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Electric Cars in San Diego


It might be easier than ever to drive and maintain an electric car in San Diego. We chat with experts about the benefits of going electric.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Back in the 1990s a group of California drivers were given a prototype electric car from General Motors to drive around and see how they liked it. Well, they loved it, but GM didn't and the company confiscated and destroyed the EV-1 vehicles. Many of the trial drivers were so upset, they even made a movie about the doomed project called "Who Killed the Electric Car." Well, with a new administration in Washington and as gas prices start to creep up over the three dollar mark again, there's a new pilot program planned for electric cars and one of the chosen test sites is right here in San Diego. Earlier this month it was announced that about a thousand of the new Nissan electric cars called the "Leaf" will be assigned to local drivers, and SDG&E will study how those cars are being used. The San Diego Association of Governments is also involved in the project, to study where the best places would be to put public charging stations. To explain how this project will work and the broader topic of the viability of a new generation of electric cars, I'd like to welcome my guests. Mark Duvall is Director of Electronic Transportation for the Electric Power Research Institute. Mark, welcome to These Days.

MARK DUVALL (Director of Electronic Transportation, Electric Power Research Institute): Thank you. And thank you for having me on the show.

CAVANAUGH: And Joel Pointon is the manager of Electric Transportation at SDG&E. Joel, good morning.

JOEL POINTON (Manager of Electric Transportation, SDG&E): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question about this new electric car program, give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Let me start with you, Joel. The U.S. Department of Energy is behind this pilot project. How was San Diego selected as one of the test sites?

POINTON: Well, a little over a year ago, SDG&E, the Electric Transportation Program, invited Nissan to come to San Diego to talk to us about a new project that they had. They wouldn't tell us too much about it. We had to go through and sign a nondisclosure agreement. But they informed us that they had an electric car that they were going to be bringing to the market and they were talking to us about how they could network with the appropriate agencies in our region to get their support for fleet placements for this vehicle. We held a meeting with SANDAG and all of the regional partners that are now part of the ETEC grant that will be going forward and introduced the idea of this electric car and asked for, you know, people's interest. And then back in March, Nissan brought their prototype vehicle to San Diego. We had the Broadway Pier all to ourselves. We set up a test track and we invited our partners to come down and drive the vehicle. Nissan was very impressed with the reception they got here in San Diego and when the stimulus grants were proposed, ETEC had approached Nissan and Nissan recommended the San Diego…


POINTON: …region to be one of the five metropolitan regions included in the project.

CAVANAUGH: And what is SDG&E's part in this project? What are you going to be doing?

POINTON: We're going to be coordinating with ETEC, which is the Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation. They've received this $100 million grant from stimulus funds, and we'll be working directly with them on issues such as siting. Along with SANDAG, we'll be working with UC Davis using a modeling program they have to determine where the charging stations will go in the San Diego region. We're also looking at issues that we may have internally, such as our distribution of electricity and of the transformers and neighborhoods to see what kind of impact these vehicles will have. We'll be working directly with the Idaho National Labs, which will be collecting the information from the vehicles and the charging stations. And most importantly, we'll be coordinating customer service here for our utility customers to make sure that we're meeting their needs relative to the installations and the services that they need.

CAVANAUGH: And, Mark, I want to ask you because you are with the Electric Power Research Institute, which is a nonprofit. You're kind of supporting SDG&E in this. What is your agency going to be doing?

DUVALL: Well, yes, SDG&E is one of our utility members and they've been working with us since they sort of reformed their Electric Transportation group and put Joel on this – Well, at the time, three, four years ago, it was a pretty daunting task. So the world has really changed rapidly in the last couple of years. We've gone from wondering, thinking that electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids and other plug-in vehicles could be here someday to realizing that they are going to be here in maybe just a little under 14 months. So the world is changing very rapidly. We're helping SDG&E study the impact of vehicle charging on their system. That's a big part of a project like this, to understand how utilities can serve a lot of electric vehicles without incurring a lot of extra cost to do it. I mean, your utility, wherever you are, they're going to get electricity to you no matter what happens, no matter what kind of device you try and plug in. That's their role and their responsibility, is to provide and deliver reliable, safe electricity. But there's a lot of good ways you can do this and maybe some not-so-good ways we can do it. And I think that this, the opportunity of a project this large is to really get it and understand how you deliver electricity to the vehicles. San Diego Gas & Electric is going to be the gas station…


DUVALL: …for these vehicles and they have a lot to learn about how to provide electricity to these customers, keep them happy, and make sure that there are a lot of benefits to everyone from doing it.

