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Colorado environmental benefits of electric cars

Benefits of electric cars in Colorado justify federal and state subsidies
This originally appeared in the Aug. 11, 2013, issue of The Denver Post. A version more focused on mountain towns was published in the May 5, 2013, issue of Mountain Town News. For a sample copy of Mountain Town News, a subscriptoin-based electronic magazine, please send me a request at allen.best@comcast.net

By Allen Best

Exotic but expensive, electric cars remain extraneous to contemporary expectations of mobility. An EV (as electric vehicles are called) is fine for the average daily work commute of 27 miles in the United States.

But hop in to drive to Steamboat Springs, Santa Fe or Salt Lake City? You’d better find a hitching post along the way. The range of a Nissan Leaf is just 75 miles. A Tesla Model S can get you 265 miles, but at a cost: $80,000 before state and federal tax rebates.

Electric cars also remain scarce: Just 1,521 of them (not including hybrids) are in Colorado as of April, nearly two-thirds of them between Castle Rock and Fort Collins, their owners mostly economic elites or technological early adopters. The state has more than 5 million registered vehicles.

Yet from Denver to Durango, government jurisdictions are now rapidly installing charging stations. Some local efforts are being subsidized by $115 million in allocations from the federal government, which has set a goal of putting one million EVs on the roads by 2015.

Why the subsidies? They’re justified for several reasons:

Ground-level ozone can be reduced in Denver and the northern Front Range. This nine-county area violates the federal standard six to 10 days each summer, and the federal standard is likely to be reduced. Ozone — beneficial when in the outer atmosphere — can worsen the effects of asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, and trigger chest pains, coughing and congestion. It’s not good for young people, for old people, or people with marginalized lungs.

Ozone is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, both found in exhaust of cars, combine with other emissions in bright sunlight. In metro Denver, we currently drive 74 million miles per day, according to Rich McClintock of Transportation Solutions, an advocacy group. By 2035, as the population grows, that figure is projected to hit 100 million miles daily. That overshoots the sun, which is only 93 million miles away.

Chicken-and-egg thing

Electric cars can help reduce ozone. The Regional Air Quality Council (RAQC) is committed to spending $320,000 through 2015 to subsidize charging stations in metro Denver and the more northerly Front Range. It has already commissioned 80 charging stations with plans for 120 altogether.

“With all these alternative fuels, whether it’s electric, natural gas or propane, there’s the chicken-and-egg thing,” explains Ken Lloyd, executive director of RAQC. In other words, which comes first: the charging stations or the electric cars? “The answer is you need to do both. The number of vehicles will drive demands for charging stations, but you need a certain type of infrastructure to justify purchase of vehicles.”

A project in Fort Collins and Loveland hopes to provide an example for how to create the infrastructure that fosters adoption of electric cars. The state’s first high-speed charger, able to deliver 440 volts, will begin operation later this month. Donated by Nissan, it will allow a battery that is 80 percent depleted to be recharged in 20 to 30 minutes. Private businesses and the two city governments plan another 20 or so medium-speed or 220-volt chargers, identical to those planned in metro Denver, in coming months.

“Electric vehicles represent the best scalable alternative if we’re trying to reduce our dependency on oil. Right now, 70 percent of the oil we use in the Untied States goes to the transportation sector,” explained Ben Prochazka, director of strategic initiatives for the Electrification Coalition, a non-profit allied with the two cities and Colorado State University. The coalition, based in Washington, D.C., is financed by businesses in the electric-car supply chain as well as individuals, he says.

Why should we care about getting off oil? Aren’t North Dakota and Texas producing bounteous supplies? Yes, but the U.S. remains a net importer, while 98 percent of electricity is produced domestically. In other words, it’s like your local Chamber of Commerce shop-at-home promotion. Also, because most electric cars will be recharged at night when electrical demand is low, our existing electrical grid can integrate a larger number of the new vehicles.
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