Electric vehicle debate poses questions about cost

Some Connecticut residents are at a crossroad with their automobile as fuel costs have surged. Gasoline prices have run up to the $4- and $5-per-gallon ranges in two of the the last four summers, making driving a burdensome financial undertaking.

Enter electric vehicles, which are becoming a frontrunner in the minds of policy makers and some businesses as part of a solution. Companies including UIL, GE and Connecticut Light & Power Co. have installed or have plans to install charging stations in eight locations around Fairfield County. That's a third of what's planned for the state, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's website.

But, some people, such as Sullivan, are asking who should pay for it and who should develop the infrastructure to support electric vehicles. CL&P has also partnered with towns to install charging stations, which dispense electricity to cars for free. The company bills the towns for the power, according to Mitch Gross, a CL&P spokesman.

While the long-term plan for managing the "fill-ups" of electric cars remains vague, a few residents are learning how to operate them in an environment of somewhat limited support.

"It completely changes your driving habits," said Frank Calder, an Oxford resident.

He and his wife, Linda, were the first people from Connecticut to buy GM's electric vehicle, the Chevy Volt, seven months ago. In that time, they have not stranded themselves anywhere, though if they did run out of electric juice, the Volt comes with a backup gas motor and nine-gallon tank.

"We've gained a lot of confidence in the car," he said. "It's fun to live with."

In the 12,000 miles they've traveled in the car, they've used a total of three gallons of gasoline by maintaining a maximum speed of 55 mph and taking trips within the 40-mile range the car can travel on a fully charged battery.

Some other nice features of an electric car? No oil changes, and Calder said the vehicle sends email updates on its charging status.

"It's cute," he said.

If there is a downside, it's in the winter. He said it took longer to heat up the vehicle and that cut into the car's range. But, as a former Duracell executive, he said he fully expects newer and better batteries to come on the market that will address this issue.

The Calders also installed a 220-volt charging station in their garage a couple of weeks ago to speed up recharging. He said they lived with just plugging it into a regular outlet for the first six months, but that took 10 hours to fully recharge the vehicle. Now, it's about three hours, he said.

The one real impediment for wider adoption may be the cost of buying the vehicles.

Starting prices for the Volt top $40,000. The Nissan Leaf, now for sale in some U.S. states, costs more than $33,000 and Tesla Motors' S model starts at more than $57,000. The prices are all before a federal tax rebate of $7,500 for financing one.

Still, the less-expensive Leaf and Ford's plans to boost production of plug-in vehicles will probably provide more access to the technology, which Calder says is worth it for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it costs him about $1.92 to go 40 miles. That compares with a current average of $4 a gallon in Connecticut, the American Automobile Association reported on Thursday. The national average is $3.685, about 8 percent lower than Connecticut.

If electric cars become the next dominant mode of transportation, there will be broad implications for Connecticut, home to the nation's second highest electricity prices.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Connecticut residents paid 17.87 cents per kilowatt hour in the first three months of this year. That's about 59 percent higher than the average U.S. price of 11.24 cents.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Policy has been instructed to review whether a special rate for EV charging is warranted. There are other implications for our energy system, however.

James Fleming, president of the Connecticut Automobile Retailers Association and a former Department of Public Utility Control commissioner, said dealerships are seeing increased interest in plug-ins. For the buzz to turn into meaningful sales, the state will have to address some regulatory issues.

And "you would need more power," he said.

Electricity rates in the state are determined by formulas that spread the cost of producing and delivering it among the businesses and residents.

"When you get down to it, the ratepayers pay for it," he said.

While the government is looking at EV infrastructure and pricing, the private sector is also getting into the game.

Whole Foods Market has begun installing charging stations at its own expense at new stores. The Fairfield and Darien locations have them.

"We're a little bit ahead of the curve," said Michael Sinatra, a Whole Foods spokesman. "There's not a heavy volume."

Sinatra said the company feels it's important to encourage the use of this technology, so it's investing in the charging stations. It doesn't charge for their use and so far, he said the cost of running them has not generated any financial concerns for the company.

Indeed, EVs are just starting to appear on the roads. As of February, there were 41 EVs registered with the State Department of Motor Vehicles. And while there is a concern about running out of juice, as early as August of 2010, there were more than 50 charging stations planned for Connecticut.

By comparison, there are more than 2.66 million gasoline-fueled cars, 134 natural gas-fueled cars and 94 propane ones in Connecticut, according to the DMV.

But Calder thinks the electric vehicle is here to stay.

"I'm selling my Audi," he said.