Electric cars: Plugging away

Electric cars: Plugging away

CHAMPAIGN — Some are electric, some are hybrid, but all kinds of alternative vehicles will have to overcome some obstacles before they are really able to hit the mainstream.

This area might even be doing a little bit better than most. There are at least two places in Champaign where you can plug in your car (think of it as a gas station for a car that runs without gas) — four charging stations are available on the third floor of the Hill Street parking deck in downtown Champaign, and another is on the north side of the EnterpriseWorks building in the University of Illinois Research Park.

Jacob Tucker, general sales manager at the Sullivan-Parkhill dealership in Champaign, said sales of the Chevrolet Volt are not too bad.

“We do pretty well for our region,” Tucker said. “We’re pretty sales effective. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the university because it’s a little more progressive. People are more willing to try out that kind of technology.”

Still, it’s not so easy to spot an electric vehicle on the road in Champaign-Urbana. The first thing holding a lot of people back is the upfront cost, Tucker said.

“They need to address pricing structure,” Tucker said. “The batteries themselves are expensive to make.”

The 2014 Chevy Volt has a suggested retail price of $34,185, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s getting close to luxury-car territory, but it’s also before government rebates: The state of Illinois will give you a $4,000 check for buying an electric vehicle, and some models are eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

And technology is coming along. 

The 2014 Volts are $5,000 less expensive than the earlier models because manufacturers are making the batteries for cheaper, Tucker said. The price is coming down.

There’s another obstacle: The range of the cars needs to get better, Tucker said.

The Volt, for example, runs only on electricity for the first 35 to 40 miles — the equivalent of 98 miles per gallon (because you’re still using energy to charge your car with electricity). After that, it will switch over to gas, and the Volt is EPA-rated at 37 mpg.

“Mostly, the average commute is about 30 miles, so it should take care of most people’s commute” with electricity only, Tucker said.

But let’s say you live in Danville and work in Champaign — electricity will get you to work (barely), but you’ll need to go on gas to get home. A lot of the Volt’s benefits burn up on Interstate 74.

So you might consider the Nissan Leaf, which can go 84 miles (114 mpg equivalent) on a single charge, to be a better option. The Leaf will safely get that Danville resident to work in Champaign and back. But the Leaf doesn’t take gas at all. You’re out of luck if you were thinking about driving to Chicago — the car will die before it gets there.

That makes the next step infrastructure. Cars that run on electricity need a place to charge, a process that takes about eight hours and, for most people right now, happens in their garage overnight.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity this year offered incentives for government agencies, businesses, educational institutions, nonprofits and individuals to install electric charging stations. Those which installed charging stations were eligible for a 50 percent rebate of the total cost, up to a maximum $49,000.

There’s nowhere to plug in right now in Urbana, but city sustainability manager Scott Tess said officials are taking a look at that. Just don’t expect to see any charging stations installed purely for convenience.

“When spending limited public funds, we don’t want to place a charging station just so people who have already bought an electric car can charge up,” Tess said.

The city would look to induce new electric vehicle purchases, Tess said. Putting a bunch of charging stations in downtown Urbana, for example, is not necessarily going to help anyone out.

The city is “working with (the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission) to see if we can find a way to utilize transportation modeling to identify, maybe, workplaces where one day’s commute is farther than one night’s charge,” Tess said.

Perhaps that’s Carle Foundation Hospital or another large regional employer, where people are driving into Urbana from Danville or Rantoul to get to work, instead of just across town. That way, workers who were out of range before might reconsider an electric car they can charge up during the workday.

Electric vehicles work well enough for Urbana city staff, though. Tess said the city is leasing a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which gets about 50 miles on a single charge for the building inspector who uses it. That’s more than city workers typically drive in a day.

“They make really good fleet vehicles because they charge up overnight, and we’re not using them overnight,” Tess said.

The major focus, for now, is on more traditional ways to get people out of cars.

“We are promoting and in many cases building infrastructure, particularly for bikes, to entice more people to take advantage of lower-emitting modes of transportation,” Tess said.

That includes maybe the most traditional way — if two people carpool together, Tess said, they’re cutting their emissions in half.

“Half is great,” Tess said.

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