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Electric Cars Light Up New Owners, But Could Stress Power Grid


Aired 5/11/11

There are already more than 200 electric only vehicles on San Diego's roads, and that number is expected to increase to 2,000 by December.

— High gas prices helped justify Joe DeCamp’s leap of faith. He owns a $33,000 Nissan Leaf, the first electric-only car to hit the mass consumer market. Now when DeCamp pulls his car into his Carlsbad garage, he is basically entering his own personal filling station.

For the most part it’s a typical suburban garage. The garage serves as a storage room but there’s still plenty of space for two DeCamp family cars.

On one wall is a new electric vehicle charging unit. The $1,200 device resembles a gas pump. The main box is connected to a long thick black hose. The curved nozzle that plugs into the front of the vehicle delivers a 220 volt charge. It is essential infrastructure for one of the county’s newest electric car commuters.

Joe DeCamp shows off the inside of his new Nissan Leaf electric car.
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Above: Joe DeCamp shows off the inside of his new Nissan Leaf electric car.

“Okay, this is basically a 100 percent electric engine,” said DeCamp, as he leans over the front of the car. “It is very different from an internal combustion engine. There’s no transmission. There’s basically an 80 kilowatt electro synchronous motor, down there.”

His wife still drives a gas-powered vehicle, but DeCamp hasn’t stopped at a gasoline filling station since he got his electric car several weeks ago. In fact, he grins when he drives by and sees the high prices.

“I was spending $74 a week to fill my SUV up, every single week,” said DeCamp. “That’s $290 a month for just gas. Just fuel.”

DeCamp figures he paid a bit more than $17 for the electricity to do the same amount of driving in the past few weeks. He knows that because his computer connects wirelessly to the car. Once the information is on the computer, DeCamp can track his driving and share with other electric car enthusiasts.

“You can track very detailed, your usage,” according to DeCamp. “This is pulled up for one day. The 29th of April I traveled 39 miles. That’s a typical commute. 4.3 miles per kilowatt hour. Travel time about an hour.”

The car has a trove of new technology including a smartphone app that can control air conditioning, charging and other functions, remotely. But the electric power source and techonology aren’t the only things that set the car apart from its gas powered cousins. DeCamp’s car only has a range of about 80 miles. That’s enough for his commute, but that’s not enough for everyone.

Joesph Gottlieb works at an Escondido company that makes batteries for all sorts of electric vehicles. He acknowledges that range anxiety is a major obstacle for some.

“A lot of people believe in this country you can drive anywhere you want at any time. If I want to load in my car I can drive from here to Vegas, I can drive from here to Florida if I want to. And so they feel when you’ve got something that’s going to limit your range it’s taking away some freedom of yours,” said Gottlieb.

Changing expectations and better batteries are the solution. He says lithium batteries tucked under the passenger compartment allow the Leaf to look just like a regular car. Gottlieb stands next to a Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck and lifts up the hood.

“This is an older-style EV. And in here you can see, are the golf cart batteries on top of the electric motor,” said Gottlieb. “And as we come around the back side, we’ve got the bed lifted up. And you can see under there, more batteries. There’s 24 of these golf cart batteries. They’re very heavy. 2,400 pounds of batteries.”

Better batteries are what made the Nissan Leaf possible as a commercial product. And almost everyone agrees batteries will only get better as the technology improves.

New Nissan Leaf parked in SDG&E parking lot.
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Above: New Nissan Leaf parked in SDG&E parking lot.

Longer driving ranges may then convince even more San Diego consumers to buy electric cars. It is a prospect that both excites and worries San Diego Gas And Electric’s Jim Avery.

“Virtually every large car manufacturer has announced they’re coming out with an electric vehicle in the next several years,” said Avery.

Two hundred electric-only cars are already in San Diego. Avery expects 10 times as many to be on the road by the end of the year. That quick growth brings challenges.

“In reality, every single car that comes in is three quarters of a new home,” according to Avery. “So we have to plan for the charging infrastructure just like we plan for the addition of a new home in our system. The infrastructure has to be there and we have to have the energy to charge your car.”

