When it was time for a new car, Paul Webster went in a different direction.
“I’d been thinking about it for a while, but it wasn’t a long drawn-out, thought-out thing,” Webster said.
A salesman for Dave Wright Nissan in northeast Cedar Rapids, Webster settled on leasing a new Leaf, joining something of an exclusive club in Iowa. There were just 41 “pure” electrics — 39 Leafs and two Tesla Roadsters — registered in the state Dec. 4, compared to 15,726 hybrids, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Polk County has the most electric vehicles, 10. There are eight in Linn County, four in Johnson.
With a daily commute of only about 13 miles round-trip and “with the leases they were offering on a Leaf it was a no-brainer,” said Webster.
But for those with longer drives, electric vehicless can be a challenge.
“We don’t have enough infrastructure,” said Jing Dong, an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s engineering department who’s done extensive research and development work on electric vehicle infrastructure. “People don’t trust the cars’ range.”
Nissan says the Leaf gets 73 miles from a full charge of its batteries, easily covering the 29 miles the average American drives in a day. For longer trips electric vehicles drivers can supplement that range with quick charges, but there are only 33 public charging stations in Iowa, according to the Department of Energy’s online directory.
There are three charging stations in Iowa City and at least five in Cedar Rapids, including ones at both cities’ Nissan dealers and the NewBo City Market. The Hotel at Kirkwood Center installed one last March.
When it comes to electric vehicles support, “a lot of people talk about the chicken or the egg, who’s first?” said Dong. “They have to invest some money to put in the charging station.”
The Kirkwood hotel’s station cost $14,500, and all but $2,500 was covered through a federal block grant managed by the city.
Change is coming. The Kum & Go convenience store chain has charging stations at six locations in the Des Moines area, Fairfield, and Bentonville, Ark. Company spokeswoman Linda Pixley said new Kum & Go stores, including those built in Cedar Rapids over the past year, are pre-wired for installation of Level 2 chargers, which can deliver 10 to 20 miles’ charge in an hour.
“A shift in both demand and charging technology would likely have to occur for this to happen,” Pixley wrote in an email. “More electric cars would have to be on the road, and those cars would have to be able to charge in a reasonable time.”
There’s no charge for Kum & Go’s chargers, Pixley said. Home Depot, Walgreen’s, Kohl’s, and Best Buy are among the companies installing chargers at locations elsewhere across the country.
Webster said he plugs his car in only about once a week. At home, he uses a Level 1 charger that simply plugs into a standard household outlet to deliver a full charge in about 12 hours. Webster estimates the full charge costs about $3.
“It depends how much driving I do,” he said. “If I have to go to Iowa City, highway driving really saps my charge. “If I’m driving a little extra and need an extra big charge I plug it in here at work.”
Drivers with longer commutes may install a Level 2 charger in their garage, capable of delivering 10 to 20 miles’ worth of charge in an hour, for $750 to $1,000. A federal tax credit rebates half the cost up to $2,000.
DC fast chargers can supply 60 to 80 miles’ range in 20 minutes but require a 480-volt DC power supply, limiting their use to public charging stations.
Pixley said Kum & Go would place chargers at stores near shopping districts where drivers might park for the hour or two. The chain is participating in Department of Energy programs to develop electric vehicles infrastructure.
Cost, range, and charging time are development targets.
“Companies like Chevron are now pouring tons of money into battery development, and companies like Kum & Go have invested in infrastructure,” said Brian Brownfield, automotive technology instructor at Kirkwood.
Brownfield, who’s developing a curriculum for next-generation automotive technicians, expects both hybrids and pure electrics to fill their niches in the market as battery range and charge time improve.
“There’s a combination of technologies that’s going to be employed,” he said. “The Leaf is great for a commuter car, where the Volt really solves the situation when you want a family car that’s going to be more efficient and you want to take a road trip.”
Chevrolet’s Volt can be plugged in to deliver up to 40 miles on a full charge before its small gas engine fires up to recharge the batteries. The hybrid powertrain gives the car an EPA rating equivalent to 94 mpg while its drivers are secure knowing they’ll never run out of charge.
“Many current users use (the Leaf) as a second car, so you can use the gasoline car when you want to go farther,” said Dong. “Battery cost is the major cost of the car — that’s why the car is expensive.”
Costs should improve with battery technology. The Leaf lists for $36,050, the Volt $37,579. Both cars are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax break due to expire at the end of the year.
Electric vehicles will remain a niche product until manufacturers can lower their cost and demonstrate economic benefits to would-be customers, according to a J.D. Powers and Associates study released this fall. It’s the first of what the consumer research firm plans to be an annual survey of electric vehicles owners.
Electric vehicle owners told J.D. Powers recharging their cars’ batteries raised their monthly utility bills by $18 — significantly less than the $147 they would have paid for gas over the same period.
Based on that savings, it will take an electric vehicle owner 6 1/2 years to recoup the $10,000 premium their cars cost over a comparable gas vehicle, the report said.
Aside from the sticker price and their range issues, Webster said he’s found the Leaf to be a typical compact car with room enough for the entire family - he and his wife Niki Webster have three children ages 2 through 10.
“One of the things that won me over once I drove it was the ride quality,” he said. “We can get all three (children) in there.”