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Utility Officials Preparing For Influx Of Electric Only Vehicles

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Aired 5/11/11

There are currently more than 200 electric only vehicles on local roads, but experts are predicting that number could increase to 2000 by December. We speak to KPBS Business Reporter Erik Anderson about the advances in electric car technology, and what local utilities are doing to prepare for the increase in electric vehicles.

The Nissan Leaf is one of the electric only vehicles that you might see on local roads in the next few months.
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Above: The Nissan Leaf is one of the electric only vehicles that you might see on local roads in the next few months.

There are currently more than 200 electric only vehicles on local roads, but experts are predicting that number could increase to 2000 by December. We speak to KPBS Business Reporter Erik Anderson about the advances in electric car technology, and what local utilities are doing to prepare for the increase in electric vehicles.

Guest

Erik Anderson, KPBS Business Reporter

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: With gas prices near four and a half bucks a gallon, what a great time to have an electric car. But that doesn't mean the new all electric cars don't have some of their own bugs to work out. San Diego is one of the test hubs for the new electric vehicles. KPBS business reporter, Eric Anderson is here to tell us how that test is going. Good morning, Eric.

ANDERSON: Good morning, Maureen, thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation too. If you have an electric car, gives a call, tell us how it's working out for you. Or perhaps you're on the waiting list for an electric vehicle. Tell us why you want one. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. So Erik, do we know how many electric cars are currently on our roads here in San Diego?

ANDERSON: There's not a specific number, but we have a rough idea, what we know is in the last couple of weeks. There have been about 200 brand-new Nissan Leafs. It's an all electric vehicle that hit the consumer market this year. There are other vehicles on the road, Tesla, a California based company makes some roadsters and sedans, and there are some legacy electric vehicles, folks that had electric vehicles decades ago in the county, but it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 or so.

CAVANAUGH: And somewhere in this conversation, we'll have to address the volt issue, because a lot of people think that that's an all electric car too.

ANDERSON: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: But why is the number of these all electric cars expected to keep increasing here?

ANDERSON: Well, the Nissan, the first major auto maker that has brought these to market is in the first model year of its car, so all the folks who got excited about the leaf when Nissan unveiled the car a couple of years ago at the Paris auto show now are getting a chance to order them, and many are starting to receive them. I think in the next two-week, there's gonna be another shipment coming in through the long beach port, and that's gonna even double the number of electric leafs that are in the San Diego market, it'll be up to 400 pretty quickly.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know for your feature report, Erik, you didn't talk with every single Nissan leaf owner around San Diego. But do we have any idea of how these cars are working out for these owners?

ANDERSON: I've got a sense just from the few peek that I did talk to that these might be some of the most excited people in San Diego these days. Because the people who took the step of actually going ahead and getting the electric vehicle did their research, they did their homework, they did it with a purpose. They did it with reason, and they're very excited to have those new vehicles. There's a lot to learn, a lot to get used to, and they're sort of becoming acquainted with their vehicles now. And I'm sure it doesn't hurt that gas prices really took off in the middle of February and kind of gave them some extra justification. This is it a good decision.

CAVANAUGH: Justified their decision to get a leaf now. But there are limitations in driving an electric vehicle; isn't that right?

ANDERSON: Absolutely, and the most obvious one is the range of the vehicle. The current EPA rating for a Nissan leaf is 73†miles of range. And that's a little bit different if you drive very conservatively, you might be able to stretch that to a hundred miles, or a hundred and 20†miles of but roughly it's in the 80-mile neighborhood on a full battery charge. So that's kind of the big issue that a lot of folks are grappling with. We're not used to having that limitation on how much you can drive. In fact, I was talking with Joseph Gottlieb of the electric vehicle association of San Diego. And he says that, you know, drivers can kind of take it personal, this range limitation.

NEW SPEAKER: You know, 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 to Vegas, I can drive from here to Florida. I've got that freedom. And so they feel when you've got something that's gonna limit your range, it's taking away some freedom of yours. And so I think that's the biggest thing, the biggest hurdle that's gonna have to be over come, is the ranges on the vehicles is going to have to increase, and the perception of how far people really drive has got to come down.

ANDERSON: So if people can accept the fact that they only drive 80†miles, they can sort of plan around that, if they can deal with that idea, it make the electric vehicle more palatable. And the thing you have to realize is the technology is going to get better, these are mass market vehicles that are being mass produced, and there's amount of work and research going into the battery technology, and you're gonna have better batteries down the road. They're gonna increase the range and make them a little bit more palatable to the average owner.

