Sizzle or fizzle? Bay area bets on electric car boom
TAMPA - Jim Shirk is the kind of guy many in the auto industry, along with utility companies, environmentalists and the Obama administration, are relying upon to carry electric cars out of a financial "Valley of Death." The Tampa civil engineer looks forward to spending $40,000 to buy a plug-in, electric-powered car. That's the sort of attitude that will help bridge the business stage between enthusiasm by early advocates like Shirk for a pricey early generation automobile and broader acceptance by consumers to create reliable profits that keep product lines rolling. "I only have a quarter-million miles on my Prius," Shirk said Friday at a Progress Energy-sponsored seminar on electric vehicles in St. Petersburg. "I expect it will last another 50,000 miles at least. But then I expect to buy a Chevy Volt."Shirk, a Sierra Club member, doesn't think the price of gasoline will ever go much below where it is now. He dismisses the "drill, baby, drill" mantra because he sees oil as a finite resource increasingly sought by heavily populated, formidable economic competitors like China and India. While oil supply and price issues are likely to remain election fodder for years to come, all the major auto manufacturers are coming out with electric car models, although few observers are confident President Obama will achieve his goal of 1 million electric cars traveling U.S. highways by 2015. Yet while the Tampa Bay area is seldom considered among leaders in environmental movements, it is regarded as a front-runner in supporting plug-in electric vehicles, officials who track industry trends nationwide say. That's due in large measure to the efforts of Get Ready Tampa Bay for Electric Transportation to get widespread buy-in to make the area "plug-in ready." The group is a two-year-old collaborative effort between the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, 16 county and municipal governments, Progress Energy and Tampa Electric. More than 80 charging stations are in operation in the Tampa Bay region, and owners of electric vehicles also can charge them at home from standard 120 volt outlets, or 220 volt devices that can trim several hours off charging times. A General Motors official said Friday that several hundred Volts have been sold in the Tampa Bay area. That compares with 7,600 Volts that Green Car Reports says were sold nationwide in 2011, their first year on the market. Another 9,700 Nissan Leafs were sold in 2011, also the first year for Leaf sales. Those figures indicate electric car usage is still small. Another example: Since Tampa International Airport opened two free electric vehicle charging stations in October, only six valet parking customers and two cellphone waiting lot customers have used them. But local utilities are aware enough of the potential of electric cars that they have invested in electric cars for their fleets and are studying how demand patterns for charging batteries could affect their power grids. "We are committed to understanding the realities of what electric transportation means to us," said James Culp, a Progress Energy Florida alternative energy strategist. Clearly, the quest for more electric car usage will require a massive public education effort, representatives ranging from General Motors to the Sierra Club said at Friday's orientation event. The fundamental data: Prices of the most well-known, commonly marketed electric cars are about $36,000 for the Nissan Leaf, which is powered only by electricity, and $40,000 for the Volt, which travels about 40 miles on the battery before its gasoline engine starts up. The Ford Focus electric car that will be available later this year also will cost about $40,000. A Mitsubishi model that's scheduled to be available within days in Tampa Bay will sell for about $29,000 at the same Elder Automotive Group dealership where you can buy the Fisker Karma plug-in luxury sedan for $106,000. Those prices are offset somewhat by a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. Recharging costs at local residential rates would cost about $1.30 to travel 40 miles in a Volt. That's less than one-third the price of gasoline at today's prices for a small car. There's also the matter of getting over recent adverse publicity for growing pains, including an issue with a potential fire hazard with the Volt's lithium-ion battery pack. "They will fix it," Shirk said. "You feel safe sitting on top of gallons of flammable gasoline in your car today?" Yet General Motors said earlier this month it would halt production of the Volt for about five weeks because of an over-supply of vehicles. Electric cars are at a critical stage in their development, Progress Energy's Culp said, as he demonstrated the Volt's acceleration on sport mode, enhanced by the drive train's ability to generate 100 percent torque from a standing start, like the rapid take-off possible in a golf cart. "We have to get past the Valley of Death. But we will. It is technology that is here, that works and that is fun. This is not a golf cart."
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