EVLN: Blaine, MN couple make the vehicle switch, to go all plugin

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EVLN: Blaine, MN couple make the vehicle switch, to go all plugin

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Blaine couple make the vehicle switch, go all electric
By Eric Hagen  March 13, 2014

Sam and Megan Villella of Blaine have been very pleased with their plug-in vehicles. The Tesla Model S (left) is completely battery powered. The Chevrolet Volt (right) has a 9.5-gallon gas tank back-up, but still must be plugged in every night to recharge the battery, which hybrid car owners do not have to do. Photo by Eric Hagen

It took some time for Megan Villella to become comfortable with the idea of driving an electric car that you need to plug into a garage outlet every night.

Her husband Sam Villella was a persistent advocate and she is happy to have made the switch from a gasoline-powered Volkswagen Jetta to a plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt [pih], which does include a 9.5-gallon gas tank back-up.

“I was pretty negative about it. I don’t know why. I guess just because it was something new and I wasn’t quite sure, like with anything, if it was going to be all that,” Megan said. “I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked it. How smooth it drove is what sold me.”

This Blaine couple is among a growing number of consumers willing to drive plug-in electric vehicles. According to Electric Drive Transportation Association, 17,735 plug-in vehicles were sold in 2011, 52,835 in 2012 and 96,702 in 2013. These numbers still dwarf other automobile sales. In 2013 alone there were over 15.53 million vehicles sold in the United States, including 495,530 hybrids.

Robert Moffitt said plug-in electric vehicles is a niche market similar to hybrids a decade ago, which use electric motors and batteries to reduce the gasoline engine’s consumption but do not need to be plugged in because the battery recharges while you are braking or coasting.

“As battery technology improves, the popularity of these vehicles will grow,” said Moffitt, who serves as communications director for the Twin Cities Clean Air Coalition.

Sam, 40, and Megan, 34, were already averaging over 40 miles per gallon on the highway with their two Volkswagen Jetta TDIs.

Sam eventually convinced his wife to lease a Chevrolet Volt starting in January 2012 once they saw that the vehicle would have enough range to take her on the 35-mile round trip between their Blaine home and her job in Brooklyn Park.

One year later, they made a huge financial commitment by purchasing a Tesla Model S [EV] that cost about $90,000 after taxes, title and licensing fees, but before he received the maximum $7,500 federal tax credit for a plug-in vehicle.

“For him, this was a big decision. He’s very frugal,” Megan said.

What sold Sam were the savings in gas and maintenance. The Tesla has an eight-year, unlimited miles warranty. But maintenance should be minimal, other than the occasional tire rotation. Oil changes are unnecessary because there is no gasoline tank. He said he could drive up to 300 miles on a nice summer day without recharging and about 200 miles on a winter day.

He also loved the quiet drive and smooth acceleration because of the lack of gear changes.

“I like the idea of it, strictly from an efficiency standpoint,” Sam said. “Once you test drive one, it’s quite impressive.”

Not everyone can afford a luxury vehicle, so vehicles like the Chevy Volt [pih] and Nissan LEAF [EV] will be much more common. Brian Brockman, Nissan’s senior manager of corporate communications, said the 22,610 Nissan LEAFs sold in 2013 was a 130 percent increase over 2012.

According to Brockman, what helped boost sales is the suggested retail price of the Nissan LEAF dropped by $6,000 between the 2012 and 2013. This was possible because the company introduced a more basic option without perks such as a navigation system and steel wheel covers and the company moved production from Japan to Tennessee.

“We expect sales to increase as people learn more about EVs (electric vehicles),” Brockman said.

Brockman said increasing consumer awareness about plug-in electric vehicles will be one of the challenges facing the automobile industry going forward. The LEAF can be a great car for many commuters, but might not be the right fit for driving 120 miles in a day, he said. The 2014 Nissan LEAF tests showed it could go 84 miles if fully charged, but Brockman said driving habits factor in.

General Motors could not be reached for comment for this article.

The Chevy Volt battery includes enough juice for Megan to make the 35-mile round trip between Blaine and Brooklyn Park on most days. Sam said the Volt will automatically turn on the gas engine to generate heat for the lithium ion batteries when it gets too far below freezing temperatures, which happened a lot this winter.

“We’ve burnt more gas in the last two months than we have in the first two years –just because it’s been so brutally cold,” Sam said. The Volt has almost 25,000 miles on it, but Sam said it has only burned through 80 gallons of gas.

Sam knows that the newer model Volts allow drivers more flexibility to keep using their batteries in cold temperatures. The main reason they leased the Volt at the time was because of concern about depreciation as the battery technology improved.

In contrast, the Tesla takes power from the batteries to generate heat. If it sits for a long period in extreme heat or cold it will lose battery charge, Sam said.

Brockman and Moffitt said what will also help with plug-in vehicle sales is continuing to develop the charging station infrastructure. Tesla comes with an in-dash computer with Internet access and points out all Tesla charging stations where its owners can recharge for free. The nearest charging stations to the Twin Cities are in Albert Lea and La Crosse, Wis.

There are numerous other charging options beyond your garage. You just have to know where to look. Sam said PlugShare and ChargePoint are a couple of apps on the market that help you find places to plug in.

The challenge is there is no consistency between locations. Locations such as Goodwill or the Mall of America offer free access. Others charge a flat fee or an amount based on how long you are plugged in. You could also plug in your vehicle at the campground if an outlet is available.

“We just have to make sure we know how many miles we’re going. We have to plan ahead a little bit more,” Megan said.

The Villellas are in an optimal situation because they have two vehicles that can meet their various needs.

“The Volt is great for going to the grocery store, taking the kids to soccer, picking the kids up from school,” Sam said.

On the other hand, they pull the Tesla out of the garage when taking a trip to the Minnesota Zoo or if they are going out of town.

This past Labor Day weekend, Sam, Megan and their two kids Kincaid, 6, and Khyber, 4, took the Tesla up to Lake Vermilion. The drive was 228 miles and the Tesla gauge reported they still had 55 miles of range.

However, the cabin they stayed at only had a 110 killowatt-hour outlet so it took two-and-a-half days to fully charge the vehicle.

Sam needed a vehicle with a longer range because he works at the Cambridge Medical Center. He remembers one day “in the dead of winter” driving from Blaine to Cambridge and then to a convention in St. Cloud before driving back to Blaine and still having 100 miles of range on the battery.

“It’s like with an iPad or a MacBook. If you leave your stuff dead, uncharged, for extended periods in the cold or leave them sit in the sun on the beach that’s bad for them,” Sam said.

Connexus Energy program

Before the Jetta, Sam drove a 2010 Chevrolet Camaro and was spending $70 a week on gas.

The Villellas now pay $60 to $65 a month to charge their two vehicles at home, but they said it could have been more had it not been for a new program that allows customers to pay lower rates to charge their plug-in electric vehicles. Sam is campaigning to be on the Connexus Energy Board of Directors.

Ken Glaser, energy efficiency programs coordinator for Connexus, said about 20 customer vehicles are part of this new option.

A few of these people have also chosen to install a time-of-day meter that charges you for the electricity you use throughout your home, including to charge your vehicle. Electric car owners who get this specialized meter get a $270 rebate. In addition to the base $9.50 monthly fee, they would pay a maximum of $0.438 per kwh during peak summer periods on weekdays in June through September and at 4-8 p.m. If they wait after 8 p.m. to plug in their vehicle and use the most electricity, the year-round off-peak rate would be $0.057 per kwh.

According to its website, the regular Connexus rates are $0.113 per kwh in June through September and $0.103 per kwh in October through May.
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