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

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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.

“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.

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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