Rochester Post-Bulletin - Experts: Time right for electric cars

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rochester Post-Bulletin story by Ken Hanson

Excerpt: For electric cars, the planets are lining up.

“The time seems to be good with respect to the price of gas and the advances in battery technology,” said University of Minnesota Extension professor Douglas Tiffany, who spoke at a forum on electric cars Tuesday at the Cascade Meadow Wetlands and Environmental Science Center in Rochester.

Representatives of Xcel Energy, Great River Energy, Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency and Rochester Public Utilities also spoke as part of a panel discussion, which was attended by about 70 people and hosted by Clean Energy Resource Teams.

Virtually every car maker in the world is working on electric cars or plug-in hybrids, with the exception of Italian manufacturer Fiat, which is focusing on natural-gas cars for clean energy, said Dan Hayes, manager of renewable energy with Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency.

Hayes said that 78 percent of Americans live within 20 miles of their job, well within the range of electric cars.

Electrical utilities are planning for increased demand for power, and Best Buy is planning to service for electric cars, including roadside assistance, in a program similar to its Geek Squad for computers.

Rochester was the first city in Minnesota to install a public charging station — it’s in the First Street parking ramp next to the library — but the Twin Cities isn’t far behind. Local governments there, working with Xcel Energy, will install 20 charging stations this summer as the first phase of a larger project, said Greg Palmer, Xcel Energy director of account management and a member of Drive Electric Minnesota.

Xcel Energy figures it will see a 4 percent increase in demand for electricity when 10 percent of vehicles in Minnesota are electric, Palmer said. If owners charge them at night, Xcel won’t need to add to its infrastructure, he said.

Electric cars are being made so that they can charge on standard, 110-volt household outlets and on 240-volt outlets.

The panelists agreed that electric cars in America face years of debugging because so few of them are on the road.

“I don’t think they’re going to take off like a rocket, but I’m sure that once they get vehicles out there — 20,000 the first year and for another couple years — pretty soon there will be a lot of experience” to draw on, Tiffany said.

There are questions about the effect of cold on an electric car’s range, and factors include whether the car’s battery has a pre-heater system and how much of the battery’s energy will be used to heat the car’s cabin.

The issue of battery life isn’t lost on car makers, Hayes said. “There’s a lot of brainpower going into how to make batteries last longer,” he said.

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