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Claire Tomkins Headshot

Bumpy Ride to Electric Vehicle Ownership

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It's not always easy being green.

A couple of weekends ago, my husband and I test drove a Chevrolet Volt. We liked the "concept car" look of the Volt and, as (green) tech geeks, we were particularly captivated by the revolutionary engine design. As MotorTrend wrote, the Volt has "the single most sophisticated powertrain on the planet."

Now that's exciting. We decided to buy one.

When we got home that evening, my husband -- the practical one in our relationship -- observed, "You know, we really should figure out where we're going to plug this thing in." Of course: plugging it in, that's the whole point.

Somehow this detail had escaped me. I can quickly rattle of statistics about the benefits of electric vehicles: zero tailpipe emissions when running all-electric, overall air pollution reduction up to 80%, 13 cents to drive 1 mile on gas and 2 cents on electricity, and, for the volt, an estimate miles per gallon (MPGe) of 94. But I hadn't focused on the infrastructure challenge and neither, seemingly, had anyone else. The car reviews we read went to great length to detail the different flavors of electric vehicles but they glossed over any discussion of how to charge your vehicle - what's required and what it would cost. The car dealer also glossed over those details or, more precisely, never mentioned them.

It's true that in theory "plugging in" is easy. Electric vehicles can be plugged into any normal plug (110V-120V), just like any appliance, but if you don't have access to an outdoor outlet near where you park, that's a problem. The Home Owners Association (HOA) in our condo building told us that the building is considering infrastructure for electric vehicles but has not finalized any plans. It was many months away in the best case. We'd have to put in our own charging station.

Undeterred, I called an electrician. He told me it would require a dedicated circuit that, in turn, would require running conduit several hundred feet in the parking garage. All possible for an estimated $6-$8K. Wow. That on top of the sticker price of the car. Well, we reasoned, maybe we can plug it in at work. Again, not easy. At work there was no outdoor outlet, requiring us to cut into an exterior wall and install an outdoor outlet.

This made me reflect on the broader theme: there are great ideas and great technology out there to help us go green, but if it's this hard to adopt, then who will really be willing to make the effort?

In truth, there are a few relatively easy things we can do right now to make the transition to electric vehicles a lot smoother.

First, we need to place more responsibility on our building owners and our cities. Yes, it requires a little effort to install an electric vehicle charging station, but once you've installed it you can easily recoup the costs by charging the EV owners. The difference between the cost of electricity and the cost of gas is approximately 75 cents a gallon versus $4.10, so even with a premium included to repay the infrastructure cost, that's a bargain.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) is making it easier for building owners to go electric by offering subsidies for electric vehicle charging stations as part of ChargeAmerica. This is a great program, although it's not big enough. Approximately $3.4 million will be spent helping to install 1600 chargers in California. The CEC should expand this important program, with the support of citizens that recognize the potential for electric vehicles to simultaneously address the air quality issues in our cities and the energy dependence issues in our country. City mayors and state senators also need to hear that there is widespread support for electric vehicles - and the infrastructure that enables them.

Also, I have a message for Chevrolet: you have a big role to play here. You've built a great car. Now you need to educate the public, starting with your dealers. I was shocked that our car dealer wasn't more helpful in this process. Our internet research was more useful than anything he told us. Chevy, you need to geekify your salesforce.

After some deliberation, we ended up buying the Volt. We figured out a relatively low-cost solution to plug-in at work, and our car dealer, feeling either sympathetic or guilty, chipped in some cash to help with our infrastructure problems.

I'm still working on our HOA.

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