CAVANAUGH: Now, that's interesting, I hadn't thought about that. You do have this idea, I can take this car and I can drive across the country if I want to. I can drive into Mexico, I can drive up to Canada. And it's really sort of a changing attitude about how you use your vehicle.

ANDERSON: You can do it with an electric vehicle too, you just have to stop for 5 or 6†hours every 80†miles or so to fully charge the vehicle. It involves a lot more work, and a lot more planning.

CAVANAUGH: Point well taken, we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. My guest is KPBS business reporter, Eric Anderson. And we're checking in to see how the new all electric cars are doing here in San Diego. We have some people who want to talk to us. Lesley is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Lesley, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Oh, hi, good morning. Thank you for taking my car. I am a leaf owner. I've had one for a week. And I have to tell you, his comment about being excited doesn't even begin to say how I feel about this car. It's been amazing. And I community from Oceanside to Kearny Mesa every day for work. So that's about 64†miles round trip. And I really did suffer from range anxiety the first couple of days of I wasn't sure I was gonna make it. But it's been wonderful. And it does -- it goes 73†miles so I get home, I've got about eight miles every night, and put it on the charger. So it's been wonderful, and I'm very, very happy.

CAVANAUGH: How is it different from the car you used to have?

ANDERSON: Well, I still have my other car. I did not replace.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ANDERSON: I had a gas guzzling SUV that I still use to the weekend, because I have two big dogs that will not fit in the leave. So it has not been a compete solution. But for what I do, it has really, really been wonderful. And I do. I charge up at night for about $2.75.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thanks for calling in and tells us about it, Lesley. Do you go is on the line from San Diego, he owns a Leaf and wants to tell us about it too. Hi do you go.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. I can just paraphrase what Lesley said. I love my leaf. I've had mine for two weeks, and has done everything that I want of it.

CAVANAUGH: How is it different? You turn it on and it's quiet right?

NEW SPEAKER: It is absolutely silent. It has a little speaker up front that warns people that you're coming. For example, I'm sitting in a parking lot at a super market right now, so if I drive the car in the lot, it'll make a little sound to let pedestrians know that I'm behind them.

CAVANAUGH: I see, because they can't tell because the car is virtually silent.

NEW SPEAKER: It is. And when the car reaches about 3020 miles an hour, that little sound turns off because the tire noise is enough to alert people.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And where do you charge your car? Do you do it at home or do you use a charging station around town?

NEW SPEAKER: No, I do it at home. I was part of a study that a company called Ecotality was putting these chargers in. I got mine for free. It's about a $2,000 charger, and I charge my car between midnight and six in the morning to get very, very low electric rates.

CAVANAUGH: And it sounds like you're loving it.

NEW SPEAKER: I am offing it. The car is fantastic. It's like a video game. I think given the job of programming a computer to a game's programmer, because it has all kinds of menus and things you have to choose from. It's a great learning experience too.

ANDERSON: I was talking to James Avery who is a leaf owner who works at San Diego gas and electric, and he said it's not really a car. It's more of a computer.

CAVANAUGH: On wheels.

ANDERSON: Yeah. There's so much computer technology on board that helps you manage how you drive, it helps you manage the range that you're driving. It helps you understand how much charge you have left. And it really kind of over sees what the car is doing and trying to translate that information to you. That he said it's really I big computer on wheels is what it is.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Thank you for the call, do you go. And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. So we've been quieting love letters now for the Nissan Lee. There must be some problems involved with this car. Are there software glitches that need to be corrected?

ANDERSON: The owners that I talked to said that there was a software problem early on. It's like any computer. What you sometimes work with in the laboratory changes a lot bit out in the real world. There was a software glitch, but like any other software glitch on a computer, you down load the fix, and then make adjustments. And of course, the manufacturer is gonna be working with these owners, they'll learn [CHECK AUDIO] and make those changes accordingly. One of the things that I want to let you know about it too is that, you know, they're gonna be 2000 of these vehicles on the road by the end of the year. That's 2000 reefs, ten times as many as we have now by December. And one of the big challenges, not for the leaf owners so much, but for the power company, for San Diego gas and electric is to make sure that they power up these vehicles at the right times. And what they thought about is how can we make sure that these vehicles have the power they need so that people can drive them around, and we still are able to provide that power without having these massive major upgrades of our electric grid? And what they're gonna try and do is change the owners' behavior. You've heard from a couple of people who called in that they'll charges between midnight and five AM. That's because SDG & E is giving them a super low rate to make their charges happen then.

