BRIER — Mark Schnell and his wife, Renee, love their new, all-electric Nissan Leaf but they leave it at home on road trips.
The Brier couple charge their Leaf with a unit built into their garage and use t
heir Volvo when venturing out of town.
While more than 50 charging stations are available to the public in the Seattle-Tacoma area, only a handful are up and running in areas north. Four are located in Snohomish County and two on Whidbey Island.
One of the biggest obstacles to the use
of electric cars has been a lack of public places for drivers to charge their batteries.
That’s beginning to change. The number of charging stations is poised to make a surge.
Fueled by millions in grant money first approved as part of the federal economic stimulus package, state, local governments and businesses are working at an accelerated pace to set up charging stations.
By the end of the year, the Schnells or anyone else with a chargeable vehicle will be able to drive an “electric highway” to Canada, Oregon or across Stevens Pass without having to worry about running out of juice.
The stations will be installed north of Everett on I-5; between Everett and Leavenworth on U.S. 2 and south of Olympia on I-5. Most of the specific locations have yet to be determined.
The state’s new stations will be located 40 to 60 miles apart. The average range for a fully charged Leaf — the first mass produced, all-electric car introduced in the Puget Sound market — is about 100 miles.
With these stations, and the public stations available in the Seattle-Tacoma area, two major highways in Western Washington will be electric-car friendly.
The coming jump in charging stations is coinciding with an increase in the number of electric vehicles available, such as the Leaf and the Chevy Volt. Both cars became available in the area late last year.
The federal, state and local governments and businesses are working together to expand the network of charging stations, and in turn the number of vehicles that can use them, said Tonia Buell, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman. Similar efforts are being undertaken in other parts of the country, especially the West Coast, she said.
For example, the state is coordinating with a San Francisco-based charging-station manufacturer, ECOtality, that is working with $20 million in grant money to build stations in the central Puget Sound area. ECOtality is focusing its efforts between Everett and Olympia while the state is concentrating outside the greater Seattle area, Buell said.
ECOtality also has an agreement with Nissan and Chevrolet to install charging stations in the homes of people who buy the cars — such as the Schnells. The Schnells’ station came free of charge under the condition they agreed to supply information to ECOtality, such details about their driving habits, for the first year, Mark Schnell said.
ECOtality has built more than 400 charging stations so far in people’s homes in the central Puget Sound area, in addition to the 50-plus public outlets, said Rich Feldman, Pacific Northwest regional manager for ECOtality.
The cost of installing the stations varies greatly, Buell said. Low- and mid-voltage outlets can be put in for under $3,000, but the fastest chargers can cost $80,000 to $110,000, she said. Also, public stations need to be sturdier than the versions installed in garages, she said.
The stations installed along I-5 and U.S. 2 will charge some type of fee to help cover the cost of the fast-charge outlets, Buell said. Each of the state’s “electric highway” stations will include a fast-charging, “level-three,” 440-volt outlet that can power up an electric car from zero to fully charged in less than 30 minutes. Each station also will include a level-two, 220-volt outlet, which will cost less for users and take up to four to six hours for a full charge.
Most of the stations will be located at private retail locations such as shopping malls, where users sometimes may shop, eat or have coffee while charging up, Buell said.
Charging stations currently available to the public in Snohomish and Island counties are located at Magic Nissan in Everett and Campbell-Nelson Nissan in Edmonds; the Public Safety Complex in Edmonds; the Stevens Pass ski area; at Whidbey Telecom, a phone and Internet provider, in Freeland on Whidbey Island; and at China City restaurant in Oak Harbor.
Restaurant owner Jack Ng also has installed a station at his restaurant of the same name in Freeland, which will be up and running when the electricity is hooked up, he said.
Almost all of the public stations operating now are free of charge. Of the approximately 200 total stations in the Pacific Northwest, less than 10 actually charge a fee, according to James Billmaier of Woodinville, author of “Jolt! The Impending Dominance of the Electric Car.”
Eventually, most stations will probably charge a fee of 50 cents to $1, said Billmaier, an investor and adviser to ChargePoint, a California company that has built many of the local stations.
For now, though, “there is so much benefit to having drivers come to your place of business,” he said.
In addition to the state’s and ECOtality’s plans, Snohomish County is installing public charging stations in its downtown Everett parking garage and in some major parks, public works director Steve Thomsen said. They’re expected to be ready by the end of the year. The city of Edmonds, which already has the one public station available, plans to install six more by November.
By then, there will likely be more customers to use them.
Campbell-Nelson Nissan in Edmonds has sold 125 Leafs and has filled orders for about another 70, said Ray Ishak, who does Internet sales at the dealership.
Magic Nissan in Everett has sold more than 40 Leafs with about 15 more on order, said Bob Hansen, who works in sales for the Leaf at the dealership.
The Chevy Volt became available in some parts of the country late last year.
Roy Robinson Chevrolet in Marysville has been taking orders and the cars are expected to be available in September, dealership president Gordy Bjorg said.
The Volt can run either on plug-in electricity or conventional fuel. The all-electric range is about 35 miles, after which its gasoline engine powers a generator that in turn powers the electric battery. Its total range is 375 miles. This differs from hybrid-electic cars, such as the Toyota Prius, which do not have plug-in capability.
The Volt retails for around $40,000, the Leaf around $33,000. Each comes with a $7,500 federal tax credit and exemption from state sales and motor-vehicle excise taxes.
The Leaf actually recharges itself when idling or coasting, making it the opposite of a gasoline-powered engine — it gets better mileage in the city than on the highway, Ishak said. It can go anywhere from 70 to 130 miles on a full charge, he said.
Also, use of air conditioning and heat draw from the battery, meaning that the Leaf runs most efficiently in temperatures between 35 and 90 degrees.
“Seattle is ideal,” Ishak said.
Schnell said he and Renee have driven the Leaf about 1,400 miles so far — for a total charging cost of about $37.
“It is great around town,” Schnell said. “It is fantastic, it is absolutely wonderful.”
Soon, the couple will be able to take it on the road as well.
How to find charging stations
At least four websites help drivers find public charging stations:
The U.S. Department of Energy: http://tinyurl.com/3kjzcrm
For more information on financial incentives for purchasing an electric vehicle or charging station, visit GoElectricDrive at http://tinyurl.com/3bymodf.
Three main types of chargers are used for electric vehicles.
Fastest: Level three, approximately 440 volts, 30 minutes.
Next fastest: Level two, approximately 220 volts, four to six hours.
Slowest: Level one, 110 volts, eight to 10 hours.
Most home chargers are levels one and two, while most public chargers so far are level two. The state plans to install level two and level three chargers on I-5 and U.S. 2 later this year.