Electric cars hold promise, small presence in Columbia

Saturday, May 11, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Klaudia Rejmer plugs a charger into the front of her Nissan Leaf on April 25 at Joe Machens Nissan dealership. This is Rejmer's second electric car; she purchased her first one two years ago.

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. 


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"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."

Charging challenges

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.

Looking ahead

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.

There are about 30 charging stations in the St. Louis area at locations such as Ameren UE, the Moonrise Hotel, The Laurel Apartments, French Gerleman and Alton City Hall, Herdler said.

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.

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Corey Parks May 11, 2013 | 8:24 a.m.

What is wrong with the charging stations downtown across from Bank of America in the parking garage?
Do Klaudia Rejmer and Kelly Patterson have a washer and dryer at home? Maybe they should just have an electrician come in and run a 220 into their garage.

Car and Driver did a story a while back about the fact that all electric or plug in vehicles use a different plug and that they have not picked and stuck with a standard design much like BlueRay was picked for the movie industry.
I would be hesitant to set up a charging grid knowing that I have to provide 5 different plugs and power for each station.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking May 11, 2013 | 4:07 p.m.

Electric cars show us how much energy we really use doing nothing more useful than dragging tons of steel around with us. The fact it takes 16 hours of maxed out 110 volt charging to charge their electric squandermobile should make that point to them.

The e-bike guy is right. Cars are unbelievably inefficient, mostly because only a tiny fraction of the energy required to power them moves anything useful. They'd be better off getting an e-bike or scooter and leaving the Leaf for longer distance trips.

Move only what you need to, and no faster than you need.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 11, 2013 | 7:25 p.m.

Saw my first (outside of photos and showroom) Tesla S sedan Friday, owned by one of my daughter's neighbors (Urbandale, IA). Absolutely noiseless at low speed, not even an audible "whirrr."

While I agree with Mark's comments, choice of transportation depends upon a number of factors. Use of a bicycle around town may be laudable from the standpoint of energy conservation and lack of exhaust emissions, but it isn't feasible for everyone. What do you then do when you need to move things other than the cyclist? Everyone isn't cut out to ride a bike in rain and snow.

For those concerned about energy use and emissions, one option at present is a four-wheeled hybrid sedan, because of versitility. You don't have the plug-in problem of a true electric; don't need to concern yourself with running out of electric power while going cross country; can seat up to four people, in an all-weather enclosure (with safety restraints and air bags, heating and air conditioning); with only a driver or one passenger, have room to haul some baggage, etc.; AND you produce fewer emissions than a standard vehicle with a gasoline engine, whether compact or larger size. You also recuperate electrical energy through regenerative braking.

My 2005 Ford 500 is looking at 80K miles and my local Ford dealer talks to me about making a trade for their hybrid, which is built on their Focus (conventional engine) platform.

The gasoline/electric hybrid is a reminder that often a solution to a problem or set of problems comes in the form of a COMPROMISE. Some of our most useful industrial designs are based on compromises.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 12, 2013 | 12:22 p.m.

There IS such a thing as an electric-powered vehicle running on electrical energy derived directly from sunlight, using collection cells that convert solar rays into electrical current, but the vehicles are unsuited for use either in town or highway; in fact, they don't meet safety standards.

They're solar racing vehicles built and raced by certain universities and other teams (for example, Honda Motors), either on closed circuit tracks or across country, on highways and streets. To race cross country requires that each vehicle be accompanied in motion by a minimum of two gasoline- or diesel-powered support vehicles, so "solar-powered" races consume quite a bit of fossil fuel (for the support vehicles). :)

Each vehicle has sophisticated storage batteries that charge from solar radiation and in turn supply additional motive power as needed. Record speed, flat surface and no wind, is greater than 110 mph, but racers must obey legal speeds during a race. There is a driver, no air conditioning (no heater is needed!), and no headlights (no racing at night); there are mandatory tail (stop) lights and turn signals. Racing in North America and Australia (World Solar Challenge) creates dehydration problems for drivers, with frequent driver changes being needed. Women have proven to be very good drivers; some teams use only women drivers.

MS&T has won two North American cross country races (1999, 2003) and achieved a fourth place finish in The World Solar Challenge (the first 5 places are trophy winners). MS&T has ceased competing in Australia due to logistics and costs; also, that race is held at the same time as autumn mid-term exams at MS&T.

Cars have become incredibly expensive to build (to be competitive), and the concept can't be used to build an electric vehicle for street and highway use. Even if the solar cells used were FOUR TIMES more efficient, the same would still be true.

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