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ON THE SCENE: Is now the time for an electric car?

June 22, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Pete and Amy Nelson of Keene feel that now's the time for Adirondackers to own and drive an electric car.

Having taken ownership of their second electric car, a Chevy Bolt, they believe its rechargeability, affordability, low maintenance costs, and green technology make it the perfect car for people to own whether one is a tree-hugger or not. Aside from monthly car payments similar to what most people pay, their only other outlay is a less than $30 a month increase in their electric bill and the cost of having snow tires put on and replaced seasonally.

They are so enthused about their car that they held an open house on Saturday, June 17, inviting anyone who wished to test drive to come over. About four dozen people took them up and hopped behind the wheel.

Article Photos

Pete Nelson shows his charging station at home.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

English inventor Thomas Parker, best known for electrifying London's Underground (subway), developed the first production electric car with rechargeable batteries in 1884. There had been some one-offs back in the 1820s and 1830s, either operating with a non-rechargeable battery or on a fixed track as is now common with many trains and trolleys. Then as now, a motivator for an electrically driven car was to reduce the amount of smoke and air pollution, then a growing problem in urban centers like London.

For awhile, electric vehicles were quite popular, becoming known as "hummingbirds" because of the noise they made when operating. Initially used in the confines of a city, no one was very concerned by their relatively limited range. People loved their ease of use, low maintenance, and pep.

The introduction of steam and gasoline engines changed all that as they greatly extended the range of the car. By the turn of the century, steam powered 40 percent of automobiles, electricity 38 percent, and gasoline 22 percent. Three main factors enabled petroleum to become the fuel of choice: the discovery of substantial oil reserves around the world ranging from Texas to the Middle East; improved road infrastructure; and Henry Ford's introduction of the Model T that made automobiles affordable to the middle class. By the 1920s, the heyday of the electric car had passed.

In the late 1960s, the three big American automobile makers had electric car programs, but they were limited in scale. Indeed, the best known electric vehicle of the time was not made by them, but Boeing: the Lunar Rover deployed on the moon by Apollo 15 astronauts. In the 1990s, California's Air Resources Board initiated a push for fuel efficient, low emission vehicles that resulted in renewed interest by the Big Three, Nissan, Toyota and independent inventors.

A shift in public interest from low mileage vehicles to SUVs initially reduced support for their endeavors. However, the energy crisis in the 2000s, dramatic fluxions in gas prices, and growing public awareness of the visible impacts of climate change stimulated renewed efforts to create energy efficient vehicles, best captured by Toyota's Prius series of hybrid vehicles.

The shock felt in boardrooms across the auto industry was the California start-up Tesla Motors delivering in 2008 an all-electric car capable of traveling over 200 miles on a single charge. The still bigger shock was when its Model S beat every other production car, 0 to 60 mph in less than 2.3 seconds; a six-passenger car with plenty of trunk space for luggage handily beating a Ferrari, Porsche 918, and McLaren P1 amongst others. It did so quietly without using a drop of high-octane leaded gas either.

Pete and Amy are by no means the first in the area to own an electric car. Steve and Sunita Halasz of Saranac Lake own a fully electric 2012 Ford Focus that they purchased second hand in 2014.

"It's awesome," said Sunita. "The car's battery is now five years old, and we don't notice any diminishing of its power. It's as fresh as ever. We don't have a garage, so it's outside all winter long, and it's perfectly fine. Starts right up."

Their challenge was that it had a limited range, and when they purchased it charging stations were few and far between. The bad news is going up hills uses up energy, the good news is going down recharges the battery. As the range of their car is just 75 miles, a trip to Burlington requires a recharge en route doubling the time. The other bad news is using the heater and defroster in winter uses a lot of electricity, requiring them to bundle up when driving and keep a list of friends who'd let them plug into their outside outlets in an emergency.

For them, the positives outweigh the challenges. They never have to stop at a gas station, never have to add or change to oil, no maintenance charges, and as the electric engine acts as the brake, they haven't had to replace their brakes.

"Driving an electric car makes you think that a gasoline engine is an old technology from long ago, it seems so archaic now," said Sunita. "We encourage more businesses to put in charging stations because they are cheap to install, you get tax credits for putting them in, and you'll attract electric car owners to your business."

"Electric vehicles are practical in the Adirondacks," said Pete Nelson. "If you want to stop using gasoline you can do it now. It's affordable, rational, and works in the winter. Day-to-day life with an electric car is just as normal as having any other car except you never need to put gas into it, and maintenance costs are zero. There aren't any. It's high time we change our combustion engine culture to electric that's been waiting in the wings for nearly 200 years.

"When you have a car like a Tesla or our Chevy Bolt that gets a range of over 250 miles before it needs a charge, the lack of charging stations isn't a huge issue though we encourage more businesses to have them. I teach in Ticonderoga, an over 100-mile commute a day. I don't think about it."

Pete took me for a spin and showed me how to use the engine to brake, simple to do because the engine will stop the car if you take your foot off the peddle. The car has brakes, but you rarely need to use them. Its acceleration and handling are impressive, and the seating spacious and comfortable in the front and rear seats.

"I'm a big fan of electric cars because it's the closest thing we have with current technology to help solve energy dependent issues, greenhouse gas issues, and air quality issues," said Patrick Walsh, owner of SubAlpine Coffee in Keene Valley. "Plus, if you have ever driven an electric car with a powerful motor such as a Tesla, there is nothing else like it."



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