Are you ready? I can't say that I am, but last week I had the opportunity to learn more at the workshop Electric Vehicles: Innovations, Incentives, and Infrastructure, where panelists from various companies and government organizations presented the latest information.

I doubt anyone at this workshop needed convincing that electric vehicles (EVs) are good for the environment, but it was interesting to note these points:

  • Diesel and gasoline account for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Of the top ten most polluted cities in the U.S., five are in California.
  • Even though California's population (both people and cars) has grown immensely, air quality has improved, because of emission controls.
  • In California, a small percentage (between 2% and 8%) of our energy comes from coal, large parts coming from natural gas, hydroelectric, and even some renewable energy.
  • Recessions tend to happen at times of high oil prices.

All of these add up to electric cars being a good option, especially in California -- a state where 12% of the U.S. population has bought 27% of the hybrids. Here, because of our energy sources, driving an electric car can put a major dent in one's carbon footprint.

Costs

I've already written about some consumer worries regarding EVs. But what about the price? Next year, EVs will finally be within reach of many consumers, and incentives and rebates will help bring the price down even more. A federal vehicle tax credit of $2500 - $7500 can drastically lower the price -- but wait, there's more! If you buy a new vehicle and lease or own it for at least three years, you'll be eligible for a rebate of $3000 - $5000 at the time of purchase. So you can get a Nissan Leaf, with a starting price of $32,780, for just over $20,000. The Chevy Volt comes with a higher price tag of $41,000 and slightly lower incentives, but you can still bring its price down to around $30,000. While the federal tax credit will be phased out according to how many cars each dealer sells, other incentives are likely to come along.

Although an EV can be charged at any electrical outlet, using a charger is quicker and provides other advantages. Smart metering is available, and many chargers can be set up to delay charging to non-peak hours, reducing both costs and the risk of overloading the grid. Installing a charger can cost over $2,000, but it's a one-time cost and incentives can be significant. They vary by area -- in California, you can check the Center for Sustainable Energy site to keep up on the latest.

Once you purchase the car and charger, you can look forward to lower operating costs. EVs require almost no maintenance, and the electricity needed to power them runs about 2 cents a mile, compared to the 6 cents a mile for a gas-powered vehicle.

Infrastructure

Most people will be able to charge their cars at home, but there are also other options. San Francisco already has some chargers in commercial parking lots, and many more are coming soon. In the San Francisco Bay Area, $5 million has been slated to support the EV infrastructure, including hundreds of charge points and some fast chargers -- good news for the many drivers who park on the street and have no way to charge their cars at home. Some workplaces, including mine, have committed to providing chargers in their parking areas.

Better Place, a Palo Alto company, offers an alternative model. They've partnered with car manufacturers to produce vehicles that use a uniform battery, which you can swap at one of their stations for a fully charged one. Since you're only leasing the battery, which accounts for $12,000 to $14,000 of the sticker price, the cars are more affordable. Better Place provides a subscription plan that charges according to usage, much like a cell phone plan. Because they require a certain infrastructure, their projects so far have been limited to defined areas, such as Denmark and Israel. It will be interesting to see if they can spread their model further. They provide two major advantages for consumers: a cheaper car and ease of charging -- swapping a battery takes less time than filling a gas tank.

Another infrastructure issue is the increased load on the electrical grid. Utilities companies are prepared, and they'll be aided by the gradual adoption of EVs in the general population. Some areas that already use more power, such as those that rely on air conditioning in the summer, already have a system made to handle a heavy load. In other areas, transformers will need to be replaced. Charging cars at off-peak times will help -- a good reason to get a charger with this option.

The future

We can expect to see many new charging stations and many new EVs in California in the next two years. But what about the rest of the country? There may be waiting lists for EVs, but that's because a limited number are being manufactured. Most consumers still don't see them as a mainstream choice.

And that's where the early adopters are crucial. EVs have been almost invisible till now. We're entering an exciting era where people will start to see them more and become accustomed to them. There may be waiting lists now, but almost 30 car companies are planning new EVs for the near future. The word will get out as more people drive electric cars and extoll their benefits.

As for myself, I've never been willing to spend the money to buy a new car, so I may have to wait. I'll comfort myself with the thought that Chelsea Sexton, a major EV advocate, drives a Smart Car like I do. But I'll be watching for prices to come down even more and for the technology to get even better. And I'll ensure we install electric car plug-ins at my condo complex. When the time comes for my electric car, I'll be prepared!