Minnesotans plugging in to electric cars

David Peichel’s commute from his home in south Minneapolis to his job at Medtronic in Mounds View is about 35 miles round trip. Usually that’s no big deal. Unless you’re Peichel, and you never have gas in the tank — not one single drop.

Peichel drives a ’97 Geo Metro he converted into an electric vehicle about two years ago. When the weather’s nice, its lead-acid batteries can take him to work and back with a little juice to spare.

But to ensure he makes it home in Minnesota’s battery-sapping winters, he sometimes runs outside in the afternoon to move his car closer to the facility’s only outdoor power outlet by the front door. He has to wait until a co-worker who uses it to plug in an electric bicycle leaves. "Some days, I need to make a second or third trip out there before a spot is available," Peichel said.

Medtronic has no policy on plugging in, but it doesn’t mind. Company spokesman Chuck Grothaus said Peichel is the only worker asking to charge an electric car at Medtronic, where 8,000 people work in the Twin Cities, 4,000 of them at the three-year-old Mounds View Cardiac Rhythm Management Facility.

But the fear of getting stranded in an electric car — which the car industry calls "range anxiety" — might become more common as major U.S. automakers roll out the first electric vehicles for the mass consumer market later this year.

GM’s Chevrolet Volt and Nissan’s Leaf are slated to hit the streets in select markets in November and December respectively, and electric vehicles from other carmakers are expected in 2011 and 2012.

Workplaces could start getting more requests from employees for permission to top off their batteries at work before the sojourn home.

Automakers, clean energy groups, utilities, private companies and policy makers have begun to focus on the problem of providing charging stations at home, at work and at "opportunity spots" ranging from shopping malls to parking ramps.

Last Tuesday, the Obama administration backed a bipartisan proposal to spend up to $6 billion on subsidies for electric vehicles. The bill, authored by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Jeff Alan Merkley, D-Ore., includes a provision that would establish as many as 15 "development communities" to receive funds for charging infrastructure and other programs.

The U.S. Department of Energy meanwhile has deployed stimulus money to provide up to 15,000 free home charging stations nationwide for early adopters of electric vehicles from General Motors, Nissan and Ford.

The 220-volt charging stations — which use the same voltage as a clothes dryer — would allow the early adopters to charge their cars overnight within eight hours, compared with the 20 hours a standard 110-volt outlet might need.

In exchange, car owners will allow government scientists to pull information off their electric vehicles to understand how they are driven and when they are charged. The information will let researchers make better plans for more charging infrastructure.

ECOtality, a Tucson, Ariz.-based manufacturer of electrical charging equipment, was awarded $100 million by the Energy Department to provide charging infrastructure in California, Oregon, Washington state, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., for the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Two other companies also are providing charging-station alternatives — Coulomb Technologies and Better Place, both rooted in California’s Silicon Valley.

Home will remain the primary place for most people to charge their new electric cars, ECOtality spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer said. But her company also envisions businesses ranging from big corporations to big-box retailers to ballparks installing chargers as a way to offer their electric-car-loving employees and customers a perk and spark.

"It’s more about peace of mind than anything else," she said. It’s a fairly new concept, though. 3M, among Minnesota’s largest employers, has had no one so far ask permission to plug in an electric vehicle at its sprawling Maplewood campus, spokeswoman Jackie Berry said. The company is developing a policy in the event anyone does ask, she added.

3M, like some other large Minnesota companies, also has plenty of outlets in its parking ramps, left over from the days when people used to plug in engine block heaters decades ago to start their cars after sitting all day in sub-zero temperatures. The 110-volt outlets won’t fully charge a car but could top one off if it sits the entire day.

GM’s Volt, perhaps the most anticipated electric car, faces fewer challenges than other coming EVs, or electric vehicles. That’s because it’s not a pure electric car. It carries a small gasoline engine that takes over when the special lithium ion batteries die after 40 miles.

The gas engine can power the electric motor for another 300 miles, said Rob Peterson, a General Motors spokesman. GM learned its lesson with the ill-fated EV-1, its first electric car. The company made only 890 of the all-electric vehicles from 1997 to 2002, which it leased instead of sold only in California and which couldn’t be charged at home on a regular wall socket. It only fit GM chargers.

