Mountain View Voice

News - November 18, 2011

Despite 'range anxiety,' electric vehicle owners happy

How soon will global warming move the tipping point on personal transit?

by Daniel DeBolt

Quiet enough to sneak past a librarian, a trio of electric cars parked in front of the library on Saturday for perhaps the first car show ever organized by a book club.

The event was organized by Mountain View Reads Together to go with this month's assignment, the book "Eaarth" in which journalist Bill McKibben describes global warming's already devastating impact and gives his prescription for living as gracefully as possible without affordable fossil fuels. Bruce Karney, who helped organize several such events scheduled for this month, reminded those attending that "flying and driving," are the things that Mountain View residents do that make the biggest contribution toward global warming.

So on Saturday a small crowd surrounded the beautiful blue electric roadster sold by Silicon Valley's Tesla, a three-wheeled Zap Xebra and the practical new Nissan Leaf, all beloved by their owners who say that you don't necessarily have to give up much if you want your car to help save the planet.

Griff Derryberry's Xebra goes only 20 miles on a charge and doesn't go fast enough for the freeway, but it still gets heavy use on a daily basis, bringing the kids to school and getting groceries. Found on Craig's List for $6,500 with less than 4,000 miles on it, the 1,000-pound three-wheeler with a fiberglass shell is technically a motorcycle. Derryberry affectionately calls the car "Sweet Pea." It doesn't have much in the way of safety features, but "we're all still alive," Derryberry said. Though parts are no longer available from the manufacturer — and he admits he's no technical guru — he's managed to keep it going for 8,000 miles, replacing the car's worn wheel bearings once and its six lead batteries twice at a cost of over $1,000

At some point, Derryberry said he expects to buy a car like the Nissan Leaf, which costs $25,000 after a tax rebate, and offers the promise of a fairly practical, safe and dependable electric vehicle.

"It's something a lot of people can afford," said Leaf owner Lenny Siegel, a downtown resident and director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. With no transmission, crankshaft, pistons or fuel injection pump, "there's not that much that can break," Siegel said.

With a 100-mile range, it's tempting to take the Leaf on trips out of town.

"The biggest problem is range anxiety," Siegel said. "I might make it to San Francisco and back," the key word being "might."

Electric vehicle owners can make use of an online network called plugshare.com to find charging stations and electrical outlets in a pinch, including Derryberry's house on Springer Road and a charging station at Los Altos Hills town hall.

In the short time Siegel's owned the Leaf he's noticed that it's version of a fuel level gauge "isn't very accurate and isn't very consistent." It calculates how many miles are left on the battery, but he says that he and other Leaf owners "want to know how much charge is left so we can make the decision ourselves."

Mountain View Reads Together founder Sharlene Gee brought her friend's $100,000 Tesla Roadster. Range anxiety isn't much of a problem with the Tesla, as its lithium batteries allow anywhere from 100 to 300 miles on a charge, depending on how heavy your foot is. The problem is that it's hard not to drive it fast because it's "so much fun," said Gee, who once borrowed it for three weeks. Maybe that's why Gee's PG&E bill went up to $145 from the $25 she normally pays when she borrowed it for three weeks.

"We usually don't spend that much on gas," she said.

Her husband, Rune Dahl, said he's driven other sports cars, "but there's no comparison" to how the Tesla performs. The car serenely accelerates from a stop to 60 miles per hour in four seconds, a rate normally achieved by the most exotic sports cars, while also providing heaps of torque at low speeds, making it easy to negotiate traffic.

The owners are keenly aware of the cost of owning their electric vehicles, which can vary with the cost of batteries and electricity. In California electricity can range from 50 cents a kilowatt hour during summer peak hours to 5 cents in the middle of the night for electric vehicle owners with a special PG&E meter installed in their garages. That means that charging the Tesla can range from $1.50 under the special electric vehicle rate to $5, Gee said. All told, the consensus seemed to be that an EV was a good investment, environmentally and financially.

"I think it's possible we'll see a very rapid shift to EV's," Siegel said. "People get shocked into doing things sometimes."

Mountain View Reads Together events continue Nov. 18 with a tour to observe Google's environmentally friendly practices, a live presentation of Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" on Nov.19 and a talk by a Buddhist nun about the spirituality of going green on Nov. 29. The book will be discussed on Nov. 21.

For event details, see mvreads.org.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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