Westport group charged up about electric vehicles
Published 8:56 pm, Sunday, June 16, 2013
When Bruce Becker leaves his barn-style home in Westport each morning, he starts what some consider the commute of the future.
He unhooks his BMW ActiveE from the charger wired to solar panels on his roof. Settling into the driver's seat, he taps a button that makes his car purr about as loud as a tiny kitten. Finally, he steers the quick-to-accelerate, easy-to-handle sedan 10 miles to his architecture firm in Fairfield, where he plugs it back in to a public charger.
"It's as much fun to drive as any car I've ever had," he said.
It's also as cheap to drive a car as he's ever had. That became more apparent last week, when the U.S. Department of Energy unveiled its "eGallon" calculator, an online tool that compares the price of powering electric cars to fueling similar models that are gasoline powered.
Across the nation, it costs an average of $1.14 to bring an electric vehicle the same distance that $3.65 of gasoline brings a standard model, according to the calculator. In Connecticut, where electricity is more expensive, the electric vehicles use about $1.70 worth of energy to go as far as a $3.58 gallon of gasoline takes a regular car.
Electric-car enthusiasts say this new tool could help convince consumers of the potential savings of switching over.
"Most people know what they're paying for gasoline and they have reactions to it when the price goes up and down," said Patrick Davis, director of vehicle technologies for the U.S. Department of Energy. "But they don't have that same feeling about what electricity costs and how that translates to fueling a vehicle."
To be sure, the eGallon metric isn't perfect. It averages retail gasoline prices for regions as wide as New England. It then averages the number of miles that five popular plug-in cars -- the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, Ford Focus EV and the BMW ActiveE -- get per kilowatt hour of charge. Finally, it factors in miles-per-gallon data from gasoline-burning cars.
Of course, gasoline prices can vary within regions or states. What's more, utilities sometimes offer different electricity rates -- for certain times of day, for instance, or special rates for electric car drivers. Meanwhile, drivers like Becker -- who charge up at public stations and from renewable sources -- rarely encounter energy costs.
That said, the eGallon initiative reflects a broader push by local, state and federal government officials to beef up the market appeal of cleaner, more energy-efficient vehicles. Other programs already target electric cars' two main drawbacks: higher upfront costs and limited driving ranges.
For one thing, electric cars typically cost about $10,000 to $12,000 more than similar gasoline-powered cars. (However, the federal government gives $7,500 tax rebates to people who buy them.)
For another, most electric cars can't go beyond 100 miles without recharging. In Connecticut, however, there are now some 100 public charging stations, said Daniel Esty, commissioner of the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. That figure should double over the coming year.
"I've made a commitment to build out a network of charging stations within a 10 or 15 minute drive of everyone in the state," Esty said. "We need 100 more to eliminate what's known as `range anxiety.' " In Connecticut now, there are about 190 purely electric vehicles registered, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
On a recent Thursday night, in the glass-walled conference room of a Westport financial firm, about a dozen members of the Westport Electric Car Club were talking shop.
In late April, the two-year-old club held its first rally -- a 34-mile ride through Westport and Fairfield, the directions for which were encrypted in a series of riddles. Competitors were judged on how few miles it took them to solve the questions and navigate to the finish line. Thirty-three plug-in cars took part. Steering his 16-month-old BMW, Becker came in first.
Club founder Leo Cirino -- a jovial grandfatherly type, who made his career as an electrical engineer and once helped the government design rockets -- invited Becker to address the group.
Becker, an environmentally conscious architect and developer, said he is grateful for the club. He said they all share a responsibility to inform others about how clean, energy-efficient and simple to drive their cars can be. He added that driving such vehicles could turbocharge the local economy.
"I can take that money I save on gas," he said, "and go out and spend it at local restaurants and shops."
For two hours, the conversation steered between how virtuous electric cars can be to how to drum up support from elected officials and silence naysayers. Occasionally, though, the talk veered into the headaches of driving the vehicles.
Joe Booth, of Wethersfield, recalled renting a Nissan Leaf in Middlebury for the rally. He recharged at the Westport train station after the 45-mile trip. He recharged again at the rally's pit stop at Fairfield Warde High School. He recharged a third time at the Fairfield Nissan dealership. Then, before heading home, he recharged for three hours at another public station in Westport.
Ultimately, he had to pull over for a final recharge before returning the car in Middlebury at nightfall.
"You should give this man a pin!" someone called out.
But Cirino, finding a silver lining, hailed the new proof that electric vehicles are catching on.
"He got through!" the club founder said. "He got through!"
To try out the DOE's calculator, see http://energy.gov/articles/egallon-how-much-cheaper-it-drive-electricity