Will 2010 be the year Oregon finally realizes its green dream of being a national market for highway-ready electric vehicles?
BY KRISTEN HALL-GEISLER
There are many electric and alternative-fuel cars in development, some on the market in small numbers, and some in concept form only.
When Ecomotion opened in Portland at NE 16th and Sandy Boulevard in September 2007, it was a bauble on the automotive dealership scene, all cool green and clear glass. It displayed cute and colorful electric cars on the showroom floor, had a café to the side, and sold EPA Smartway-certified used cars with high fuel economy in the back. Despite a splashy opening and sales of 12 to 15 cars a month, Ecomotion owner and real estate developer Don Morissette closed up shop 18 months and nearly $3 million later.
You might assume that the electric cars available in 2007 and 2008 weren’t ready for prime time, and you’d be correct. They had limited range and a top speed of about 35 mph. You might assume that the technology was too new for the masses to buy electric cars with confidence, and that would also be correct. Though the lead-acid battery technology used in most of the cars at the time had been around for decades, the infrastructure required for charging and maintaining the cars hadn’t caught up. You might even assume that a real-estate developer with no experience owning car dealerships got impatient with promises from electric-vehicle manufacturers that real-world battery-powered cars were coming and ended his EV dealership experiment when they didn’t arrive, and you’d be correct there, too.
But if you assumed electric cars in Oregon are dead in the water, a green pipe dream, you’d be wrong. Highway-ready, family-friendly electric vehicles from major manufacturers like Nissan and Mitsubishi are on their way to Oregon dealerships as early as 2010.
Morissette and his managers at Ecomotion had heard those same promises from other, smaller manufacturers before. But when the promises of an electric-car future now come from major manufacturers such as Nissan, it’s easier to be optimistic.
The Japanese company with manufacturing operations in Tennessee had three criteria in mind when it was searching for launch markets for its new Nissan Leaf electric vehicle: a state with a high number of hybrid vehicles registered, a “green” ethos and a progressive utility company working on electric-vehicle infrastructure. Tracy Woodard, Director of Government Affairs at Nissan, says she found all three in Oregon, plus a governor working to secure a green legacy for himself and the state. So she picked up the phone and called Salem.
As long ago as September 2008 — ancient history where modern electric cars are concerned — Gov. Ted Kulongoski established the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Infrastructure Working Group and charged it with ushering in electric-vehicle development and marketing in Oregon. “We’re on the Oregon Trail of electrification,” says Chris Warner, Senior Transportation Liaison for the governor. “It’s not easy.”
Portland Mayor Sam Adams agrees, saying that getting manufacturers to locate their operations in Portland is a long way off. “You’ve got to work your way into it,” he says. “You do that by being the port of entry for electric vehicles. You have to earn your way into a position of being competitive for locating an assembly plant.”
But the new cars coming down the pike are changing consumer — and converter — expectations. “People realize that converting their own car with the same capabilities as a Nissan Leaf would actually cost more due to all the custom parts and take up countless hours in the conversion,” says Tim Kutscha, outgoing president of the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association.
All of these things add up to starter-state status, as far as Woodard and Nissan are concerned. When she conducted her research, Oregon landed near the top of the list for a successful launch, alongside cities like Seattle and San Diego. The Nissan Leaf will be in Portland-area dealerships in late 2010, with cities along the I-5 corridor like Eugene and Corvallis to follow. They’ll also have the Leaf at dealerships in Tennessee, where the company’s U.S. headquarters are located.
Maurice Durand, a company manager for Mitsubishi, noted Oregon’s “tremendous environmental consciousness and willingness to adapt to new technology.” Mitsubishi is keeping the launch for its i-MiEV electric car on the small side, with only Oregon and Southern California markets slated for the first round of U.S. i-MiEV imports.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski in an i-MiEV
In the past year, Kulongoski has shown a willingness to adapt and pitched what he considers Oregon’s finest goods: the quality of life, people, culture and commitment to moving away from fossil fuels. He’s visited manufacturers as far away as China and Japan and as close as Ashland, where Brammo makes electric motorcycles and Barefoot Motors builds electric ATVs. And he’s hosted major manufacturers at home, never, it seems, turning down the chance to drive one of their silent, zero-emissions EVs through the streets of Portland.