The EV-1 had an advertised range of 110 miles, but like any battery or car, mileage varied. And if you couldn’t find a designated GM charging station in time, you were out of luck. Electric car advocates accused GM of prematurely killing the car; GM said it just wasn’t ready for the mass market.

GM believes it has solved the EV-1’s "range anxiety" problem with the gasoline engine in the Volt. "It’s an insurance policy to make sure you return to where you wanted to come from," Peterson said.

Just what the Volt will cost isn’t certain; its price range is estimated at $40,000 to $50,000. Nissan’s Leaf is a pure electric car — once its lithium ion batteries are drained, everything stops. And the lithium ion batteries power not just the motor but also the radio, heat and air conditioning, so using them affects mileage.

With the Leaf’s advertised range of 100 miles, 14,000 people already have paid a $99 reservation fee each for the first ones off the assembly line, Nissan spokesman Brian Brockman said. Its suggested price is $32,780.

Nissan is using federal DOE funds to install 4,700 220-volt charging stations in Washington state, Oregon, California, Arizona and Tennessee. The Leaf’s range should fall well within the average American’s daily commute, Brockman said.

But Nissan also hopes workplace charging becomes a good second option on days when people might want to run mileage-stretching errands on the way home, he said.

"The key is setting up realistic expectations," Brockman said. "It may make sense to talk to your employer and ask them to install a charging station, but we don’t think it’s absolutely necessary."

The Leaf may promise a range of 100 miles, but it likely will get only 70 or 80 miles on a frigid Minnesota day, local electric car enthusiasts say.

The heater — which provides instant heat without needing an engine to warm up — also will shave another 10 miles from its range, they add.

"So if you’re more than 25 miles from work, it could be kind of iffy," Peichel, the Medtronic engineer, said.

Do-it-yourself hobbyists have even more limited range — about 30-40 miles — but that hasn’t stopped some of them. Todd Seabury-Kolod got permission to plug in his converted Ford Ranger pickup truck at the St. Paul Museum Magnet School where he works as an early-education teacher.

"What I’m hoping to show is that this is no big deal," he said. Although he lives less than two miles from work, if he takes his son to school across town, his batteries could be half drained.

"Just a little run to Minneapolis is 18 miles, so if you can’t charge up at work, you aren’t going to be able to pick up your kid at Little League and such," he said.

Stew Roberts, who owns The Foreign Service car repair shop in Roseville and converted Seabury-Kolod’s truck, said early adopters will have to be good planners.

"It’s like living in a rural area far, far away from a gas station," he said. "You just don’t drive down to a quarter tank, you just don’t."

Range anxiety may discourage some potential buyers, but not everyone, said Jukka Kukkonen, president of the Minnesota Electric Automobile Association.

The former Ford Motor Co. executive runs a business educating people about electric vehicles. He’s an émigré from Finland, where people still plug in block heaters to start cars in winter.

A plug-in at work could allow people to warm up — or run the air conditioner — on their electric car before going home without using the batteries, he said.

Advocates for the environment and alternative energy see the coming wave of electric vehicles as a boon. EVs could become mobile storage batteries, buying cheap power at night at home and putting it back into the grid during expensive daylight hours and get paid for it, said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy (V2G, vehicle-to-grid). His St. Paul-based nonprofit is studying electric car usage this summer to guide policy on public charging infrastructure.

"With everybody talking about reducing our reliance on oil, electric vehicle technology is the biggest idea for widespread deployment of new cars that don’t run on gasoline," Noble said.

Xcel Energy is, in fact, studying that concept. With the help of the state of Minnesota, the Minneapolis-based utility expects to install 10 to 15 solar-powered car-charging stations by early next year along University Avenue between Minneapolis and St. Paul as part of it Energy Innovation Corridor research project. It’s also studying smart-grid technology that would accept energy from electric cars.

But the technology for using electric cars as batteries for the grid is still years away, said Greg Palmer, Xcel’s director of account management who is heading the Energy Corridor project.

By Leslie Brooks Suzukamo, www.twincities.com