Why Pennsylvania is poised to be the nation's leader in electric car adoption.
This story originally appeared in Keystone Edge.
Brandon Hollinger grew tired of the foreign-policy implications of filling up his car at the pump. The wars fought on top of oil reserves. The diminishing petroleum supplies.
So he decided to stop relying on gasoline.
He considered converting his car to run on hydrogen. He studied compressed natural gas. He concluded that driving an electric car made the most sense.
So Hollinger bought a sporty 1968 Saab. In 2009, during a three-month break from his job as a woodwind instrumentalist at the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, he replaced the internal combustion engine with an array of batteries.
"I changed my oil once in college, and I basically knew nothing about cars or electric," Hollinger says.
He still has another Saab that runs on gas. Its battery often dies from neglect.
The activist-musician is just one of a growing number of Pennsylvania drivers tooling around in electric vehicles. Some, like Hollinger, turned traditional cars into electric vehicles. Others, inspired by new models from big car companies, are driving away from dealerships in vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt.
Last fall a study of new vehicle registrations from car information website Edmonds.com ranked Pennsylvania 12th in electric car sales and fifth in new car sales overall. This rate is admittedly sluggish.
Still, some experts say the Keystone State has potential to be a leader in electric vehicle adoption. Clean-tech specialists Pike Research recently determined that based on factors like population and household income, the Lehigh Valley was one of the regions of the U.S. where drivers are most likely to buy electric cars
between now and 2020.
Fighting "range anxiety"
Pennsylvania is taking a leading role in making electric cars easier to own, says Adam Garber, field director for
"People need to know 90 percent of the trips they take every single day you can take with an electric vehicle."
PennEnvironment. His organization worked with Environment America on a summer report about the rise of electric vehicles. That research showed two major factors contributing to the cars' growing popularity: The spread of public charging stations and increased battery capacity. Charging stations are concentrated in urban centers like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but Garber predicts that they will sprout up by places like malls and office buildings, spreading from the cities outward.
He points to plans to install charging stations at rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The state Department of Environmental Protection announced these plans in December 2011 and details are still being worked out, a Turnpike spokesman says.
Meanwhile, private companies like U-Go Stations
are building public charging stations on their own.
"People call me all the time," says Mickey McLaughlin, U-Go's executive VP of sales and new development. "There's so many people who are getting into this because they see a new frontier."
McLaughlin estimates the company's Philadelphia office receives 150 calls daily from property owners interested in building charging stations on their land. These calls come from shopping centers, hotels, colleges and office parks. At the moment U-Go has stations in five states and the Cayman Islands.
The proliferation of charging stations combats a problem experts call "range anxiety" – basically, the fear of being stranded in an electric car with a dead battery, miles from a charging station. Although the thought of being stuck on a remote highway is enough for most people to stick with gasoline, electric-car batteries can hold more than enough juice for a typical day's errands. As batteries improve, cars can last longer without being plugged in.
"People need to know 90 percent of the trips they take every single day you can take with an electric vehicle," Garber says.
In Hollinger's experience, 90 percent is a gross underestimate. Whenever he's home he charges his Saab in his Lancaster garage by plugging it into the same type of outlet that might power a clothes dryer. That's usually enough. He's said goodbye to the days when he could fill up his car at any corner, but that just requires a bit of extra planning.
"You have to think a little differently," he says. "But it's nice to go months, years, without going to a gas station."
In May he upgraded his batteries to lithium from lead-acid. Now the Saab can go about 120 miles. His first drive was to Washington, D.C. "On a whim I'll go to Baltimore," Hollinger says.
The idea of range anxiety points to a sort of chicken-and-egg problem: Do electric cars have to become ubiquitous before charging stations pop up on every corner, or will people wait to buy cars until they can charge them where it's convenient?
ECOtality, a California company collaborating with the federal government on a study of electric-vehicle use, found that public charging stations tend to follow electric cars.
"A lot of people, when they purchase an electric vehicle, they get a charging station for their homes," says ECOtality spokeswoman Katie Michel. "A lot of people are tethered to their home chargers."
But in the three years of the study, ECOtality has been surprised to see that drivers charge their cars in public 28 percent of the time. Researchers expected that figure to be one-fifth.
One improvement Michel sees is the growth of charging stations that power a car in minutes rather than hours. These alleviate range anxiety in rural areas.
Like many states, Pennsylvania issues rebates to people who buy electric cars. Buyers can get $1,000 or $3,500, depending on a new car's battery capacity. The state had issued more than 450 rebates between September 2011 and January 2013.
Dave Althoff, who manages the rebate program for the DEP, says the Chevy Volt has been the most common model eligible for rebates. He thinks that's because of the Volt's nearly unlimited range, since gas kicks in when the electricity runs out.
"I think that ultimately, these are cars that fit the needs of the driver," Althoff says.
Garber, of PennEnvironment, believes government incentives like these rebates can make it easier for Pennsylvanians to own electric vehicles. Rewards for businesses and communities that build charging stations would also go a long way.
"Right now, you don't need a ton of charging stations to charge all the electric vehicles that are out there," he says.
But Hollinger says a lot of the barriers to owning an electric car are psychological. He started a business selling customized conversion kits to drivers as far away as Sweden – if a musician can turn a gas car into electric (and he's done it three times), it's a surmountable task. The up-front cost is about the same as buying a new car, he notes, but the money not spent on gasoline over time makes up for it.
It doesn't hurt that electric cars are fast. When new drivers experience the speed they often end up with an expression dubbed the "EV grin."
"The smell of rubber's very potent," Hollinger says. "This thing'll peel out at almost any gear."
Rebecca Vandermeulen is a freelance writer who lives near Downingtown, PA. Photography by Brad Bower.