frequently quoted goal of reaching 1 million PEVs on the road in the United States by 2015 will not be met until early 2018. It is anticipated that this million vehicle threshold will help reduce prices, making electric vehicle more price competitive to gas fueled vehicles.

Another thing I learned as a result of driving the Volt for a day is that there is broad bipartisan support for making the electrification of America’s transportation sector a national security priority. This is because the sharp reduction in petroleum consumption associated with a major shift to electric (i.e. having 75 percent of all U.S. passenger miles be electric miles by 2040) would reduce the U.S.’s vulnerability to the serious volatility of the global oil market.

So not only can we do something good for the earth, but we can also aid in strengthening our national security. With the price of gas increasing and economies of scale developing in the electric vehicle marketplace, it will become more affordable to also do right by our pocket books.

To help get Juneau started in this direction, AEL&P is offering a $.0580 kWh Experimental Electric Vehicle Rate for customers with electric plug-in vehicles. This special rate is part of a pilot program designed to gather data on electric vehicle use and its impact to our energy load. The program is open to the first 10 customers who sign up, and who already own electric vehicles rated for at least 40-miles per charge. Knowing how fun it was drive the Volt, I sure wish I was in a position to take AEL&P up on this generous offer.

• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas.

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