Electric Avenue 

EVs gain traction in the Treasure Valley

One of Idaho Power's four Nissan Leaf electric vehicles parked next to a utility-owned charging system

Harrison Berry

One of Idaho Power's four Nissan Leaf electric vehicles parked next to a utility-owned charging system

Reed Burkholder saw an ad in the newspaper for a 2013 Nissan Leaf more than two years ago. Buying the electric car new would cost him more than $30,000 but leasing it would run him $99 a month. He said he "couldn't pass it up." Since signing the lease with Dennis Dillon, he has spent a total of $37 on maintenance and approximately $13 per month charging the car. By comparison, he pays $110-$160 a month to keep gas in his 2000 Nissan Ultima. According to Burkholder, the real difference between the Leaf and his Ultima is the driving experience.

"Virtually all electric car drivers experience this: You press the gas pedal and you leap forward. In an electric car, there's no transmission. You just press the pedal and the sucker goes," he said.

Burkholder will join 30-50 Boise area electric vehicle owners taking part in the fourth annual National Drive Electric Week.

The event, set for Sunday, Sept. 20 at the MK Nature Center, advertises EVs as a cost-effective, environmentally responsible alternative to gasoline fueled cars for local commuting. Efforts to make EV technology more versatile and convenient are under way, and stakeholders like Idaho Power and the Sierra Club would like to see more electric cars on city streets, as well as state highways.

Despite those efforts, significant barriers to large-scale EV adoption remain. Idaho Power Vice President of Power Supply Lisa Grow highlighted the problem of perception Aug. 27 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for southern Idaho's first Tesla Motors Supercharger Station, located near the Edwards Boise Stadium 22 cinemas in Boise.

"We're really trying to find ways to build the infrastructure that will help the adoption rate of EVs, and stations like this are one of the first steps," Grow said. "People have to believe they can get from point A to point B."

The stations are free to use for Tesla owners—the company buys electricity from local utilities—but most Teslas have a recommended range of 240 miles. Only one station, located in Baker City, Ore., is within that range. Three others—Winnemucca and Elko, Nev., and Trementon, Utah—are within the maximum range of 300 miles.

According to Kent McCarthy, engineering project leader in Research, Development and Deployment for Idaho Power, Tesla is expected to open a station in Twin Falls in October.

"What Tesla's intent has been was to make an east-west route across the United States. This next step is building through I-84 to Salt Lake City," he said.

McCarthy also said Idaho Power will participate in the National Drive Electric Week event to showcase the ways the company has begun electrifying its fleet. Beyond purchasing four Leafs and three Chevrolet Volts, it has also installed charging stations across its service area, as well as electric components into its maintenance equipment to reduce time spent idling, thereby reducing gas use. In all, Idaho Power dedicates 5 percent of its fleet budget to EVs and related technology.

Idaho Power supplies practically all the electricity used by EVs in the Treasure Valley, drawing about half of its electricity from low-cost hydroelectric plants. Because of that, EV drivers pay the equivalent of 95 cents per gallon to zip around the Treasure Valley.

Promoting EVs is a point of agreement between Idaho Power and the Idaho Chapter of the Sierra Club—one of National Drive Electric Week's organizers. Sierra Club's Beyond Coal effort seeks to replace one-third of the nation's coal plants with renewable energy facilities by 2020 and, while the Sierra Club has prioritized the Beyond Coal goals, Chapter Director Zack Waterman said reducing carbon emissions from vehicles by increasing the number of EVs on the road dovetails with those objectives.

"Beyond Coal is a big emphasis for the Sierra Club, but if you look at climate change as a problem from a carbon emissions standpoint, you also have to deal with the transportation side of the coin," he said.

The Sierra Club's Boise office installed its own EV charging station in September 2014. Since then, dozens of public and private recharge stations have sprouted up in Boise and the surrounding areas (for a map, check out plugshare.com). Waterman said the number of cars charging at the Sierra Club station has increased steadily in the past two years because the economics behind public and private investment in the technology has made it more attractive to Boiseans. When it comes to measuring how popular EVs are with people in the Treasure Valley, he referred to the Idaho Transportation Department.

According to ITD, 75 EVs were on Idaho roads in 2013—the most recent year for which the department had data. Hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius enjoyed far greater popularity that year, with approximately 8,500 cars in use. Earlier this year, however, the Idaho Legislature handed down an additional $140 registration fee for EVs.

"It truly is a negligible number [of EVs in Idaho]," said ITD Vehicle Services Manager Amy Smith. "[The Legislature] looked at those additional fees in relation to what the rest of us pay in gas taxes."

Even with an exponential growth rate between 2013 and 2015, there may be significantly more EVs in the Gem State than ITD believes, Burkholder said, because many EV models are electrified versions of gas-powered cars and their owners may not report them as electric to avoid paying the $140 fee.

As for the future of EVs, with more charging stations coming online in the Treasure Valley and battery technology continuing to improve, Burkholder said the ascendence of the electric car is inevitable.

"I think they're literally going to displace gas cars, and it's going to happen soon," he said.

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