The Electric Car

About halfway between St. Louis and Chicago, nestled in the fertile corn and soybean fields of Illinois, a quiet electric car revolution is sprouting up in the town of Normal, a town that in some ways is anything but. That’s because this vibrant, forward-looking community of 50,000—along with its adjacent sister city of Bloomington (pop 74,000)—calls itself “EV Town.” And it’s becoming a midwestern Mecca for the zero emission automobile. That’s right, here in the heart of the Prairie State, where big-wheeled pickups and corn silos the size of space shuttles rule, plug-in cars have come to town. Locals say they are here to stay.

The electric car that town officials are backing is the Mitsubishi MiEV, also called the Mitsubishi i, a four-passenger hatchback that the EPA rates as the best on the road with an astounding 126 mpg city and 99 mpg highway gasoline-equivalent rating. Mitsubishi says the car can be safely driven at least 62 miles between charges as rated by EPA, and it is easily charged overnight on a 110 or 220 volt system from home. Perhaps the best news is the price—about $22,000 after tax rebates and incentives. Town officials say they believe it won’t be long before the zippy electric car will be a common feature in driveways across the community.

Why Normal? Much of this vision is due to mayor Chris Koos, a modest local businessman with worldly ideas. When the town’s largest manufacturer—Mitsubishi Motors North America—announced that the company would begin selling its all-electric MiEV in the U.S. this year, a light bulb went off in the mayor’s head. Why not capitalize on it and become a model community for the electric car? It simply made sense to adopt the new zero emission vehicle, since Mitsubishi employs more than 1,000 people making cars at its modern assembly plant nearby.

“I thought why not here in Normal,” he told me in his town hall office recently. “We are a small community but we’re doing innovative things and an electric car here can really make an impact here. If you put 1,000 cars on the streets of LA, no one will notice. But you put 1,000 electric cars in Normal and you have a story to tell.” (check out the people of Normal talking about electric cars in this beautifully shot commercial here).

So the mayor came up with a catchy title—EV Town. “It passed the giggle test,” he says. Along with support from nearby Bloomington and other business leaders, they formed a partnership with the Japanese auto maker so that people there get first dibs on the new electric cars now rolling off assembly lines in Japan. The town also is installing special charging stations to make it easy for town folks to keep their batteries full.

Just last week, Normal took delivery of six new MiEVs that it will use for civic duties like parking enforcement and fire inspection. Hundreds of locals turned out for a special celebratory evening demonstration of other electric vehicles and to watch the soon-to-be cult classic film, Revenge of the Electric Car. Hummers beware!

Right now Mitsubishi only sells its electric car in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. But in March, new MiEVs will begin arriving in dealer showrooms in New York and Illinois, followed by other states later this year. As NRDC’s Roland Hwang blogged recently, government policies have helped promote zero emission vehicles, putting the U.S. on a path of energy independence while cutting dangerous pollution and emissions that promote climate change. Folks here in the corn belt say it’s a no-brainer.

Mitsubishi Motors North America spokesman Dan Irvin says Normal is a great market for the new zero emission vehicle. “We know this community since we’ve been building cars here since 1988,” he said. “We recognize that the size of the community and the demographics are a perfect fit for the car.” Irvin says there should be at least 50 chargers around the Normal-Bloomington area this year, which is good coverage for the size of the population.

And more will be coming. Company execs say this is just the beginning of the electric vehicle juggernaut. Affordable electric car technology has finally arrived, and experts say it only will get cheaper and more widespread. Here’s what Jerry Berwanger, Mitsubishi Motors North America COO, told WJBC in Bloomington last week.

“People were calling the horseless carriage a folly. There was no infrastructure at that time. Think about it, there were no gas stations on every corner. There were no paved streets,” he said. “Everyone thought horseless carriages won’t work, and look at it today. Look at the infrastructure built here in North America.”

In many ways, the fact that Normal is aggressively supporting the electric car is not surprising. Town leaders have implemented a number of policies that promote sustainable growth and environmentally friendly building and recycling programs, such as a storm-water cistern and roundabout in the city center. It’s finishing a new downtown train station to take advantage of the high-speed rail corridor being built between St. Louis and Chicago that will cut travel time dramatically between the two urban areas.

“The people of Normal understand that we want a community we can afford,” says local historian Greg Koos, who also is the mayor’s brother. “It’s all about sustainability; can you afford your future? With energy prices going up, many people are fleeing the grass of the suburbs and looking for communities to embrace.”

Will other towns adopt similar policies? Mayor Koos knows others are watching them closely. “We’re a small town but we like to lead by example,” he says. “We know a lot of eyes are on us but we try not to think about it. We just want to do the best we can for our community.”

Right now, that means promoting the clean and increasingly affordable electric car. Town leaders are placing a big bet this is a technology that makes too much sense to ignore. Besides, Koos says, he and his brother Greg were Eagle scouts. That experience left a lasting impression, one that still influences his governing today. “We were always taught to leave the campsite cleaner than when you found it,” he says with a smile.

With that kind of philosophy—and with the electric car—you can bet Normal will be better off with it. And so will the rest of us.

Rocky Kistner, Communications Associate, Washington, DC. I’ve spent more than 20 years as a journalist, working on investigative projects and stories for major print and broadcast outlets. So I didn’t know what to expect when I started working with NRDC’s communications staff on climate change issues in 2009. But I quickly discovered my journalism experience easily transferred to NRDC’s work. In 2010, I staffed NRDC’s Gulf Resource Center in Buras, LA, deep in the heart of the Louisiana bayou and ground zero of the BP oil catastrophe. I’ve continued to blog about this ongoing disaster as residents and fishermen battle health and environmental consequences of the worst oil disaster in our nation’s history. In my book, there really isn’t a more important job working on these issues right now. All I have to do is look into my two young daughters’ eyes to know people everywhere are counting on us to get this right. We really don’t have a choice.