COLUMBIA — The sleek wine-red hatchback starts up noiselessly, emitting a soft beep as it glides backward from its parking space outside Panera Bread on Conley Road. Klaudia Rejmer and Kelly Patterson are big fans of their Nissan Leaf.
At first, the fully electric vehicle was a point of contention when they were considering whether to lease one about four years ago.
"The second I saw it, I signed up immediately," Rejmer said.
Her husband, Patterson, was less enthusiastic.
"I was really skeptical about it," Patterson recalled. "Now I love it."
As Leaf drivers, Rejmer and Patterson are rarities in Columbia. Although electric vehicles are inching closer to the mainstream nationally, they've yet to gain traction here. Not only are the vehicles more expensive than their hybrid and gasoline-fueled counterparts, they also require charging stations, which come in different levels depending on their voltage output, to renew the cars' limited driving range of 75 to 100 miles.
In Columbia, no charging infrastructure for electric cars exists. That's a big reason why sales and leases of electric cars in Columbia are sluggish.
James Williams, Internet sales manager at Joe Machens Nissan, estimated the dealership has sold or leased 13 Leafs since late 2011, and there are only a couple of the cars on its lot. Columbia residents who might be interested in buying other electric models, such as the Tesla or the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, will have trouble finding them in town. The closest Tesla dealer is in Skokie, Ill., more than 400 miles away. Machens offers the electric Mitsubishis but doesn't always keep them on its lot.
Williams sees a lot of potential for electric cars in Columbia but acknowledged the need for more charging stations.
"To be honest, Columbia is a great fit for (the Leaf). Most people are within a 35-mile commute, one way," Williams said. "As soon as our infrastructure catches up with the West Coast, we'll have just as many electric vehicles as they do."
There's a noticeable absence of sound as Patterson fires up his Leaf. A colorful array of liquid-crystal displays lights up across the dash, but the only sound is from the audio system. The navigation display flashes a rearview camera image as the car glides backward. There are lots of nifty gizmos, but Patterson said his passengers' first comments are always about how quiet the car is.
Because the Leaf's motor is electric, there is no need for a conventional transmission or gearshift. Patterson nudges a smooth, puck-shaped joystick to engage reverse and drive.
Subdued road rumble and wind noise are the only ambient sounds as the Leaf flows forward. The acceleration is seamless and immediate, with the verve of a regular four-cylinder hatchback. Except there is no engine vibration, no crescendo of engine thrash coupled with exhaust bellow. No sound at all.
When Patterson engages "eco" mode, it feels as if the car has hit a 15-mph headwind. Eco mode encourages power conservation by way of a stiffer accelerator pedal.
"The pedal sticks a little more in eco mode," Patterson said.
Rejmer said eco mode reduces battery drain from the Leaf's heating and cooling system.
"You're forced to conserve with the Leaf," she said. "I only have 100 miles. I'm going to make it count."
Driving a Leaf was a bit less challenging when Patterson and Rejmer lived in Petaluma, Calif. They often "filled up" at free charging stations at the workplace. Level 2 charging stations were scattered across parking spots in the city. Level 2 chargers supply 240 volts, the same amount of power that comes from a household laundry dryer outlet. They can replenish a depleted Leaf battery in about seven hours.
When Patterson and Rejmer moved back to Missouri, they noticed a stark difference in the charging infrastructure. At home, they charge their Leaf with Level 1 120-volt household current. After a recent Saturday filled with trips around town, their Leaf required about 16 hours for a full battery charge. They own a broken-down, gasoline-fueled Toyota Celica, but the Leaf is their primary vehicle.
The only Level 2 chargers the couple knows of in Columbia are at Joe Machens Nissan and Bob McCosh Chevrolet Buick GMC Cadillac. Their Leaf's navigation screen lists the Machens dealership as the only charging spot between Kansas City and St. Louis. The next one is 121 miles from Columbia, well beyond the Leaf's maximum driving range.
"We definitely need more charging stations," Patterson said.
Level 3 rapid charging stations, which provide 480-volt direct current that can recharge a Leaf in about half an hour, are even rarer nationally than Level 2 equipment. These quick chargers were beginning to appear in California when Patterson and Rejmer moved away, but there are none in or near Columbia.
Electric vehicles also are expensive, even for those who qualify for the $7,500 tax credit the federal government offers eligible buyers. Patterson and Rejmer said the stiff purchase price of about $30,000 prompted them to lease a Leaf for the second time rather than buy one.
"If I owned rather than leased, I think my biggest concern would be with the battery degrading," Rejmer said. With a lease arrangement, they can have the dealer replace the battery rather than buy a new one.
At the Advancing Renewable Energy in the Midwest conference last month at MU, city sustainability manager Barbara Buffaloe and members of the Energy and Environment Commission listened to Kevin Herdler, executive director of the St. Louis Clean Cities Coalition, and Kelly Gilbert, transportation director at the Metropolitan Energy Center and coordinator of the Kansas City Regional Clean Cities Coalition, discuss charging stations already installed in those cities.
