Charging up at the BM EV station
On the corner of Sutton Avenue and Richardson Boulevard, a blue and white road sign directs locals and visitors alike to the EV (Electric Vehicle) charging station on West Street.
Closely resembling a gasoline pump, the charger differs in two important ways: It delivers electricity instead of gas, and thanks to a federal grant, there is no charge to use it.
Bob McMurray, executive director of the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce, has a pretty good view of the charging station from his office across the street. He sees what it’s users do with their time.
“While they’re waiting for their cars to charge, people walk around, spend time … and money,” he said. The charging station is good for the local economy, he said.
Paula Vaden, owner of Head to Toe on Cherry Street, appreciates that possibility, but believes the charging station is mostly “a waste of money,” she said. She doesn’t know any local EV owners.
A blue 2014 Nissan Leaf, the world’s top-selling highway-capable electric car, with “Zero Emission” emblazoned on the side was recently parked at the charging station. Its owner, Julie Blackwell of West Asheville, said a full charge takes two and a half hours and lasts for about 100 miles.
At home, Blackwell plugs her Leaf into a 240-volt outlet. Her electric bill is only slightly higher than before. “I got this car to save money, but I also wanted to do my part to reduce pollution.”
To significantly reduce CO2 emissions, global environmental organization Greenpeace encourages people to drive electric vehicles.
Most drivers looking for gas stations seldom have difficulty, but EV drivers need help knowing where their car’s “next meal” is coming from. Blackwell said a built-in navigation screen locates nearby charging stations and indicates the approximate number of miles left on the remaining charge.
The U.S. Department of Energy offers an EV charging stations locator at afdc.energy.gov. It identified 23 public charging stations within a 20-mile radius of Black Mountain.
Today, EVs (as they’re known) bear little resemblance to their earlier counterparts. The first electric vehicles in the mid- to late-1800s had brief success, but they fell out of favor with the advent of Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T. By the early 1900s, electric starters in gas-powered cars made arduous hand-cranking unnecessary. Electric cars with their higher price tag and lower range slipped into obscurity.
Joe Tyson, owner of Tyson Furniture in Black Mountain, said purchasing electric trucks would be impractical for his business, due to the initial expense. His economical delivery trucks run on low-emissions diesel. Five all-electric vehicles (including fork lifts and utility trucks) operate inside Tyson’s warehouse, powered entirely by solar roof panels.
“We would love to be even greener,” Tyson said, “but the technology isn’t there yet.”
Eight years ago, the Black Mountain Police Department received a federal grant to buy their EV, the Polaris Gem, which cost about $14,000 and resembles a golf cart on steroids.
“We mostly got it to save on gas,” said Sgt. Joe Kidd. He agreed that the open-air Gem would be useless in a high-speed chase, but the vehicle helps police patrol events like parades and the Sourwood Festival. “We’ve put this thing through the ringer,” he said. “It’s saved a lot of fuel.”
EVobsession.com reports that global sales of EVs reached around 712,000 by December 2014. Most were sold in the U.S., possibly due to the federal government’s Plug-In Electric Drive Vehicle Credit which provides up to $7,500 for consumers who purchase qualifying electric vehicles (learn more at irs.gov).
With EVs subsidized by the government and being more economical and less polluting than gas- and diesel-powered vehicles, why aren’t more people buying them?
Some of the drawbacks are the initial investment ($35,000 to over $140,000, according to avinc.com), as well as the high battery replacement cost, the low range, the limited proximity to charging stations and the long charging time.
Home charging could also prove challenging; third floor apartment dwellers might find it impractical without the help of a generous neighbor - or a very long extension cord.
But EVs are quiet. Sgt. Kidd said the police department’s Gem is stealthy enough to sneak up on offending drivers.
Visiting Black Mountain, Tom Francescon said EV charging stations are not unusual in his home town of Chattanooga. His local Whole Foods has several free chargers. But he wondered if EVs could exist without the government subsidy.
For motorcyclists however, silence isn’t golden. For safety reasons they want other drivers to notice them. Brian Seaton of Asheville briefly considered the all-electric Zero motorcycle. But his less expensive, faster, noisier BMW F800 GT has more range and gets 70 miles per gallon. “It’s more economical,” Seaton said, “and more fun!”
To meet growing interest in alternative fuels, most major car manufacturers now offer all-electric vehicles and/or hybrids that require primarily gas but have supplemental electric power. Recent arrivals include the Nissan Leaf and Tesla’s Model S.