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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.

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Like most electric vehicles today, Benson’s Porsche hauls around heavy, lead-acid batteries – 16 of them – that take hours to charge and only get him a 40-mile range. (The Volt’s lithium batteries are lighter but far more expensive.) This limited range is no problem for Benson, who commutes to work 20 miles each way, charging up at work or at home. But range is a major consideration for anyone who wants to drive farther without having to own two cars.

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A statewide charging-station infrastructure should help ease the minds of Oregonians who ponder buying electric, says Tim Kutscha, chair of the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association. But realistically, most people will charge up in their driveways overnight. Because charging can take several hours, it will likely be a while before people take road trips in electric vehicles.

Good for errands, but not road trips
Mr. Kutscha, who converted two of his own cars (a Porsche and a Honda Civic), points out that for about 90 percent of people’s daily driving needs, a short range does the job, costs less, and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint.

“It becomes an issue when you want to go to the beach or drive up to Seattle,” he says. He drives a gasoline-powered Subaru on the weekends.

Kerlin Richter, who bought a three-wheeled Zap car in Salem, Ore., in 2008, charges up in her driveway and says she hasn’t noticed any change in her electric bill. The editor and publisher of Hip Mama magazine, Ms. Richter works from home and uses her electric car to drive to church, the grocery store, the library, and to run errands with her husband and 4-year-old son. Their Honda Civic suffices for road trips. Richter’s husband, who commutes near downtown, can plug in at the science museum, walk four blocks to work, and return to a fully charged car at the end of the workday.

Richter estimates they spent less than $20 to drive their electric car 2,000 miles last year. Still, she says, the car is a glorified golf cart, drafty and not terribly comfortable. Driving it takes planning and the occasional charging up at a friend’s house before returning home. “If there were more charging stations at all these workplaces, or on the street somewhere near your house, and it just became part of the culture, it would be really great,” she says. “But for it to become that, more people have to have electric cars, and the people who do it first have less comfort.”

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: The infrastructure has to exist for the demand to rise, but the demand has to be sufficient to justify building the infrastructure. Art James, innovative partnerships project director at the Oregon Department of Transportation, pushed for the infrastructure now because of the promise of highway-ready EVs in the coming years, and also because of what he calls Oregon’s “environmental stewardship.”