Herdler said the 2-year-old St. Louis group has a task force but no incentives for charging station installations. As a result, new stations are popping up mainly at local businesses.
"They're going in where people want to put them in," Herdler said.
There are about 50 charging stations in the Kansas City metropolitan area and about 90 across the region, which includes St. Joseph, Lawrence, Kan., and Wichita, Kan., Gilbert said.
One of the first charging stations in the area was installed in Project Living Proof, a century-old home renovated to demonstrate energy efficiency. The project was a collaboration between the Metropolitan Energy Center, Missouri Gas Energy and Kansas City Power and Light, Gilbert said.
Electric vehicle studies for the Kansas City area have shown motorists could be charging up at home about 90 percent of the time. Today, the metropolitan electrical grid is "ready for electric vehicle deployment," Gilbert said.
But there are still some limitations.
"If a particular neighborhood adopts electric vehicles at higher rates, say, 20 to 25 percent adoption, that is where we would see a concern," Gilbert explained, adding that time-of-use rates are also a possibility for the future.
The U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities Program established 25 coalitions, including the Metropolitan Energy Center's Kansas City Regional Clean Cities Coalition. Through the 2009 Recovery Act, the Clean Cities Program awarded about $300 million for programs promoting clean vehicles, alternative fuels and infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations. That included a $15 million grant to the Metropolitan Energy Center.
Obtaining a similar grant might be Columbia's best option for establishing a charging infrastructure here, Buffaloe said. She said that while there are neither set plans nor a timeline for installing charging stations here, city officials are reviewing the possibility of applying for a Department of Transportation grant.
The Transportation Department began requesting applications for its Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or "TIGER," grant on May 2. The 2013 TIGER grant program offers a total of $474 million for investment in "road, rail, transit and port projects," according to the Department of Transportation's website.
"The city is in preliminary discussions on what we could use the funds for, if awarded," Buffaloe said. "EV charging stations are definitely in that discussion and would first go in at the two newest parking garages because they were designed to handle that kind of electrical load."
Buffaloe said she has seen more of an interest in electric vehicles in Columbia.
Water and Light Department spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz agreed.
"We're at the point where many manufacturers are coming out with electric vehicles," Kacprowicz said.
Water and Light has been studying the potential demand that electric car chargers might create. What the department has learned so far is that electric vehicle owners typically would recharge their vehicles overnight at home. That's a good thing because it's cheaper for the city to buy power at night or during off-peak hours. The time of highest demand in Columbia is in late afternoon and early evening during summer, primarily because of increased air-conditioning loads, Kacprowicz said.
Kacprowicz said a switch to a "time-of-day" model for electric utility billing could encourage future electric vehicle owners to charge later in the evening.
Water and Light also has tested "smart meters" that monitor electric use in 15-minute increments. Smart meters and accounting changes would need to be made before time-of-day rates could be enacted, Kacprowicz said.
Kacprowicz said that if the "market became saturated with electric vehicles" it could cause an issue of low supply with high demand, particularly during the summer. She's not too worried yet, though.
"I don't think the transformation (to electric vehicles) will happen overnight."
Although the city took the lead during the hybrid movement by adding several Toyota Priuses to its fleet several years ago, it has no electric cars yet. Fleet operations manager Eric Evans said fully electric cars are generally small and not engineered to perform the heavy lifting required of most of its fleet. Trash trucks, utility trucks, snow plows and such are still powered by brawny diesel engines, but do use a fuel mixture containing between 2 percent and 20 percent biodiesel. The city is examining vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, but electric vehicles — for now — are not feasible for most applications.
Evans said battery technology is the electric vehicles' Achilles' wheel.
"We need a good 100-mile range," he said of regular consumers. "That's pushing the envelope with the current technology."
Evans said electric vehicles being manufactured now have too many "bells and whistles" that add weight and diminish range. Power windows, power seat adjustments and infotainment systems often draw electricity from the battery pack. Evans would like to see the electric version of the original Volkswagen Beetle: cheap, easy to work on and devoid of frills.
"Why do companies like Tesla build high-end electric vehicles?" he asked. "The VW of electric vehicles, that's what we need."
John Robert Holmes is co-owner of Volt Riders, which sells electric bikes and scooters. He agreed with Evans, saying that the size and weight of today's electric cars makes them less efficient than they could be.
"What it boils down to is the energy efficiency of a car, whether gas or electric, won't improve much," Holmes said.
Not giving up
There may be a limit to the driving that Patterson and Rejmer can expect each time they charge the battery pack on their Nissan Leaf, but they still have no doubt that their next car will be a Leaf as well.
Patterson wanted a red paint job for their 2012 model, but Rejmer wanted blue. Patterson won — this time.
"The next one's blue," Rejmer smiled. "Definitely blue."
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.