CAVANAUGH: You know, there's so many questions for both of you but there are so many people who want to get in on the conversation. I'm going to be starting to take phone calls but I just want to be clear. How are people going to be – are people going to actually be selected to drive these new Leaf cars, Joel?

POINTON: The – San Diego's one of the five metropolitan areas where the Leaf will go direct to public in 2010. We'll see the first vehicles arrive in the United States in December of 2010. People will purchase these directly…

CAVANAUGH: Purchase, okay.

POINTON: …from the dealership. And if people are interested in the vehicle now, they can go to They can register their interest and we'll be basically using that interest handraiser as a queueing for the free infrastructure installations that are part of this project.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So somebody buys an electric car and then they say they want to be part of the project.

POINTON: Correct. Well, by saying that they're interested in purchasing the vehicle, the first 1000 vehicles…


POINTON: …in San Diego will receive a free home installation of their infrastructure, their charging unit.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let's take a call. We are taking your calls, by the way, at 1-888-895-5727. And let's take a call from Allison in Tierrasanta. Good morning, Allison. Welcome to These Days.

ALLISON (Caller, Tierrasanta): Hi. I was calling with the question about the concern of trading one fossil fuel for another because most of our electricity is provided by coal. And it seems that our current administration is very against any new nuclear power plants and my husband has worked in nuclear power in the Navy for over 20 years and it's clean and it's safe. So I'm unsure how we would be – really be saving the environment by plugging our cars into coal, basically.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. And either one of you gentlemen want to tell us how we might be saving our environment by getting into electric cars. Perhaps you, Mark?

DUVALL: Yeah, let me add to that. The first thing is that coal-fired electricity produces about 50% of our electricity but it doesn't produce 50% of the new electricity so every year our electricity demand grows, and that's expected to continue into the foreseeable future that every year we find new things to plug in. And as the – as environmental constraints like fighting climate – fighting global warming, as those increase, we tend to shift more things to electricity so every year we need more electricity and that new electricity is really not coming from coal. It's coming from very efficient natural gas plants. It's coming from wind. So that the two most popular power plants built in the United States, all through the United States last year, were natural gas and wind. And in California, it's almost entirely natural gas and wind and some other renewables so the mix is very clean. But we have studied the entire country and there's really nowhere where you're not going to plug these vehicles in. You're going to get an environmental benefit over using gasoline. They – We're very clear on that. We've really looked at that issue because it's an important one. And we find that there is a pretty significant benefit no matter where you plug in, and there's not a lot of new coal plants being built. There's quite a few new nuclear plants proposed and there are some coals plants, and in general we believe that you, as long as technology – power plant technology can meet the environmental constraints of the future, the requirements, and one of them is going to be low CO2 emissions. Some of them will get built if they're cost effective, so I think you'll continue to see a mix. But there's a lot of renewables in the future, a lot of very clean power plant technology in the future so it's not something that we worry about.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Mark is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Mark, and welcome to These Days.

MARK (Caller, San Diego): Hi. My question is, I know that they have solar powered vehicles out there and I wondered if there'll ever be a way to have your – have a solar energy system at home where you collect the solar energy and use that to get the energy for the car, like a portable device that you get the solar – the sun gives you the energy and you plug it into the car and then you charge it for the night and then go just like you would for regular electricity.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that question, Mark. And, Joel or Mark, either one. Is solar energy – a solar powered car – We're hardly there with electric cars.

POINTON: Well, we will see an increasing amount of renewable energy available for recharging these vehicles. Here in California, we have a mandate to have 20% of our electricity be renewable by 2010, and 33% by 2020. You will need larger installations of photovoltaic cells than would be possible on a portable system to charge a vehicle. But, definitely, people with home solar systems can tap into that resource.


MARK: Yeah, I would add that the best thing that you want to do – If you want a solar powered car, you put solar panels on your house. California already has net metering so – because one of the things is that you put solar panels on your house, well, your car's not at home. You're probably at work during the day and so the solar energy just goes back into the grid and your neighbors use it and other people use it and then you come home and plug in and so your meter turns backward during the day when your solar panels are producing their full output and you go and plug in at night and you – you're basically taking your energy back. So you can, in effect, do it today, and people are already doing that right now.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Sheri is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, Sheri. Welcome to These Days.

SHERI (Caller, Carlsbad): Thank you. I'm the mom of three little ones and I'm wondering how big the cars are because it seems like when I've looked at hybrids or other things before, there's not a lot – or, at least electric cars, there's not a lot out there that allows me to put three kids, especially because I've got twins that are in car seats, a slightly older one who's still in a booster seat. So how big are these vehicles?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Sheri. How big are they, Joel?

