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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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“Oregon was the first state in the country to adopt land-use laws,” Mr. James notes. “We were the first state to have a bottle bill. We were the first state in the union to have a beach bill, where we protected all the beaches and made them all public. When you switch to an electric car, you immediately lose your tailpipe emissions, and any carbon impact from generation of electricity is significantly lower, and once we’re on completely renewable electric power, then you have zero emissions. That’s what’s driving this.”

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James says that while the state is taking a leadership role now, and that cities and private businesses will have to buy the stations themselves, he expects that eventually there will be enough demand for the private sector to step in and profit from these charging stations.

Highest per-capita hybrid ownership
Portland General Electric, which stands to profit from all the additional electricity used if more EVs hit the road, has built 11 charging stations in the Portland area. Though it charges the station owners (such as the science museum) for the power, PGE buys green power on top of that to offset any additional usage.

“We expect Oregon to be one of the top markets for plug-in vehicles,” says PGE spokeswoman Elaina Medina. “Portland has the highest per-capita of hybrid ownership in the country, and one of the top renewable power programs in the country, so our customers are committed and we’re committed. It’s very exciting.”

For now, PGE’s plug-in stations are used infrequently – in part because there aren’t a lot of EV drivers yet, and most of them recharge at home. Lee Dawson, spokesman at OMSI, says he was so excited to see someone using the station recently that he and a co-worker ran outside to snap a photo.

But where are the customers?
Down the road from the museum’s charging station, the electric car’s future doesn’t look as bright.

Ecomotion, one of the country’s first exclusively electric vehicle showrooms, boasts plenty of three-wheeled Zap vehicles and not a single customer. The shop’s mechanic, who asked to remain anonymous, says they saturated their target market shortly after opening in 2007, and now they get little more than curiosity from people who walk through their doors – even though everyone seems to love the idea, including gas station owners who often let customers plug in their cars at an outdoor outlet for free.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s proposed $5,000 electric-vehicle tax credit, which should be voted on by June, will offset the cost of a new electric vehicle. And electric automakers like Nissan are coming to the right place if they’re looking for early adopters.

But if the combination of high gas prices, climate concerns, a statewide station infrastructure, and a tax credit doesn’t encourage a lot more drivers to go electric, what will?

“You don’t use this to drive to California,” Benson says of his own car and of any electric vehicle. “You use it for everyday driving. That’s what people need to realize. Once they get over that hurdle, then all of those other incentives look even more attractive.”

Who killed the electric car? Henry Ford.

At the turn of the 20th century, electric cars far outnumbered all other types of vehicles. Passengers didn’t have to put up with a gas car’s vibrations, smell, noise, and manual gear shifting, or provide the water and kerosene needed for a shorter-range steam car. Electric vehicles reached their production peak around 1912, and remained reasonably successful until the 1920s, as Henry