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San Diego Is ‘Roll-Out’ City For Electric Cars

San Diego is one of the first cities where Nissan has launched its first mass-produced, plug-in electric car, the Leaf, a five-seat compact.

Soon to come is the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid which will make its local debut in February.

Thomas Franklin of San Diego was the first to take delivery of the Leaf in Southern California earlier this month. Franklin is a patent attorney who works with clean-technology companies.

Becoming the first owner of an electric vehicle (EV) in San Diego placed Franklin in the media spotlight. He also became an immediate hit with colleagues, clients and friends.

“I keep handing over the keys to someone else," Franklin said. "I’ve driven around about half the people in the office; I’ve taken out my clients. Everybody is just tickled to be a part of history."

Franklin, who was chosen from a list of buyers, expected to get his car sometime in 2011. So he was really surprised when he found out he would be the first in town to get it.

He said the car is quick to respond, unlike a gasoline-powered vehicle which has a lag between when you step on the gas pedal and when it actually moves forward.

"There is no transmission, it’s direct drive," Franklin said. "And the reaction is instantaneous."

He can walk to shopping and dining from his La Jolla home; he only drives to work and to ferry his children to their activities.

So range anxiety, or concern about how far the EV will go on a single charge, is not a concern for him.

“My commute is about 20 miles, so I haven’t had to worry about it.”

The Leaf has a range of 70 to 100 miles and needs about seven hours for a full charge with a 240-volt charger.

The base model retails for around $32,000. But qualifying buyers get a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 and a California state rebate of up to $5,000.

The Volt is primarily an EV that can get up to 40 miles on a single charge. After the battery runs out, a gas-powered motor kicks in and continues to propel the car.

The Volt sells for about $41,000 and is eligible for the federal tax credit, but not the state rebate, because it does not qualify as a zero-emission vehicle.

A good portion of those switching to EVs happen to be people who currently drive the Toyota Prius.

Mike Ferry is the transportation programs manager at the California Center for Sustainable Energy, which administers the rebate. (Its web site has guidelines on how to apply.)

He said it’s exciting to be a part of this new era. “We are at the forefront of this revolution in automotive transportation.”

San Diego was picked to be a launch market for a couple of reasons: The state policy which promotes zero-emission vehicles; and the cooperation of San Diego Gas & Electric.

“San Diego was able to partner early on in the process and bring these companies into the area,” Ferry said.

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and SDG&E were instrumental in setting the city up, both as a key launch market and to participate in the EV Project, funded by the Department of Energy.

The $115 million EV Project enables several states, including California, Texas, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, to receive free charging stations for public areas such as malls, residential charging units for the first 1,000 buyers of EVs, and fast-charge stations near freeways.

So early Leaf owners such as Franklin receive a free charging unit that is installed in their home; they only have to pay for the electricity.

“San Diego is the cornerstone of the EV Project in California. There is none in the Bay Area and L.A was added only recently,” Ferry said.

The EV Project will collect and analyze data on vehicle use in diverse terrain and climate conditions, evaluate the effectiveness of the charging infrastructure, and conduct trials on various revenue systems for commercial and public revenue.

Ecotality is an EV service provider that is working with the DOE to supply the free charging stations.

Andy Hoskinson, area manager for Ecotality, said charging costs will be minimal in public places.

“You may see some locations where the cost to refill the vehicle is free, because the host has elected to pay the cost. And you might see that range up to a $1.50 or so for every hour that the vehicle is connected and charging,” Hoskinson said.

Ecotality’s charger, called the Blink, costs $1,200 for residential units, $2,500 for the ones installed in public places and $20,000 for the fast-charge units that will be located near freeways.

If you were to plug your car into a 480-volt quick charge station, it would take about 30 minutes to get to an 80-percent charge.

For depleted batteries, it will take about seven hours when plugged into a 240 volt residential or public station.

An EV plugged into a regular 110-volt socket will take about 20 hours, for the battery to go from empty to full.

Aside from the Blink, there are other brands sold by different EV service providers such as Coulomb Technologies, Better Place and AeroVironment.

Charging an electric car at home increases the load, which could lead to power outages without proper planning. Coping with the increased load is something SDG&E has anticipated for several years.

The utility has worked with Ecotality and Nissan dealerships to pinpoint residential areas where there will be a concentration of these cars.

Hoskinson said the area around state route 56, which starts at the end of Ted Williams Parkway in Carmel Mountain and goes through Rancho Penasquitos and Carmel Valley, is one such cluster.

“We anticipate electric vehicles will be popular where today's hybrids are located,” said April Bolduc, communications manager with SDG&E. However, she said the utility is still working on identifying these areas.

Charging an EV is equivalent to running an electric dryer. It draws about 3.3 kilowatts per hour from the grid.

Car owners are encouraged to charge at home between midnight and 6 a.m. during off-peak hours. Leaf owner Franklin said he plugs his car in when he comes home and the built-in timer begins charging at midnight.

Bolduc said SDG&E is working with the California Public Utilities Commission to develop rates that will give EV customers an incentive to charge during off-peak hours, at night and early mornings when costs are low. That can save as much as 75 percent compared with using gasoline.

“Drivers get a low rate, there is a reduction in harmful air emissions, and we reduce the need for building and operating new power plants. It's a cleaner win-win for everyone,” Bolduc said.

When it comes to dealing with the increased demand for power from EVs, Bolduc said a smart grid is the answer.

“The great thing about smart meters is that they are going be able to help us predict what the condition is of the transformers that are in a particular neighborhood. So over time we’ll be able to make those transformers smarter,” Bolduc said.

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