The governor’s not the only Oregonian willing to take a spin in the latest technology. Oregon DMV records say there are 29,315 gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles registered in the state as of April 1, 2009. As of March this year, the Portland metro area ranked No. 1 nationally in new hybrids per 1,000 households, according to data from auto indusry analyst R.L. Polk and Co. Another 130 electric-only vehicles are currently registered with the state, many of them conversions of gasoline-powered or gasoline-hybrid cars to electric systems. These conversions often have a longer range or more power than the “neighborhood electric vehicles” by Zap and Zenn that were sold at EcoMotion.
Foreign companies such as the Chinese battery and EV manufacturer BYD are being actively courted by state and local policymakers, even when those companies are struggling, like the Norway-based Think! EV manufacturer, which emerged from bankruptcy over the summer. Local manufacturers are also getting in on the game, with three-wheeled, low-speed electric cars from Arcimoto in Eugene and Tinitron in Hillsboro making debuts this fall.
But one company not setting its sights on Oregon — so far — is Tesla Motors. It has sold a few dozen of its $100,000-plus electric roadsters in Seattle, where it recently opened a dealership, but only eight in Oregon.
Infrastructure is a crucial part of any market’s willingness to embrace electric cars, and that’s where Portland General Electric comes in. As Durand points out, auto companies are not going to invest much in infrastructure, though they will work with other companies to develop charging systems. “You would have to develop a charging station that works for a variety of vehicles,” says Durand, a level of magnanimity that would be hard to find in the competitive and proprietary automotive industry.
PGE has installed nearly 20 charging stations in the Portland metro area and Salem since July 2008, with more slated for installation in 2010, including at the Clackamas County government buildings. The utility has worked with groups such as the OEVA, with auto manufacturers and with local manufacturer Shorepower Technologies to create chargers that will work for a variety of vehicles.
In August, PGE joined eTec, the state of Oregon and Nissan in a five-market rollout to study the impact of EVs on the electrical grid, especially PGE’s “smart grid.” The deal will include the 1,000 Nissan Leaf vehicles that will be at dealerships in late 2010, plus 2,500 charging stations to be installed at homes and businesses. On Nov. 9, the EV Road Map conference will convene at Portland State University to prepare communities, consumers, civic designers and utilities for the infrastructure changes. The goal is to give everyone — from manufacturers to buyers — the confidence that Oregon can pull off the EV evolution within the next couple of years.
This deal with eTec alone is expected to generate more than 750 new jobs by 2012, with as many as 5,500 new jobs in place by 2017 as a direct result of the Nissan Leaf launch in Oregon. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV launch will generate more jobs, plus the possibility of jobs in EV sales, maintenance and repair, instructors to teach the next generation of auto repair, and more. “It will have a clustering effect and could bring jobs, like the solar industry did,” says Anna Richter-Taylor in the governor’s office. She added that Oregon now leads the country in solar-panel manufacturing.
But all this infrastructure and government assistance only works if people in Oregon are willing to put their money where their green ethos is. Morissette thought it would happen with the Zap Xebra being sold at Ecomotion in 2007; who’s to say 2010 will be any different?
Kutscha has talked to the target market for the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf at several community events where the OEVA had electric cars on display. “When they see something like the Zap Xebra, people say it looks great and it’s a reasonable price, but it only goes 15 miles, and it has a 35-mph top speed.” Kutscha says that Oregon buyers want freeway-capable speeds and at least 50 miles from a full charge. “I think the Nissan Leaf has an excellent chance of making it in Portland,” Kutscha says. “I think the market is ready for it.”
As an example, he cites his neighborhood, where the streets are lined with Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrids. “They’re psyched to pay a little extra money to out-green other neighborhoods,” Kutscha says. “These are people who like to sneak up on bicycles with their hybrids running only on electricity.”
Oregon’s green reputation might work against it, though, when Nissan, Mitsubishi and any other manufacturers that follow push to take the EV phenomenon countrywide. Kutscha acknowledges that there’s a “greenie elitism,” and that there might be some stigma against EVs in the heartland: “It’s a wimpy car for wimpy hippies in Portland.” But if you get enough of these cars in major cities, people will see it really works, and word will spread past the I-5 corridor.
“What the stakeholders want to see,” says Durand of Mitsubishi, “is a successful arrival to market.” What Kulongoski wants to see is a green legacy worthy of Oregon’s reputation. And what consumers want to see is an electric car they can believe in, not a piece of expensive automotive jewelry decorating the driveway.
Ecomotion may have been a dealership before its time, but Oregon is still ahead of much of the rest of the country when it comes to alternative fuels. The next decade will determine if that EV bet was foolish or futuristic.