Will fast, quiet electric cars make noise in Minn.'s auto market?by Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When new electric-powered cars make their debut later this year, they will garner some interest among car buyers and companies with fleets. Much more interest, though, will be generated by people concerned about the environment.
It's not yet clear how many of the new models will be available in Minnesota.
Today, the nearly five million gasoline-burning cars in Minnesota spew out 37 million metric tons of green house gases a year. Altogether, the country's fuel-burning fleet -- everything from scooters to semitrailers -- accounts for about a third of the economy's green house gas emissions.
Jay Sitter, sales manager for the Electric Vehicle Store in St. Louis Park, currently sells the Wheego Whip, a fire-engine red, two-seat electric vehicle that runs about $19,000.
"I turn the ignition switch and you essentially hear nothing," he said. "That's the fun part of electric cars -- they basically don't make any sound."
With a top end of 35 mph, the low-speed vehicle is designed as a neighborhood commuter car. There may not be many new highway-speed electric vehicles available in Minnesota -- at least right away.
Sitter said Atlanta-based Wheego will enter the 70 mph category as early as this fall with a new model, and he hopes to sell them.
Nissan and General Motors enter the race with the Leaf and the Volt, but so far selling only in mostly West-Coast markets.
Minnesota-based Best Buy uses Mitsubishi electric vehicles as part of its company fleet in Los Angeles and has said it's exploring electric vehicle sales elsewhere.
ELECTRIC VEHICLES NOT EMISSION FREE
Electric vehicles are not emission free, especially if the power to recharge their batteries comes from a coal-burning power plant.
Burning coal generates about half the country's electricity -- and about 64 percent of it in Minnesota.
John Bailey and his colleagues at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self Reliance have taken a long hard look at the potential emission reductions in Midwestern states from more electric vehicles on the road.
Bailey said at least right away consumers probably won't buy enough of them to make a difference. He said the biggest greenhouse gas reductions, maybe up to 15 percent, come from the higher mileage standards being put in place for gasoline-powered vehicles and making lower carbon fuels for engines.
"Electric vehicles play into both those policies, because the way manufacturers sometimes meet the cafe efficiency standards and the low carbon fuel standards is to sell more electric," he said.
HIGH STICKER PRICE, BUT LOW OPERATING COST
An attempt to introduce electric vehicles a couple decades ago sputtered, but a lot has changed since then -- including the price.
The new EV's coming out this year will cost from $25,000 to $30,000. There's nothing cheap about that, but the operating costs compared to gasoline are very low.
At 10 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity, it costs about $1 to drive an electric vehicle 40 miles. The cost for a four-cylinder gas-burning car getting 30 miles per gallon is easily $3 for the same distance.
The newest electric vehicles have a range up to 100 miles on a full charge and can be plugged in to any standard outlet.
100 miles doesn't sound very far to generations of petroleum-powered vehicle owners who can fill their tanks and go for 250 to 350 miles.
But the range of an electric vehicle exceeds a lot of people's daily drives, said Bruce Jones, an automotive engineering professor at Minnesota State University at Mankato.
"Eighty percent of our trips are well below that level of 100 miles," he said.
Jukka Kukkonen, the president of the Minnesota Electric Auto Association, a mechanical engineer and a native of Finland now living in Minnesota, said he's put money down on a new 70 mph Nissan Leaf.
It comes with all the power stuff -- windows, brakes, mirrors -- along with a bunch of gizmos for geeks.
"Internet and smart phone connectivity ... stability control, satellite radio, blue tooth connectivity, navigation system," he said. "I mean, practically anything that you want."
A big unknown is how interested consumers will be in buying electric-powered vehicles. The Obama administration has set a goal of having one million of them on the road by 2015, a goal that even advocates call ambitious.
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- Morning Edition, 04/27/2010, 6:25 a.m.