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Electric vehicles are on a roll

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 6, 2011 - When Jeff Dale's cousin in California would call and talk to him about the joys of owning an electric vehicle, the 59-year-old Alton resident had a predictable reaction.

"I'd just kind of roll my eyes at my wife," he laughed.

The eye rolls stopped with a price spike that hit petroleum products a couple of years back.

"When gas hit $4.25 a gallon, I was like, OK, what do we do next?" he said.

What he did next was replace the internal combustion engine of a 1987 BMW 325i convertible and join the ranks of electric vehicle owners in St. Louis, a small but enterprising group of motorists who are going "off the grid" by going on the grid -- literally. Freed of gasoline, they plug into their own electrical outlets at night.

The Gateway Electric Vehicle Club lists 48 members who have converted everything from Porsches to Datsuns. Others have simply purchased new hybrids of one kind or another.

Darrel "Clancy" Morris of Florissant bought a used 1987 Chevy S-10 pickup that someone else had converted in Chicago. Owner of his own home repair business, Green World Solutions, he plans to use the truck for sales calls, educational events and advertising.

"It feels special," he said. "It feels like I'm a part of the solution now instead of the problem."

Some do indeed enjoy the electric car way of life.

"It was really more of a hobby for me to learn new things," said Lance Johnson, an O'Fallon, Ill. programmer who said he needed an activity to pull him away from the computer screen.

The EV project certainly did that. Like Dale, it took Johnson about a year and a half to convert an old pickup truck with a blown motor into an EV, though Johnson said the conversion time could be only weeks depending on the amount of time owners invest daily -- and the amount of help they get.

Johnson said he doesn't know whether electric is the future or not, but he's hopeful.

"When it comes to electric versus other technologies, it's hard to say," he said. "I actually think this one is going to win because a lot of smart people are trying to figure out the battery problem."

The Major Manufacturers

The "battery problem" becomes obvious when examining the innards of Johnson's EV. Under the hood, Johnson's truck has not one battery but four - and that's just the beginning. Raise the pickup's bed and you find 14 more. At 8 volts each, it takes all 18 to get 144 volts. The heavy lead acid batteries add hundreds of pounds to the vehicle's weight. It's a key reason why pickups are so popular to convert. Designed for hauling, their frames are built to handle greater mass.

So, with all those batteries, how far can Johnson get on a charge?

About 40 miles, he says.

And that brings up the range problem. Converted EVs often employ lead acid batteries due to cost considerations and Johnson's 40-mile range is not unusual. Moreover, while those miles may come cheap, conversion doesn't. Johnson estimates he spent about $10,000 on his EV and he handled it mostly on his own. Hiring help, as Dale did, means even more cash. Dale estimates he spent as much as $18,000 on his electric vehicle. Both received special credits from the state to save them a few thousand bucks.

The expense, battery limitations and required technical abilities make home conversion a daunting prospect for most drivers. That leaves much of the potential EV market for the major manufacturers, such as Nissan, which hopes to capitalize with its Leafmodel. The all-electric vehicle retails at under $33,000 and uses lithium ion batteries, a type that provides longer life, less weight and greater range. The Leaf boasts a range of 62 to 138 miles depending on use of accessories like climate control and variances in speed, cargo weight and topography.

Chevrolet has decided on another method for escaping range anxiety. Its Volt is comparable in price to the Leaf, but while its electric range is only 35 miles, it has the advantage of a gasoline-powered generator that can switch on when the battery runs dry and add hundreds of miles for an extended trip.

The 2012 Ford Focus Electric is also due out late this year.

Manufacturer websites note that federal tax incentives could take as much as $7,500 off the price of an electric vehicle.

Meanwhile, not everyone has range anxiety. Teresa Knight seems pretty comfortable with her EV's range. The Clayton resident said she gets as much as 250 miles on a full charge with her 2010 Tesla Roadster. Powered by lithium ion batteries and composed of lightweight carbon fiber, the stylish two-seater sports car looks as good as it drives, said Knight. The Tesla doesn't lack for power either, pegging out at 125 miles per hour, according to its website, and running 0-60 in under four seconds.

The catch?

"It's not inexpensive," said Knight.

Knight's Tesla ran her upward of $100,000 with accessories. She said she thinks she was the first in the area to own one though now she knows of at least two others.

The Tesla initially came to her attention in a magazine and she decided to get on the waiting list.

