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As electric cars gain currency, Oregon charges ahead

‘Green’ state is working on plan for public charging stations; Nissan will debut its electric vehicles here.

By Elizabeth Armstrong MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 2009

Free Fill-up: John Benson recharges his home-converted 1970 Porsche 914 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Ore. The car uses 16 heavy lead-acid batteries.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore

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Portland, Ore.

Everything about this place seems clean: the straight-line architecture of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; the brightly outfitted cyclists gliding quietly past in their wide, well-marked bike lane; the gentle, lapping sounds of Willamette River, its murky waters conveniently just out of view.

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As if to complete the picture, John R.A. Benson, a self-described garage tinkerer, bends over a free charging station in the museum’s parking lot and connects his orange 1970 Porsche 914, which he converted to electric in 1997. The 120-volt outlet delivers power generated from renewable resources. After he unplugs his car, he steps in, turns the key, steps on the accelerator, and drives off silently into the morning fog.

Is this the future of the automobile? Maybe. With the electricity costing about a penny a mile, and with the total absence of tailpipe emissions, electric cars are slowly gaining among consumers.

Last November, Oregon became the first state to develop standards for a statewide infrastructure of electric-car plug-in stations in terms of performance, safety, and voltage. The stations should be ready for purchase by interested parties, such as cities and private companies, by the end of the year. Nissan, in turn, announced at the Los Angeles Auto Show that Oregon would be the site for the carmaker’s early introduction of its highway-ready electric cars around the same time.

But the question today is identical to the one posed in the late ’90s, when GM tested its EV1 on enthusiastic drivers in California: Will this latest bid for the electric car energize the nation or fizzle out beyond state borders?

Dozens of electric car startups are popping up, boasting futuristic names like the Obvio 828e, Aptera’s Typ-1e, and Myers Motors’ NmG (No More Gas). Even the big names are weighing in, from

Toyota’s plug-in hybrid Prius and Mitsubishi’s MiEV Sport Air to Mercedes Benz’s BlueZERO and GM’s much-touted Volt, whose revolutionary propulsion system will use a super-light lithium-ion battery with a gas-fueled engine to recharge the battery – not propel the car – when the car goes beyond its 40-mile range.

But the electric vehicle, which first appeared in the mid-1800s and outnumbered gas cars until Ford became a household name, faces an uphill battle for mainstream adoption, even if gas prices return to nearly $5 a gallon. The issue is not the motor, it’s the battery.

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