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Electric cars hold promise, small presence in Columbia

Klaudia Rejmer plugs a charger into the front of her Nissan Leaf on April 25 at Joe Machens Nissan dealership. This is Rejmer’s second electric car; she purchased her first one two years ago. ¦ Peter Marek
BY Trevor McDonald

COLUMBIA — The sleek wine-red hatchback starts up noiselessly, emitting a soft beep as it glides backward from its parking space outside Panera Bread on Conley Road. Klaudia Rejmer and Kelly Patterson are big fans of their Nissan Leaf.

At first, the fully electric vehicle was a point of contention when they were considering whether to lease one about four years ago.
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Klaudia Rejmer’s electric-powered Nissan Leaf charges April 25 at Joe Machens Nissan dealership. It can take up to 22 hours to fully charge the battery with household 120 volt power. The Level 2 charging station at the dealership charges the car in about 7 hours.

“The second I saw it, I signed up immediately,” Rejmer said.

Her husband, Patterson, was less enthusiastic.

“I was really skeptical about it,” Patterson recalled. “Now I love it.”

As Leaf drivers, Rejmer and Patterson are rarities in Columbia. Although electric vehicles are inching closer to the mainstream nationally, they’ve yet to gain traction here. Not only are the vehicles more expensive than their hybrid and gasoline-fueled counterparts, they also require charging stations, which come in different levels depending on their voltage output, to renew the cars’ limited driving range of 75 to 100 miles.

In Columbia, no charging infrastructure for electric cars exists. That’s a big reason why sales and leases of electric cars in Columbia are sluggish.

James Williams, Internet sales manager at Joe Machens Nissan, estimated the dealership has sold or leased 13 Leafs since late 2011, and there are only a couple of the cars on its lot. Columbia residents who might be interested in buying other electric models, such as the Tesla or the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, will have trouble finding them in town. The closest Tesla dealer is in Skokie, Ill., more than 400 miles away. Machens offers the electric Mitsubishis but doesn’t always keep them on its lot.

Williams sees a lot of potential for electric cars in Columbia but acknowledged the need for more charging stations.

“To be honest, Columbia is a great fit for (the Leaf). Most people are within a 35-mile commute, one way,” Williams said. “As soon as our infrastructure catches up with the West Coast, we’ll have just as many electric vehicles as they do.”

Charging challenges

There’s a noticeable absence of sound as Patterson fires up his Leaf. A colorful array of liquid-crystal displays lights up across the dash, but the only sound is from the audio system. The navigation display flashes a rearview camera image as the car glides backward. There are lots of nifty gizmos, but Patterson said his passengers’ first comments are always about how quiet the car is.

Because the Leaf’s motor is electric, there is no need for a conventional transmission or gearshift. Patterson nudges a smooth, puck-shaped joystick to engage reverse and drive.

Subdued road rumble and wind noise are the only ambient sounds as the Leaf flows forward. The acceleration is seamless and immediate, with the verve of a regular four-cylinder hatchback. Except there is no engine vibration, no crescendo of engine thrash coupled with exhaust bellow. No sound at all.

When Patterson engages “eco” mode, it feels as if the car has hit a 15-mph headwind. Eco mode encourages power conservation by way of a stiffer accelerator pedal.

“The pedal sticks a little more in eco mode,” Patterson said.

Rejmer said eco mode reduces battery drain from the Leaf’s heating and cooling system.

“You’re forced to conserve with the Leaf,” she said. “I only have 100 miles. I’m going to make it count.”

Driving a Leaf was a bit less challenging when Patterson and Rejmer lived in Petaluma, Calif. They often “filled up” at free charging stations at the workplace. Level 2 charging stations were scattered across parking spots in the city. Level 2 chargers supply 240 volts, the same amount of power that comes from a household laundry dryer outlet. They can replenish a depleted Leaf battery in about seven hours.

When Patterson and Rejmer moved back to Missouri, they noticed a stark difference in the charging infrastructure. At home, they charge their Leaf with Level 1 120-volt household current. After a recent Saturday filled with trips around town, their Leaf required about 16 hours for a full battery charge. They own a broken-down, gasoline-fueled Toyota Celica, but the Leaf is their primary vehicle.

The only Level 2 chargers the couple knows of in Columbia are at Joe Machens Nissan and Bob McCosh Chevrolet Buick GMC Cadillac. Their Leaf’s navigation screen lists the Machens dealership as the only charging spot between Kansas City and St. Louis. The next one is 121 miles from Columbia, well beyond the Leaf’s maximum driving range.

“We definitely need more charging stations,” Patterson said.

Level 3 rapid charging stations, which provide 480-volt direct current that can recharge a Leaf in about half an hour, are even rarer nationally than Level 2 equipment. These quick chargers were beginning to appear in California when Patterson and Rejmer moved away, but there are none in or near Columbia.

Electric vehicles also are expensive, even for those who qualify for the $7,500 tax credit the federal government offers eligible buyers. Patterson and Rejmer said the stiff purchase price of about $30,000 prompted them to lease a Leaf for the second time rather than buy one.

“If I owned rather than leased, I think my biggest concern would be with the battery degrading,” Rejmer said. With a lease arrangement, they can have the dealer replace the battery rather than buy a new one.

Looking ahead

At the Advancing Renewable Energy in the Midwest conference last month at MU, city sustainability manager Barbara Buffaloe and members of the Energy and Environment Commission listened to Kevin Herdler, executive director of the St. Louis Clean Cities Coalition, and Kelly Gilbert, transportation director at the Metropolitan Energy Center and coordinator of the Kansas City Regional Clean Cities Coalition, discuss charging stations already installed in those cities.

There are about 30 charging stations in the St. Louis area at locations such as Ameren UE, the Moonrise Hotel, The Laurel Apartments, French Gerleman and Alton City Hall, Herdler said.


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