POINTON: The Nissan Leaf will accommodate five adults. It's a hatchback. It will have a hundred mile range on a charge. The backseat seats three adults so I would hope that would accommodate two children in car seats.

CAVANAUGH: And how expensive are these new Leaf cars going to be?

POINTON: We don't have a final pricing yet for the vehicle. We've been given a range by their CEO of $25,000 to $33,000. We think it'll be in the middle there somewhere. Also here in the United States, we have a $7500 federal tax credit that the vehicles will qualify for and the California Air Resources Board is presently putting together a electric vehicle rebate system that will provide a $5,000 cash rebate. So the combination is about $12,500 worth of tax credit and rebate that will qualify for this program.

CAVANAUGH: I'm interested in talking a little bit more about these charging stations because in my mind they're kind of like gas stations, I guess, you know, where you just go in and you plug in your car. But doesn't that all have to do with the battery power in the car and how much of a charge it will maintain for how long a time, Joel?

POINTON: Right, exactly. The battery size is going to be very important when we're talking about all-electric vehicles, which the Nissan Leaf is. These batteries will be about a 24 kilowatt hour size battery. When you're looking at something like the Chevy Volt, which is a plug-in hybrid format, which uses both gasoline and electricity but you start off using electricity in that format, that has a 16 kilowatt hour battery. So you can have a smaller battery in your plug-in hybrids because once you've extinguished the battery you then have the gasoline to either generate the electricity that the car will use to go an additional 300 miles or you'll have something like a Prius format which it'll alternate between electricity and gasoline.

CAVANAUGH: And, Mark, isn't the idea that for most people if you have a good enough battery in your electric car that you'll plug it in overnight and then use it during the day and not have to charge it outside your home?

DUVALL: Yes, that's the case. I'm actually still sympathizing with the previous caller because it's really hard to fit three car seats in the backseat of any car. And I have friends with hybrids that ask me how to do it all the time. And, anyway, that's – It is tough. They always start with somewhat, you know, modest size cars…


DUVALL: …but I'm pretty confident they'll be – within a few years, they'll be quite a few models on the market. But what we always would like to see from the purpose of electricity is, we want to see the vehicle owners get very low cost electricity and we want to see utilities be able to provide electricity when they have a lot of capacity. And because that really helps – that helps everyone since, you know, regulated utilities have certain rates, if they can get more efficient at doing business, everyone's rates go down a little bit. So electric vehicles have the ability to not only be good for the owner and driver, they could actually help keep rates relative – a little bit lower for all the ratepayers. So this is something that, you know, everyone can benefit from, and that generally happens by charging, you know, at night. But I think it's more important to just not charge during the hottest days of the summer.


DUVALL: So you would want to see people, you know, when they're at home, you'd want to see – in the summer, you'd want to see charging start maybe after eight or nine o'clock, depending on how – the – how hot the weather was. And in the morning, say you drive to work and they have chargers at work for you, charging in the morning up until noon is probably fine. And then but on weekends and the non-summer months, the cooler months of the year then just charge anytime.

CAVANAUGH: This is fascinating. And, Joel, do you have a plan, your – SDG&E developing a plan for multi-unit dwellings? For condominium complexes and apartment houses?

POINTON: I'm glad you asked. We've identified that multi-unit dwellings are going to be one of the more challenging scenarios. You have people that have vehicles but may not have control over where they park those vehicles so there need to be agreements or policies in place with the homeowner association, property management, so we'll be doing an outreach program in San Diego towards the end of this year to let people know that these are the types of policies that they will need to work out for their multi-unit dwelling facilities in preparation for when one of their residents approaches them and says I wish to purchase a plug-in vehicle, what are we going to do? Where is it going to go? Who's going to pay for the electricity?

CAVANAUGH: And is there – I know that you're going to be installing the plug-in stations free for the first 1000 people who sign up in this pilot program. Any idea how much it might be in the future, though, to install one of those plug-in chargers at your home?

POINTON: The estimates we've heard are about $500.00 for the hardware and then the – the actual installation costs will vary. If you have a 220 circuit, these are all 220 chargers, 220 circuit in your garage already, it'll be a very simple installation but if you have to upgrade a panel and put additional wiring, it'll be a bit more complicated and more expensive.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take…

DUVALL: I'd like to add…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, go ahead. Yes.

DUVALL: …about this. The – That you can charge these vehicles off of a 120 volt outlet, too. So if you have an outlet in your garage, you can just plug in a special cord set, too, and charge from that. And if you have something like a plug-in hybrid like a Chevy Volt or some of these cars they've talked about, that's really actually a viable way to charge. If you have a pure electric vehicle where you only have the battery to get you around, then you want to charge at a higher rate and that's when you really need someone – you need the installation of the home charging system to help you do that.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Pedro is calling from San Marcos. Good morning, Pedro. Welcome to These Days.

