West Coast Leads Surge in Electric Cars

Sep 11, 2014

A pair of Nissan Leaf electric cars charging up at a public charging station.
Credit Kowloonese/Wikipedia Commons

In all three West Coast states, transportation accounts for the largest share of climate-changing greenhouse gases. And all three states are trying to boost the number of zero-emission vehicles on their roads.

This week, California passed a milestone toward that goal; 100-thousand electric cars sold in the state since the end of 2010.

It wasn’t long ago that driving a car that ran on batteries pretty much meant building it yourself. That usually involved converting a standard fossil-fueled car by ripping out most of the works and replacing them with electrical components. As you might imagine, that’s a complicated and expensive project. 

Portland resident John Christian says that all changed a little less than four years ago, when Nissan introduced the Leaf, the first mass-market all-electric car. Suddenly, he says …

John Christian: “You could buy an electric car for about what it would cost to convert one. Plus, since it was factory-made it had factory support, and it had all the amenities that come with a new car.”

Christian is with the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association, a group of EV enthusiasts, many of whom have done their own conversions. He says the introduction of the Leaf quickly took driving an electric car out of the realm of hobbyists and high-tech tinkerers and made it a mainstream possibility. 

Christian says among his own extended family -- most of whom don’t share his passion for EVs -- eight relatives have gotten Leafs.

John Christian: “They began to see a level of practicality. It was much less expensive to buy or lease an electric car, given the price of the vehicle and the price of fuel.”

Depending on a number of factors, driving on electricity can cost as little as the equivalent of paying a dollar a gallon for gasoline.

While the Nissan Leaf was first to the all-electric party – and is still the world’s best-selling all-electric car -- the Chevrolet Volt and other plug-in hybrids are filling out a growing roster of factory-made cars, SUVs and light trucks that run mostly or totally on electricity.

In California, there are currently 15 models on the market, from Toyota, BMW, Mitsubishi and more, with Volkswagen and Kia planning to roll out new models soon.

Nissan’s Brendan Jones says that’s a sign of a maturing market for this new technology.

Brendan Jones: “So now, with more coming in, it’s becoming not the oddball anymore. It’s becoming part of the lineup that you need to compete.”

Jones says San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles are consistently among the Leaf’s top-selling markets. In Seattle and Portland, the electric car often out-sells Nissan’s gas-powered models.

Jones says one major factor contributing to the increasing adoption of plug-in cars on the West Coast is the growth in charging infrastructure, especially the direct-current fast chargers that can deliver a full charge in less than half an hour.

Brendan Jones: “In Portland, in the greater Oregon area, they’ve got more than 70 D-C fast chargers already installed, and Seattle’s not too far behind that number.”

In fact, Washington, Oregon and California are working to make the entire length of I-5 an Electric Highway, where plug-in cars are never more than 50 miles from a charging station.

Another reason people are buying more electric cars these days is because they’re seeing more electric cars. Dave Clegern, with the California Air Resources Board, says as EVs become more commonplace, driving one seems more "normal."

Dave Clegern: “It’s not a novelty in California anymore. I think pretty much everyone who lives in an urban environment and many in a rural environment knows somebody who has one, can walk out their door and see one parked in their neighbor’s driveway.”

The Air Resources Board is in charge of implementing California’s far-reaching climate change law. Part of that law calls for California to have one-and-a-half million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. Clegern concedes the 100,000 milestone falls far short of that target. But, he says …

Dave Clegern: “The sales curve on it is what’s really impressive, because it has just gone … It’s beyond hockey stick at this point. It’s kind of a direct upward curve.”

In fact, while sales of standard hybrid cars have slumped over the past year, sales of all-electric cars have gone up 35 percent and sales of plug-in hybrids have shot up 44 percent. Still, to put that in perspective, hybrids and EVs accounted for less than 4 percent of the vehicles sold in the US so far this year.

So, how much difference can switching to electric cars really make toward cutting greenhouse gases?

Clark Williams-Derry is with Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank. Williams-Derry drives a Nissan Leaf himself. But he says EVs aren’t necessarily that much greener than standard cars, especially as standard cars get more fuel-efficient.  

Clark Williams-Derry: “What really matters is not just how many electric vehicles there are on the road but also how the electricity is generated.”

He points out that charging your EV with juice from a coal-burning power plant can really reduce the greenhouse gas benefits of driving one. Fortunately for West Coast drivers, most of our power comes from hydro dams and plants that burn natural gas. 

In the end, Williams-Derry says, electric cars are an important move away from fossil fuels. But when it comes to fighting climate change, they’re not the silver bullet.

Clark Williams-Derry: “What they are is, you could call them one of the many silver BBs, that they are part of the solution but it’s not the whole solution.”

Still, as prices for EV’s come down and as charging infrastructure grows, more drivers are likely to take the plunge and make stopping at the gas station a thing of the past.