RALEIGH — Todd Grosshandler figures his next car will be an electric vehicle with no gas tank and no tail pipe.
But the car he bought in April sight-unseen from a New York dealer after a six-month search is a plug-in gas-electric hybrid. It’s a Chevy Volt, powered by a big rechargeable battery with backup help from a small gas tank.
“I just had been wanting one so bad,” said Grosshandler, 47, a chemist who lives in northwest Raleigh.
He recharges his silver Volt at night in his garage, and sometimes he plugs in at a friend’s house. There aren’t yet many places available on the road to charge a plug-in electric or hybrid car.
But that’s changing. Raleigh is getting ready for the electric-car era – starting with a chicken-and-egg focus on the infrastructure drivers eventually will need when they’re away from home to charge a depleted battery or top off one that’s half “empty.”
At least a dozen public charging stations for plug-in cars have been installed, mostly in parking decks and on downtown streets. The city plans to have 30 stations – two of them solar-powered – in place by September.
Partly because of related efforts by the city, local electric utilities and nonprofits, Raleigh was picked to host a four-day national conference for the plug-in electric car industry set to open Monday. It’s the first time this event has been conducted on the East Coast.
“Plug-In 2011″ runs through Thursday at the Raleigh Convention Center. Triangle residents are invited Tuesday evening to attend a car exposition, the screening of a new electric-car documentary and a panel discussion.
After years of talk, false starts and speculation, these plug-in cars really are coming to town.
“Very soon you’ll start seeing them more; they’ll be driving around,” said Jeffrey M. Barghout, transportation director for Advanced Energy, a Raleigh-based nonprofit using federal stimulus funds to install some of the 200 charging stations expected around the Triangle over the next couple of years.
“Typically the major automakers don’t invest tens of billions of dollars in something unless they have a good reason to do it,” Barghout said. “I think the conversation is going to change from people saying, ‘Why would you drive an electric car?’ to ‘Why would you drive a car that smells, it’s slower, it doesn’t have as good performance, and you have to spend a lot of your time at gas stations?’ “
The $32,780 Nissan Leaf and the $109,000 Tesla Roadster are the first all-electric cars on the U.S. market. Like the $39,995 Volt, which is the nation’s first plug-in hybrid, they’re available now in small but growing numbers.
And they’re the first in a wave of plug-in cars expected to hit the streets over the next 12 months from Ford, Mitsubishi, Toyota and other carmakers.
“I would like to have a fully electric car, but I think this is a better solution now than the Leaf or the Tesla,” Grosshandler said. “It is doing the switch between gas and electricity in a way that will give the infrastructure a chance to catch up.”
Charging stations installed for home or public use typically use 240 volts – the same as a clothes dryer. But charging takes time: according to EPA estimates, four hours to recharge a depleted Chevy Volt battery, which is good for 35 to 40 miles. Progress Energy says it takes about $1 worth of electricity to recharge a Volt.
The Nissan Leaf’s bigger battery, with a driving range of 73 miles, takes seven hours on a 240-volt charger.
A 120-volt standard household outlet works, too, but takes longer: 10 hours for the Volt.
That works just fine for Michael M. Rogers, 59, of Garner. He got his black Chevy Volt in March through a dealer in Mooresville. He charges the battery overnight on a 120-volt outlet at home and commutes to his job as a state environmental specialist in North Raleigh, a 30-mile round trip.
“Generally, a full charge will cover my commute,” Rogers said. “If I go out to lunch or maybe go to Gold’s Gym in North Raleigh on my way home from work, the car might switch to the gas engine, like, five miles from home.”
That means he might burn a quart or so of gas. By EPA estimates, the Volt gets 37 mpg when it’s running on gasoline power – after the battery charge is depleted.
Two Raleigh residents found Chevy Volts through dealers in Maryland. Local Nissan and Chevy dealers are expected to have Volts and Leafs to sell sometime this fall.
Plug-in versions of the Ford Focus and Toyota Prius are expected in the first half of 2012, and Mitsubishi is planning to roll out an electric car called “i.”
Meanwhile, the Volt is not quite the only electric car in town. For years, hobbyists and engineers have been converting standard gas cars and pickup trucks to plug-in hybrids.
And then there’s the Tesla Roadster. The all-electric Tesla has been on the market for more than a year, but it usually isn’t mentioned in the same breath with Volt and Leaf. It’s pricey, but drivers say it is a fast, high-performance sports car in a class all its own.
Bill F. Morris, 59, sold a Porsche Turbo a few months ago to buy his two-seat Tesla.
“It’s an amazing piece of machinery,” said Morris, who heads a company that builds industrial machines. “One of the strange sensations is that you keep thinking you need to stop at a gas station. And you never do.”
The Tesla’s big battery has a range of 180 miles – more than enough for a trip to Morris’ beach house, where he also keeps a charging station.
Other News & Observer readers say they’re interested in plug-in cars. But some express qualms about the cost of the car, the cost of the electricity to keep it charged, and the risk of getting stranded with a conked-out battery.
“My primary problem lies with range: I like to drive,” Honora Berninger of Durham said by email. She’s looking to trade up from her yellow 1999 VW Beetle. “Fifty miles on a charge is not even close to what I would like.”
John A. Sharpe III, 58, of Chapel Hill figures these new plug-in cars aren’t quite ready to pay for themselves – even with the incentive of a federal income tax credit that trims the net purchase price by $7,500.
“For (electric vehicles) to be truly cost-effective, the price of gas will have to hit $5 to $6 a gallon, which eventually it surely will,” Sharpe said by email.
But Farris Khan of Northville, Mich., did the math, and he’s ready to get a Volt on a three-year lease. He says he’ll save money, and he’ll be reducing air pollution.
“My rationale for getting this is 50 percent economic, 25 percent get a really cool car, 25 percent ‘save the world,’ ” Khan said by email. He discussed his plug-in deliberations at length on The N&O’s Crosstown Traffic blog.
Until the big carmakers expand their distribution, these plug-in cars will be available here only to Triangle residents who are determined to get them.
General Motors introduced the Volt in six markets last fall, but most dealers wouldn’t even put your name on a waiting list if you lived somewhere else. Grosshandler had never driven a Volt, but he knew he wanted one.
Finally, on eBay, he found a dealer near Rochester, N.Y., who would sell him a car. He wired the money, and a few days later took delivery in a parking lot near his Brier Creek home.
Grosshandler has put 2,200 miles on the car since April, but he’s still on his first tank of gas.