|Gov. Ted Kulongoski takes the wheel on a test drive of the Nissan LEAF, which will hit the roads in December in Oregon and four other states. Photo: Dustin Eppers/EnzymePDX|
The festivities were underground, in a parking garage at the World Trade Center in downtown Portland, yet the aroma of history being made was unmistakable.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, smiling widely in the driver’s seat, threaded through a knot of reporters and dignitaries and took an all-electric, plug-in Nissan LEAF for an introductory spin. The crunch of the blue compact’s tires were the only audible sound as it slipped out toward the sunlight.
Nearly 40 years after OPEC showed us how flimsy our hold was on oil, the magic substance that fuels the American lifestyle, here were the means to put down our energy crack pipes.
Moments earlier, as the governor and participants in the LEAF project spoke, the compact blue car, plugged into the first publicly available quick-charge station, powered up. No gasoline, no internal combustion engine, no tailpipe, no emissions.
Watch PGE and Governor Kulongoski unveil the Nissan LEAF
The LEAF isn’t prohibitively expensive – $23,500 after federal and state tax credits – nor is it just large enough for your toothbrush, but not the toothpaste. After a 30-minute quick charge, it can travel 80 miles (100 miles when fully charged) before the next plug-in.
Could it be that we finally have the answer to cartel embargos, greenhouse emissions, uncontrollable offshore gushers and big oil shakedowns?
The LEAF will be available for purchase in December in a handful of U.S. markets, Portland among them. Nissan representatives stressed that they are taking reservations but that they are not sold out. In addition to Oregon, LEAFs will be available in Washington, California, Arizona and Tennessee, home of Nissan North America.
“We can lead the nation into a transition,” Kulongoski told the crowd, his remarks echoing eerily in the garage. “And if they see us doing it here, they’re going to say, once again, ‘You know, those Oregonians have something going out there, and why don’t we try to figure out what they’ve done and replicate it.’ So we have this opportunity to be the national leader in the introduction of electric vehicles.”
But it wasn’t just about the car. The quick-charge station, which can restore the LEAF’s lithium-ion battery to 80 percent in under 30 minutes, suddenly turned the vehicle from a limited-range commuter car – a bit of a novelty item – into a full-service vehicle. A network of 1,200 chargers, clustered along the I-5 corridor, will open a world of mobility. The car’s mapping system will dial up where you can find them.
“Quick-charge stations are a game-changer in the electric vehicle industry,” said Jim Piro, president and CEO of Portland General Electric. “You can get a quick cup of coffee or a bite to eat, and your vehicle will be fully charged as you go down the road.”
But what about the grid? Certainly cars without tailpipes produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fire-breathing SUVs. But isn’t there still a lump of coal somewhere at the end of the plug-in cord? According to 2009 data, PGE produced 24 percent of its generating capacity from coal and 27 percent from natural gas.
“We’re changing the grid to renewables,” Piro pointed out, citing the Renewable Energy Standard adopted by the Oregon legislature in 2007. The measure mandates that the state’s largest utilities shift 25 percent of their power generation to renewable sources by 2025.
In addition, Piro said, most of the load from at-home electric car charging will be overnight – the off-peak times when there is excess generation. Wind turbines typically generate the most energy at night when demand is small. A new wave of overnight charging would help to compensate.
“It’s actually developing a smart grid,” Kulongoski offered. “The idea of the smart grid is you’ll be able to charge off the peak hours at a cheaper rate.”
Battling greenhouse gas emissions and America’s reliance on oil is a two-front battle: making the power grid cleaner, and reducing the number of gas-fueled vehicles. Having the Pacific Northwest tip toward electric vehicles ahead of shutting down coal-fired utility plants might not be the worst thing.
An even more vital question might be: Are these things any fun to drive?
(see video on next page)
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