The Trouble With Electric Cars 

Plug-in vehicles may remain little more than a novelty until cities begin making it easier for motorists to recharge their batteries at home.

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There are sure to be many other stories like Goulart's unless cities begin preparing adequately for the electric car revival, which is set to begin in December when Nissan introduces its all-electric Leaf. The sporty five-seater is expected to retail for around $30,000, making it the first affordable electric car suitable for the middle class. The car also is eligible for federal rebates, which could push the price closer to $20,000.

Unlike first-generation electric cars, the Leaf also will carry a battery large enough to give it a maximum range of 100 miles. Still, it's initially expected to be purchased by short-distance commuters until quick-charging stations start replacing gas stations around the nation so that motorists can use the Leaf for longer trips. As things currently stand, however, most of those initial buyers will probably have to be homeowners, who, unlike Goulart, have garages or driveways.

The Nissan Leaf will be followed by GM's Chevy Volt in 2011 and the Toyota Prius plug-in in 2011 or 2012. As revolutionary and environmentally desirable as the Leaf is, these other cars may make a larger impact in the short-term because they're plug-in hybrids and not fully electric vehicles. In other words, both cars can operate on their electric batteries for forty miles or so before the gasoline-powered engine clicks on. That way, East Bay motorists can drive as far as Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, or Big Sur without having to worry about recharging their car's battery. Conventional Prius owners, like Goulart, also can transform their cars into plug-ins by purchasing conversion kits from a handful of small companies such as 3Prong Power.

Consumers may also initially prefer the Volt or Prius because both cars can be fully recharged with a typical 110/120-volt outlet common to most homes. As a result, motorists can plug in their cars when they come home at night, and the battery will be replenished when they wake up the next morning.

The Leaf also will work with a 110/120-volt outlet, but because the battery is larger and more powerful it will take fourteen to fifteen hours to fully recharge — which may be too long for some commuters. Consequently, Nissan is suggesting that people who purchase a Leaf install a 220/240-volt outlet that will recharge the car's bigger battery in just eight or nine hours.

Nissan spokesman Tim Gallagher said his company has partnered with the Southern California company AeroVironment to help consumers negotiate the electrical upgrade process. According to AeroVironment vice president Kristen Helsel, the company will help consumers select a licensed electrician and will pull the proper city permits. AeroVironment's 220/240-volt outlet also is weatherproof, so it can go on the side of your house. "We want to make it a pleasant experience — easy for people to do it," she said.

Helsel noted that consumers will be eligible for a $2,000 federal rebate for each installation upgrade at least until the end of this year, although the Obama administration and Congress are expected to extend the rebate through 2011. However, neither Nissan nor AeroVironment has announced how much the upgrades are expected to cost.

The problem is that the price will ultimately depend on the electrical wiring of each house, explained Dan Pitcock, owner of the Oakland-based Robert's Electric Company, a green-friendly electrical contractor that has installed upgrades for Bay Area homeowners who purchased the expensive Tesla electric roadster. Pitcock recommends that consumers who plan to buy the Leaf or other vehicles that would work better with a 220/240-volt outlet should consult with a licensed contractor beforehand to review their home's wiring and determine how much work will be involved. Pitcock noted that some older homes with outdated wiring also may require a service upgrade from Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which could cost several thousand dollars.

But the issues facing homeowners with garages or driveways are minor in comparison to the many obstacles that confront apartment and condo dwellers. One of the basic problems for most apartment buildings, for example, is that they don't provide dedicated parking spots and the spots typically have no access to electrical outlets.

Apartment owners may also consider the costs of running electrical wiring to parking spots to be cost-prohibitive. And even if they decide it's worthwhile to market their buildings to environmentally conscious tenants, there's the thorny problem of ensuring that the electrical outlet at each parking spot corresponds to the meter for that apartment. And then even if apartment owners come to grips with these issues, Bay Area cities have yet to develop a permitting process to let any of it happen.

But while even green cities such as Berkeley have been slow to respond to the coming electric-vehicle wave, one Bay Area green-tech company is offering what appears to be a viable solution for consumers. Coulomb Technologies of Campbell is selling portable high-tech charging stations that can work in apartment garages or city-owned parking facilities. In fact, two East Bay cities, Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill, already have made several such stations available to the public in their downtown areas.

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