San Diego Gas & Electric has planned for the influx of electric vehicles for some time. The company is experimenting with very low power rates between midnight and five am. If the electric car owners only charge overnight, there’s plenty of capacity on the power grid. But if all those new power users start going on line during the day when electricity usage peaks, it could overwhelm the electrical system. Utility officials hope to manage the extra demand without having to spend billions on new infrastructure to boost peak load capacity.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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Avatar for user 'SunDiego'

SunDiego | May 11, 2011 at 7:50 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

The Feds are kicking in $7500 tax credit and the State of California has a $5000 rebate. This brings it down quite a bit off the sticker price. The state of california fund is finite and there are alot of electric cars coming to the roads in a few months

With Hybrid HOV access expiring in July, these Zero emission Vehicles will have HOV access thru 2015, speedier commute!

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Avatar for user 'collegegrad'

collegegrad | May 12, 2011 at 8:27 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

from the article:
“I was spending $74 a week to fill my SUV up, every single week,” said DeCamp. “That’s $290 a month for just gas. Just fuel.”

DeCamp figures he paid a bit more than $17 for the electricity to do the same amount of driving in the past few weeks."

-- by immediately following the '$290/mo' with this 'same amount of driving' statement you've left the listener with the impression that DeCamp has replaced a $290 gasoline bill with only $17 of electricity.

in fact, i believe that that the $17 figure is probably DeCamp's equivalency to the $74/week number, not the $290/mo. This is a nice savings and did not need to be embellished. Making simple assumptions (not given in the article) like $4/gal for gas, 20mi/gal for the SUV and 15 cents/kwh, this comes out close to the previous weekly gasoline expense, not the monthly.

Please be more careful with your figures. Please proof-read and fact-check a little better. i really rely on kpbs for news and i expect better than this.

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Avatar for user 'SunDiego'

SunDiego | May 13, 2011 at 8:02 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Assuming he is getting 4.3 miles per kWh as stated in article

Daily commute is 39, round up to 40, and assuming he drives over the weekend

40 X 7 days = 280 miles/week, 1120 miles/ month

I checked the SDG&E site, SDG&E has multiple rate plans for Electric Vehicles. EV-TOU 1, 2, 3 rates, depending on if he has a single meter for entire house, or separate meter for house and car.

As an early adopter of EV, and participant in the EV project and SDG&E 2 year rate study he may be on the low 0.07646 super off peak rate 12-5 am.

This would result in approximately

1120 miles/month / 4.3 miles per kWh = 260 kWh per month

260 kWh/month X 0.07646 = $19.91

Now assuming the EV-TOU 3 rate at 0.13963 super off peak 12-5am with separate meter which is the default at end of 2 year rate study, the monthly electrical costs would be

260 kWh/month X 0.13963 = $36.31

So it looks like he is on the low rate 2 year study plan, even when he moves to the EV-TOU 3 rate plan, he will be paying $36 vs $290 a month for his old gas guzzler fuel

SDG&E will have to keep rates low for EV users at night, otherwise they will charge during the day and SDG&E will have to build out additional peak capacity which is very expensive. Without low off peak rates, the incentive will not be there, plus EV owners are already paying a premium on this vehicle. Lower energy costs offset this premium, and these EV users provide all of us benefits, cleaner air, no foreign oil, etc. etc.

I would encourage all EV users to be involved in the CUB - Citizen Utility Board, a group that fights to keep the regulated Utility companies honest.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | May 13, 2011 at 8:31 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

It's great to finally see these things on the road and I look forward to more improvements on the range and the sticker price on these cars. There are also quite a few non-electrical cars getting close to 40 mpg now for under 18k and they've got pep and style. In time, with the infrastructure to support it, I think electric would be ideal, but it's encouraging to see improvements with conventional gas engines as well. It's moving America in the right direction - away from the energy dependence on a part of the world that is volatile and unstable.

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