Ready, set, charge!

Can the grid handle electric vehicles?

Participants in last weekend’s “Plug Into Electric Cars!” event check out the new Chevy Volt.

Participants in last weekend’s “Plug Into Electric Cars!” event check out the new Chevy Volt.

Photo by Kat Kerlin

Electric Automobile Association of Northern Nevada,
National Automobile Museum, 10 S. Lake St.,
Nissan of Reno, 865 Kietzke Lane, 322- 2700,
For all things electric, visit

Only five years ago, the electric car was pronounced dead. Director Chris Paine hit upon this with his 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? Flash forward to 2011, and nearly every major auto manufacturer is developing—and selling—not just hybrid vehicles, but all-electric ones. Paine is on the scene again this spring with his The Revenge of the Electric Car documentary.

In this spirit, the National Automobile Museum hosted a panel discussion and exhibit of electric vehicles last weekend. On display were a 2010 Tesla Roadster, 2011 Chevy Volt, a 2007 converted plug-in Toyota Prius, and—an old-timer—the 1914 Detroit Electric Gentleman’s Roadster.

One question for the panelists was, aren’t electric vehicles just swapping tailpipe emissions for power plant emissions? There’s some truth to that. About 70 percent of Nevada’s electricity comes from relatively clean natural gas, and about 20 percent of it comes from dirty coal. The remainder comes from hydroelectric, geothermal and solar power.

“As electric vehicle sources get cleaner, our vehicles get cleaner,” said Electric Automobile Association of Northern Nevada co-chair Bob Tregilus. That can’t be said about conventional cars. NV Energy is also mandated to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Travis Johnson of NV Energy added that between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.—when many people would charge their vehicles—more than 25 percent of the grid’s power comes from geothermal energy. Amid concerns the grid couldn’t handle a giant influx of EV users, Johnson said Nevada’s grid can charge up to a million cars per night without affecting energy load or rates. And residents who drive an EV 1,000 miles a month can expect their utility bill to go up by $24-$36, less than most tanks of gas.

Johnson said plans are underway to get more public charging stations installed. But, unlike gas stations, there won’t be one on every corner because most people will charge at home. Where they do pop up, the service may be more akin to free wifi at a café rather than a pay-at-the-pump gas station. Businesses—such as Einstein Bros. Bagels, which already offers an EV charging station—may install them to get customers in their doors, not as a money-making service in itself.

“We’re conditioned to think in terms of internal combustion engine vehicles with the gas and service stations,” said Tregilus. “We think there’s a limited range, but 80-85 percent of us drive less than 40 miles a day.”

Challenges remain for electric vehicles. There need to be more qualified technicians for them, easier charging access for apartment dwellers, and an all-wheel-drive EV, for which several Northern Nevadans are holding out.

And they’re not cheap. The Nissan Leaf is considered affordable at $32,780, but it’s still more expensive than a comparable gas-powered sedan, and its $6,000 battery needs to be replaced every eight years or so. However, the price is expected to drop as production is standardized.

Then there’s simply getting access to them. With pre-orders, the Nissan Leaf sold out six months before it went on sale, and its rollout has been slower than expected. Nissan of Reno’s Peter Fletcher, a panelist, said he’ll know more about the rollout by mid-March, and that Nissan is “poised to build 100,000 Leafs a year starting around 2012.”

This time around, electric vehicles could help drive the market, not just fight for their lives.