"As it became apparent that it really was going to be produced and I really could own an electric all-American car that was a sexy sports car, I knew I needed to start saving my nickels and dimes and figure out how to make it happen," she said.

Her husband, Marc Clemente, enjoys the Tesla as well.

He gets the odd days. She gets the even.

"Today, it's my car," she chuckled.

She said electric cars could be the future as batteries improve and costs keep dropping.

"Certainly, we're at a point where it has become clear to everyone that we can't continue to use combustion engines the way that we're using them," she said. "It's becoming difficult to afford."

Where to Plug in

A lack of infrastructure exacerbates the range problem. It's simply difficult to find public charging stations around the area. According to a Department of Energy website, only five operational electric charging stations are listed in Missouri and only three are public; all of the public sites are in the Kansas City area. Five more are listed as planned but not yet accessible. All are on the western side of the state.

One of the two private stations listed is at French Gerleman, a St. Louis electrical supplier.

"There are a few things that cause St. Louis to be behind some of the cities on the coasts and even Denver, Chicago or Detroit," said Mike Stanfill, vice president for industrial and commercial sales at French Gerleman. "One is that we have cheaper power and lower fuel costs to begin with so there is less incentive to make that jump."

Stanfill said that his organization's station is there more for the future than the present, as no employees drive electric cars. The company's workers and visitors are the only people able to access the site.

Still, he thinks it's good to be on the cutting edge for when more plug-ins find their way onto the road.

"If you look at the number of charging stations here in the St. Louis area, it's pretty limited," he said. "But typical of our history we wanted to be there for our customers, to help educate them and to have the products they need when they are ready to adopt. We see this as a natural progression of the way things are headed."

Rick Hunter, CEO of Microgrid Energy, thinks he may be headed that way as well. His two-year-old company is primarily based in solar products but last fall it got into the EV charging station market. So far Microgrid has installed two chargers: One in St. Charles at Novus International's headquarters and another which came online just last week at the Moonrise Hotel in the Delmar Loop.

"It's perfect for hotels so that you can drive up, plug in, spend the night and in the morning you have a full charge," he said.

Operated by a special card swipe, the two chargers installed by Microgrid are the only two St. Louis entrants into the ChargePoint Network, a global web of participating public and private plug-in locations, whose internet link allows users to check details about a charging station's availability at any given time -- a serious concern for EV owners since unlike their gas-powered counterparts, a car may take hours, rather than minutes to fuel up. EV owners can even book a charging session ahead of time on a station, Hunter said.

Nissan's website estimates that 13,000 charging stations could be available in the U.S. in the next few years, representing density with bubbles of various sizes on a map of the country. The largest bubbles are along the West Coast, particularly in Seattle, Redmond and San Francisco. Kansas City and Chicago have much smaller bubbles. No bubble appears over St. Louis.

The ChargePoint-affiliated station at Novus International in the St. Charles area is reserved for employees and visitors, according to the ChargePoint website. The Moonrise charging port is available to the public. Both are free.

That's frequently the case. As new chargers come online, they often don't levy any fee for the service as volume and costs are low. How long such generosity will stay the standard is unknown.

"Eventually, once there are enough cars and it's less of a promotional thing and more of a business, people will absolutely be charging for the use of their stations," though organizations might retain free use for customers, workers or visitors, Hunter predicted.

Dale hopes any such change will be a while in coming. He said he and his cousin from California, Bill Dale, recently donated a public charging station to the Alton. Located at city hall, it will also be free. The pair will pay for power during the first year of operation.

"They'll just ruin this whole electric vehicle thing if they start charging for power," Dale said of those installing stations. "That's my opinion."

Kevin Herdler, of St. Louis Clean Cities, which works with government entities on issues related to alternative fuel infrastructure, said a number of different business models could develop including employers providing chargers at work or businesses doing so as a convenience to customers.

"It might be a mall. It might be a theater someplace where you are going to spend a couple of hours to get that extra boost to get you back home," he said. "But I really think that 95 percent of the time you're going to charge strictly at home or at your place of business."

Hunter said his company has been in conversations with a dozen or so municipalities and businesses and thinks the future looks bright for more installations.

"I think you are going to see a big pickup in the market in the fall when the mass-produced EVs actually start rolling into town," he said.

David Baugher is a freelance writer.

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.