Car chargers abound in Chicago
Drivers can venture farther confidently
February 16, 2012
By Julie Wernau, Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO -- In the early days of the electric vehicle, they called it "opportunity charging." You plugged in wherever you could.
"Laundromats, gas stations that have an outlet, car washes, hotels, churches, friends' houses ... everywhere and everything," said Todd Dore, a North Riverside, Ill., resident who converted his first gas vehicle to electric in 2003.
With the delivery of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and plug-in Chevy Volt to early adopters in 2011, Dore isn't the only pioneer getting around without gasoline.
Drivers can choose from more than 100 places to charge up in the area to eliminate so-called range anxiety (the fear of being stranded with no juice left in the battery). And for the first time, the charging stations in his downtown parking garage are frequently in use when he pulls up.
"Any given week, there are more electric vehicles wanting to charge than there are charging stations," he said. "This is my nirvana. These are the days I've wanted to see for the last 10 years."
Take a spin around the Chicago Auto Show, and you'll find no shortage of vehicles getting an electric boost. There are hybrids that use a gas engine to charge the battery, hybrids that have sockets for plugging in and, of course, totally electric vehicles.
Even several tried-and-true models on the showroom floor now offer various levels of electrification.
The 2013 Ford Fusion -- hitting the market this fall -- is available as a hybrid, electric plug-in or regular old internal combustion. Beginning this March, hybrid granddaddy Toyota Prius is offering a plug-in in some states rated at 95 m.p.g.-equivalent that, when charged, would allow the vehicle to run on battery power longer and at higher speeds.
But if there's a full-blown revolution coming, it isn't here yet. Though the hybrid market is growing, in 2012 it comprises just 2.46% of the overall market. Electric vehicle sales represent less than 1%, according to industry watcher Edmunds.com.
"We're in the covered-wagon days of this industry," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Edmunds. "We're in a pioneering time."
Electric vehicles are still a hard sell for the average consumer. The price tag is high, and the lower fuel costs don't immediately make up the difference. Charging stations are available but not on every corner, and most take hours, instead of minutes. Even the best-laid plans can leave some motorists doing just about anything to hold their battery's charge, particularly in cold weather.
Just ask Paul Becker, 40, who lives in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. He had his Nissan Leaf only a month before he traded it in for a Chevy Volt. He had paid $38,000 for the Leaf and managed to get $37,000 back at the Chevy dealer.
In the cold(ish) Chicago weather, he was getting about 60 miles range on a charge with the Leaf. To get home from Morton Arboretum with their two small children, he and his wife were forced to drive with the heat off and at lower speeds to conserve battery power.
"With the Volt, if you have something unexpected come up, you just go," he said. The Volt is a plug-in vehicle that switches to gasoline if the battery power runs out, extending its range beyond that of a fully electric vehicle. "We thought that if we had a longer trip we would just rent a car, but in practice, we found we didn't do it."
In the Volt, Becker has managed to stay on battery power most of the time, charging up as often as possible. The benefit: In electric mode, he said, he's paying about 20 cents every 30 miles by charging up at night at a 220V charger he had installed on the outside of his house.