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USA: Baltimore, Unplugged

The number of charging stations in the greater Baltimore area and across the state has increased exponentially in recent months, but sales lag.

On a busy weekday afternoon Lynn Heller is seriously lost somewhere in Dundalk, desperately searching for Merritt Boulevard and the Beltway. However, Heller’s mood and stress level are eased considerably by her mode of transportation: an all-electric Nissan Leaf.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the [future of] the electric vehicle,” the Roland Park resident says cheerfully over her Bluetooth headset as she pauses to get directions from a fellow motorist. “But I absolutely love this car, and I’m so happy I’m not running around eating up gas.”

Baltimore resident Jill Sorensen, director of the Baltimore-Washington Electric Vehicle Initiative (BEVI), a nonprofit spreading the gospel of electric vehicle usage, shares Heller’s enthusiasm. She describes driving her extended range Chevy Volt (which has a small back-up gasoline-powered generator) in almost Zen-like terms.

“For me, it’s sort of meditative,” says Sorensen, a patent attorney who specializes in technology transfer. “It’s quiet; I think of it as floating, because there isn’t any friction. Other than the artificial sound that it makes to tell you it’s on, it is otherwise silent.”

Yet despite ringing endorsements from owner-operators like Sorensen and Heller, a $500,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to the Maryland Energy Administration in 2010 to support the state’s electric vehicle market—and substantial state and federal tax incentives—the tipping point for local adaption of EVs seems little closer than the distant horizon. Electric and gas-electric hybrid vehicles like the Volt and the Leaf have thus far only captured about 3.6 percent of the overall automobile market; statewide that translates into 289 EVs purchased in Maryland, including nineteen in Baltimore City, during the past fourteen months.

Quiet, clean, perky, and delivering road performances equal and sometimes superior to their fossil fuel-guzzling counterparts—on the face of it, there’s little to dislike about electric cars. More appealing, once past the substantially higher sticker price, EVs get around town for a fraction of the per-mile refueling cost. And, of course, EVs—producing zero emissions—remain a significant environmental improvement over standard combustion engine vehicles, responsible for roughly 30 percent of all carbon emissions.

But when—or if—EVs enter the mainstream, according to experts like Sorensen and Chris Rice, Clean Cities Coordinator of the Maryland Energy Administration, is a complex and multi-layered question. They boil it down to several broad-bush factors: price, the distance that electric cars can travel on a charge, the time required to recharge, and the availability of accessible public charging stations.
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