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Steve Brock can sift through the cushions of the couch at Cowlitz PUD for loose change the next time he needs to charge up the utility's converted electric plug-in hybrid car.

Last year, members of the PUD's energy conservation staff estimate they spent the equivalent of 35 cents a gallon of gas to charge the 2009 Toyota Prius, which runs on battery power for trips in town and recharges at a station in the PUD's garage.

It's a nice bit of synergy for the PUD: promoting energy conservation while driving around in a car powered by clean, renewable fuel, said Brock, the PUD's operations superintendent. A notable trade-off, however, is that electric vehicles create more demand for power when utilities are preaching conservation to keep costs down. Within a year, charging stations will pop up every few dozen miles on Interstate 5 in preparation for the coming wave of all-electric cars.

But if the choice is between renewable, locally generated hydropower and continued use of fossil fuels, utility officials say a shift to electric vehicles would be a good deal for the region and the country.

"This is using more electricity, but it's giving us more independence from foreign oil," said Dave Andrew, a Cowlitz PUD spokesman.

Charged up for electric cars

The latest wave of all-electric vehicles is trickling into the market, sparking excitement among green-power enthusiasts and auto tech junkies. On Friday night, Washington's first all-electric Nissan Leaf was delivered to a Seattle dealership. Oregon's first Leaf hit the road last week. Nissan is the first large automaker to jump into the all-electric market, launching the Leaf in California earlier this year.

Cowlitz County's authorized Nissan dealer, Columbia Ford, is already taking orders for the Leaf and plans to receive its first models at the beginning of next year, said Steve Holst, the dealer's Nissan salesman.

Ford plans to unveil an all-electric Focus in 19 major metro areas, including Seattle and Portland, late next year, around the same time Chevrolet is releasing a plug-in electric hybrid Volt. Toyota is set to unveil the factory-installed plug-in Prius in 2012, but vehicle owners like Cowlitz PUD can spend about $10,000 to add a plug-in option to older models.

Auto industry experts say between two million and three million electric vehicles will be on the road worldwide by 2015. That's less than one half of one percent of all vehicles, but, by the end of the decade, that share could jump to 2 percent to 3 percent, with 25 million to 30 million drivers behind the wheel of electrics, analysts say.

One conservative forecast predicts nearly 11 million new electric cars manufactured and sold worldwide in 2030, about 8 percent of the market, according to Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm. A more optimistic view comes from PRTM, a London-based auto industry analysis firm, which says half of the vehicles coming out of auto-manfacturing plants in 2050 will be electric, nearly 70 million worldwide.

In Washington state, as many as 300,000 electric cars are expected to be on the road within the next decade, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The DOT is planning for the surge in electric vehicle traffic by installing a series of charging stations every 40 to 60 miles along Interstate 5 by he end of next year, thus creating the nation's first "electric highway," said Tonia Buell, a DOT spokeswoman.

The DOT hopes to bring one of the first stations online in the spring of 2011 at the rest area north of Castle Rock, Buell said. Private businesses will operate most of the stations and motorists will be able to stop for a cup of coffee or go shopping while their vehicle charges for about 20 minutes, she said, adding that state officials have not determined the price of charging.

The $1.32 million project was funded by the federal stimulus act. Transportation officials hope to provide a series of charging stations stretching from California to Canada, Buell said.

"It's more of a safety net so people don't have range anxiety," she said. "They'll know when to charge up."

Leaf hits local lot, but demand low

In Cowlitz County, the buzz for electric cars is just starting to heat up.

Salespeople at Columbia Ford got their first peek at a test model of the new Leaf last month. It drives just like any other vehicle, only quieter, Holst said. The dashboard gauge tracks battery life instead of fuel remaining in a gas tank.

Most of the first Leaf models have been ordered for state and local government fleets and Columbia Ford expects sales to the general public to start slow, Holst said. The car, which retails around $32,000, can travel about 100 miles before it needs to be recharged, which makes travel between cities in rural areas difficult.

For buyers who'd still find practical aspects to switching to an electric, the federal government is offering a $7,500 tax credit as an incentive to buy electric vehicles.

Nissan requires all buyers to install a charging station at their home, Holst said.

"It's such a new technology. I think there's going to be a certain person that's interested in it," he said.

Most likely, Holst said, the buyer will be a big-city dweller who can afford a second vehicle to drive around town — a person like Mike Weedall.

Net benefit or potential problem?

Weedall, the vice president for energy efficiency for the Bonneville Power Administration, signed up a year ago to be one of the first owners of a Leaf. In fact, Nissan is installing equipment at Weedall's home in Portland to monitor his family's charging station to see how well it's working, he said.

Weedall sees nothing but positives in a shift toward electric cars, even with increased demands being placed on today's power grid. He said vehicles will likely charge during the off-peak night hours when energy demand is at its lowest, putting a minimum amount of stress on the system.

He also feels the cars can act as a backup power source, potentially flowing power back into the grid to meet unexpected spikes in demand. He even pictured family cars serving as a backup generators during outages to power refrigerators to keep food cold.

"If we can get the charging (done) at the right time, it's going to be nothing but a net benefit for the system," Weedall said.

As the vehicles grow more popular, and charging stations start popping up on city blocks, the BPA and other utilities might need to replace power transformers to meet the growing load, Weedall said. Cowlitz PUD officials already are requesting they be notified by any customers installing a 240-volt charging station at home for a plug-in vehicle, which is similar to converting a house's heating system from gas to electricity.

But will the vehicles ever be so commonplace as to create a new peak demand late at night? Weedall doesn't know, but he said he's not worried.

"That's the kind of problem I want to see because that means we've got a lot of electric vehicles."

But it's the kind of problem that worries Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business. who wrote recently that the region will need to amp up energy production in lockstep with the growing popularity of electric cars.

The Edison Electric Institute estimates that driving 10,000 miles in an electric car burns about 20 percent more electricity than the average home uses in a year, and that energy will need to come from power plants and generation stations, Brunell said.

He also noted that a decline in gasoline consumption will mean a decline in the state's revenue from gas taxes, which help pay for roads, bridges and other public infrastructure.

"Failing to deal with those trade-offs will only compound our growing problem of supplying adequate electricity to our factories, hospitals, businesses and homes — and cars," Brunell wrote.

Bright future

Potential issues aside, electric car enthusiasts are excited about the future.

The Lower Columbia Electric Vehicle Association, a club for local car buffs, has seen its meetings swell to 50 to 70 people since it formed last year, said Wayne Amondson, a club member and Cowlitz PUD's manager of transmission and distribution engineering.

Most people are interested in a hybrid plug-in so they don't have to rely solely on the battery for long-distance trips, but they're fascinated by the new technology in all-electrics, Amondson said.

"The technology is continually working and improving."

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