PEDRO (Caller, San Marcos): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can I help you?

PEDRO: I have a question. This study is including cars but what about motorcycles and bicycles that – or anything in between a bicycle and a car that might require also charging and I believe the studies will define or establish what type of sockets and plug systems we're going to be using in the future and if that's going to include some – or will affect bicycles, motorcycles that are in the range of one to two kilowatts now, battery size.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. What about electric motorcycles, Joel?

POINTON: Well, one thing I want to address, this project also includes 1600 installations at public and commercial sites. And the connector on these units will all be 220 chargers, will be the universal charger that is called J-1772 and is something that we've worked on for two years with the EPRI Group on their Infrastructure Working Council. That'll be a national standard for vehicles plugging in. Motorcycles and smaller vehicles are usually charging on a 110…


POINTON: …because of their much smaller capacity. So they would not be compatible with these public chargers that we're seeing that are designed for much larger units. And we will also have in this project 50 fast charge units, and those fast charge units, the idea is to locate them along charging corridors. One of the other cities that is involved in this five-city project is Phoenix so we're looking at a charging corridor being established between San Diego and Phoenix and then we'd also go north probably along route 5 going towards the north.

DUVALL: There's actually – There are actually models of electric vehicle chargers made that they have a unit up top that does the high powered charging for the vehicles and then they have weatherized outlets near the base, and a lot of bicycles and some of these scooters, electric scooters that – what we would call the light electric vehicles or small electric vehicles, a lot of times they just have a very simple connector of just a normal plug and so it is poss – it can be possible with a little, maybe, citizen advocacy to get some of the public chargers to have these weatherized outlets so that the kind of existing base of small electric vehicles can use them. So you can do both.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take another call. Brian is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Brian, and welcome to These Days.

BRIAN (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning. Thank you. I have a question and an idea. First question is, what's the replacement cost of the batteries? Someone I was talking to the other day, of course the Prius, line of Priuses are, gosh, I don't know, what are they? Eight years old or so by now, so some of those batteries are probably needing to be replaced. And this person said, oh, yeah, that's about $7000.00. Is that accurate? And what would be the replacement cost on these new batteries?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Brian. What's the replacement cost for the batteries?

POINTON: The battery is a significant part of the cost of the vehicle. And the technology today, that would be a very significant portion of that price. I can't project for you exactly what replacement costs will be but I do know that we're looking at the costs of those batteries, the lithium ion batteries, to decrease significantly over the coming years.

CAVANAUGH: To get that price down, yeah. Yeah.

DUVALL: Yeah, the truth is they're not replacing very many hybrid batteries, not today. The technology turned out to be very, very reliable. So there's a very, very small amount of battery replacements, and I think it's a couple thousand dollars for a vehicle like a Prius to replace the battery. With electric vehicles, I think as the technology matures, I think you'll also find very, very few battery replacements…

CAVANAUGH: And it is also true…

DUVALL: …but they will be expensive.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, so they will continue to be expensive for at least the time being.

DUVALL: They'll get cheap – They'll get much, much cheaper over time so if you – if you were an early adopter and you went out and purchased an electric vehicle sometime in the next couple of years, you know, expect it to last a long time, maybe even the life of the car. I mean, I – We – I think we anticipate that the battery's going to last as long as you might expect an engine or a transmission to last, and those things are expensive to replace as well.

CAVANAUGH: We're almost out of time and I do want to get back to the whole idea of this pilot program. So, Joel, let's just kind of reiterate. When does this start and how might people get involved in it?

POINTON: The very first vehicles will roll off the production line in October of 2010. The first vehicles will be received in the United States in December of 2010. This project will kick off, we'll begin installing infrastructure in quarter two, quarter three of next year in preparation for the vehicles. And the – that will go over a one-year time period and if you're interested in the Nissan Leaf, in those 1000 free infrastructure installations that'll go with the first 1000 vehicles, please go to and click on their 100% zero emissions link and that'll bring you to the Leaf portion and you can register your interest in the vehicle.

CAVANAUGH: Very interesting. Thank you both. Mark Duvall,

Director of Electric Transportation for the Electric Power Research Institute. Mark, thank you so much.

DUVALL: Okay, thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Joel Pointon is manager of Electric Transportation for San Diego Gas & Electric. And I want everyone to know that – I want to thank everyone who called. We didn't get a chance to get everybody on, so if you want to post your comments or you want to see some more of the information that we talked about, just go online,

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