Electric vehicles quietly hit streets of Victoria

Turn on the ignition and you hear, well, absolutely nothing. The public won’t be able to buy an electric car immediately because manufacturers are just starting to distribute them, and those that are arriving are headed to government fleets for pilot programs.

Canadian prices have also yet to be set. "This is really the year of the electric vehicle," Mark Dubois-Phillips, senior manager of technical development at B.C. Hydro, said Monday.

Mitsubishi’s all-electric i-MiEV arrived over the weekend to join the Saanich municipal fleet as part of its sustainability and climate change initiatives. The Nissan LEAF, another electric car, is also being considered by local municipalities. And so is the Chevy Volt, another highly anticipated electric car that is equipped with a small gasoline tank that kicks in if the battery is depleted, to power a generator and create more electricity.

B.C. Hydro is planning to add several new types of vehicles to its fleet in the coming year, including the Volt, Leaf and others. It already has two i-MiEVs.

Not only does Hydro have a fleet-greening initiative, but it is trying out these various vehicles to understand their applications and the implications of the technology on the province, Dubois-Phillips said.

Electric cars, such as the i-MiEV, plug into three levels of charging. The higher the power, the faster the charge. Plug into a typical 110-volt home outlet and a vehicle will equal a draw approximating that of a plasma or LCD television, Dubois-Phillips said.

Hydro is partnering with provincial and local governments in using and preparing for these vehicles, including setting up charging stations.

The federal government is also investing. Colwood, for example, will be installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure, as well as other green programs, out of a $3.9-million federal spending program to support clean energy.

Mark Boysen, Saanich’s sustainability co-ordinator, tried out a City of Vancouver i-MiEV prior to arranging a three-year lease for the four-seater, zero-emission vehicle.

"Once you drive it, you see that it’s got the acceleration, the pickup and the handling -it feels like a really nice little car," he said. "We want as many people to test it out and drive it as possible and use it within our fleet. We are going to see where we can get the most value out of it as well."

The "ready" light shines when Brad Shorter, general sales manager at Victoria Mitsubishi, starts the new i-MiEV. "This is the stone-turner in the automotive industry," said Shorter, adding the dealership expects more of the vehicles in the fall. Shorter pushes on the accelerator pedal and the car powered by a lithiumion battery zips forward.

"It’s really peppy" and can reach 130 kilometres per hour, Shorter said. In Nanaimo last week, Harris Mitsubishi Motors received a "barrage" of visitors checking out the i-MiEV that the dealership received for the Town of Qualicum Beach, said assistant sales manager Doug Culham.

More will come in sometime later this year but he doesn’t know numbers yet. Qualicum Mayor Teunis Wesbroek said that community is striving to be "community leaders in clean air."

Mark Brown, Qualicum chief administrative officer, said the town has also ordered a Ford Transit Connect van that will be converted to electric power prior to delivery in the fall, and it is hoping to get on a pilot program for the Nissan Leaf.

Two electric vehicle charging stations, one 110 volt and another 240 volt, have been installed in Qualicum’s town halllibrary underground public parking lot, and higher-volt charging stations are planned downtown.

Campus Nissan sales manager Mike Asmussen said the first year of production of the Nissan LEAF is already spoken for by fleets and government agencies. Online reservations will open in the spring, with follow-up charging details to come.

In the fall of 2011, the first Leaf cars will arrive in Canada, but Asmussen doesn’t expect any on showroom floors until at least 2012. The Volt will be sold by both Jenner and Wheaton dealerships in Victoria, likely starting this summer.