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The days of 30-cents-per-gallon gasoline are long gone, but new electric vehicles can run on the equivalent of that in areas of the country where power rates are low.

North central Washington State, with its cheap hydropower and emerging wind and solar projects, has become a hub for efforts to promote plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Five years ago, the Port of Chelan based in Wenatchee, Washington, helped establish the Advanced Vehicle Innovations Consortium with the ­following goals:

  • Decrease cost of public and private transportation within the region
  • Insulate the local economy from unstable fuel prices by increasing energy dependence
  • Serve as a model for other areas

At the time the consortium was established, the outlook did not look so promising for electric vehicles, but recent advances in battery technology and software have changed that, says Ron Johnston-Rodriguez, economic development director with the Port of Chelan County.

Now, major automakers are introducing fully electric vehicles. Ford has launched all-electric versions of its Ranger and F15O pickup trucks.

Everything from electric wheelbarrows to 300-horsepower trucks that move cargo containers are coming into use. In addition, many small companies have sprung up that sell kits for converting a variety of vehicles to electric. Components are becoming more readily available, and the cost is dropping.

Johnston-Rodriguez calculates that the cost of driving an electric car in the United States ranges from 2 to 7 cents per mile, depending on the cost of electricity, ­compared with 24 cents per mile for gasoline.

To look at it another way, Jim White, senior engineer with the Chelan County Public Utilities District, calculates that a cost of 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity (which is higher than Chelan County’s actual rate) equates to 30-cents-per-gallon gasoline, a price not seen since the 1960s.

Agriculture

Since north central Washington is a major tree fruit and grape producing area, Johnston-Rodriguez would like to see more use of electrical vehicles in agriculture.

“We’re at the very early stages of application of this technology to agriculture,” he said. “We think it’s going to be a growing part of the landscape. All this started with passenger cars, but it’s scaling up, so we’re looking at larger vehicles and the cost is anticipated to come down significantly, just like other technology.”

A bonus for growers who use electrical farm equipment and sell their produce out of the area is that they can claim that their produce has a lower carbon footprint because it was produced or transported with clean hydropower.

“That’s a saleable thing,” he said.

Other advantages of electric motors over internal ­combustion engines in agriculture are that they:

  • Have high torque at low speed
  • Switch off
  • Produce no emissions
  • Are much quieter
  • Are less prone to break down
  • Don’t need servicing

Batteries

Most of the electric vehicles on the market so far use lead acid batteries because the newer lithium-ion batteries make the vehicles far more expensive to buy. However, lithium batteries have numerous advantages and are likely to be used more in the future. They function better in extreme temperatures and keep their charge longer, Johnston-Rodriguez said. A lithium battery is lighter in weight and can provide five to seven times as much energy as a lead acid battery.

Lithium batteries have a relatively long life of up to ten years. Even after they no longer have enough charge to power mobile equipment, they still can be recycled for storing wind or solar energy or to provide emergency power for homes, for example.

Only one company makes lithium batteries in the United States, so most lithium batteries are being imported from China, Korea, or Japan, Johnston-Rodriguez said. Several more U.S. companies are building factories to scale up production, and it’s possible that within five to seven years, the United States could be exporting lithium batteries. There are federal incentives for developing clean energy, and Johnston-Rodriquez said he’s impressed by the amount of private-sector ­capital going into this effort also.

Although electric vehicles are economical, there are obstacles to widespread adoption. People worry about the limited range and how they will recharge them.

Vehicle owners can install level 2 (240-volt) charging stations at home or on the farm. More high-speed level 3 public charging stations (500 volt) are becoming available. A company called Ecotality will supervise the installation of 15,000 charging stations in 16 cities across the United States by next June and will place another 8,300 on the road. Ecotality has also partnered with British Petroleum to install fast chargers for electric vehicles at 45 BP and ARCO gas stations by next spring.

Randy Brooks, an alternative energy enthusiast from Chelan, Washington, has a 2002 Toyota Echo car that he converted to electric himself. His vehicle can be plugged into any electrical outlet. The newer electric vehicles have special plugs that can only be plugged into charging stations, but adapter cords are available so they can be plugged in anywhere, he said.

Brooks thinks the newer vehicles should be designed to plug into any outlet because the infrastructure is already there. Under Washington State law, the electrical supply at any public building can be used to recharge an electric ­vehicle.