NEW SPEAKER: In that super off peek period between midnight and 5:00†PM, there's relatively no burden on our system to charge vehicles. And if they drive between noon and 8:00†PM, then the burden's the greatest. And we may have to add a lot of infrastructure to accommodate it. So what we're doing is designing rates that give you a really big discount, the equivalent of -- it might be $0.70 a gallon gas, to if you charged in the middle of the day maybe $4 for a gallon of gas.

ANDERSON: Of course, this excites the utility, because it's the potential for a lot of new customers, one of the things that Jim told me, he says each leaf that comes on line represents about three quarters of a household's worth of electricity.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

ANDERSON: So if we have 2000 leafs by the end of the year, that's gonna be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1600 homes in term it is of demand for electric. And what he said that -- I also thought was pretty interesting, in terms of the power company's ability. He says if all those people try to charge in the middle of the day, that would be a disaster. It's the kind of thing that keeps electric company folks up at night. They want the extra revenue from the over night charging, but if it happens at the wrong time of day, it would over whelm their grid, and they would have to pay billions of dollars to upgrade their transmission capacity and their generation capacity to meet that demand in the middle of the day. So they're doing what they can to kind of create the behavior patterns that'll had the community absorb these electric cars without any extra burden.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Or you can any on line with your comment, KPBS.org/These Days. Don is calling us from Oceanside. Good morning, Don, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, good morning. I am concerned about the disposal of the batteries. The batteries, I don't know, I suppose they're -- what the life is. But there's two issues, cost of the new batteries, and what do you do with them when they're used up?

CAVANAUGH: Good question.

ANDERSON: Interesting question. I think that's a question that many people are still grappling with in the electric car industry. One thing that I know that is being considered is to kind of give the batteries a second life. Say, for example, you have your electric car for 5 or 10†years, and the batteries are no longer potent enough to power your car, what you do is you take them out of the car, put them in your home and suddenly maybe they can be hooked up to a photo voltaic system that you have in your home, and they can store electricity from that. Or maybe they could serve as a backup power source for some of the smaller appliances. So instead of recycling, because, yes, recycling is going to be a huge issue for batteries of batteries carry a tremendous environmental cost with them. Lithium ion batteries is the current iteration of the power sources. But second use is kind of seen as a bridge to that that might actually solve some of the other issues surrounding the power grid.

CAVANAUGH: Get every last drop out of these batteries that you possibly can.

ANDERSON: Before you have to keel with throwing them away.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Ken is calling us from the Sorrento Valley. Good morning, Ken, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. A quick comment and question. I was looking at the Chevy volt, and the Nissan leaf, and I personally like the Chevy volt more because of a different interior, and interior design. [CHECK AUDIO] recharge if needed, but if you don't need it, you can just run off pure electricity. But after looking at the cost of it, the after rebate, I think it was in the high thirties, and looking at the current gas prices, it didn't seem cost effective to me yet. I wonder if anyone has done a cost analysis, of what the current price is. I think it's a fair question. I don't know if anybody's actually done the break down. But I suspect it's probably like a lot of other high mileage vehicles. If you look at just the mileage compared to the purchase and operating cost, you're probably not going to see an advantage. I think what sways a lot of people, you know, reasonable intelligent people who think with it, they say, it's not just the mileage that I'm getting the advantage from. The thing about the Nissan leaf, it's a 0 emission vehicle. This is something that California mandated. And then backed away from in the mid-80s of but it's a 0 emission vehicle. It creates no pollution when you operate it. There is pollution created when the power is generated, but that can be controlled through a variety of different ways of and so I think that buyers look at not just the cost break down, but other things as well.

CAVANAUGH: And the Chevy volt is not an all electric vehicle.

ANDERSON: Yeah, we have to understand too. The volt is not gonna be the only vehicle like that coming into the market. The prius is gonna be -- they're gonna have a plug-in version. And what that basically means is, [CHECK AUDIO] if they need gas power they can run on gas power as well. So they're a combination of the two.

CAVANAUGH: And we should expect to see 2000 more EVs on the road by the end of the year.

ANDERSON: About 2000 total by the end of December.

CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Eric, thank you so much.

ANDERSON: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: You can comment. I've been speaking with KPBS business reporter, Eric Anderson, if you'd like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days.

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