Electric Vehicles May Help Ease State Gas Woes

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As California gas prices steadily rise above the national average, UC Berkeley economists, area car dealerships and PG&E are looking towards electricity as an alternative to gas-powered vehicles.

Electric vehicles were not previously feasible due in part to high up-front battery costs and low total mileage per charge. Now that more advanced batteries have been developed, however, electric cars can travel much longer distances on a single battery charge.

Thomas Becker, a UC Berkeley graduate student in economics, analyzed a model in which consumers use a battery leased from a private company. The study forecasts that the model's adoption would boost electric car sales to 64 percent of U.S. car, minivan, SUV and pickup truck sales by 2030.

Berkeley car dealerships are also looking forward to increased interest in energy-efficient vehicles.

Green Motors, an all-electric car dealership located at 1500 San Pablo Ave., sells low-speed "neighborhood electric vehicles." According to sales manager Street Brown, their main model, which travels about 25 miles per hour and can drive on 35 mile-per-hour roads, costs around $13,500. Brown said electric vehicles provide many benefits over standard gas-powered vehicles.

"You will save a lot of money," he said. "They cost around 3 cents per mile you drive (and) there's no maintenance to speak of. An electric motor has one moving part, so the cars are extremely simple and cheap to own."

However, as larger car companies begin to offer more powerful electric vehicles, Brown said demand for the low-speed cars they sell may decline. He said Green Motors may start focusing on converting cars such as the Toyota Prius into plug-in hybrids, which mainly rely on an electric motor and must be charged from an outlet.

"Some of these (neighborhood electric vehicles) may not sell as well as they were, and we might transition into the business of doing conversions," Brown said.

Toyota of Berkeley sales consultant George Abrams said the market for efficient vehicles is enormous, noting that customers ask about electric vehicles at least once a day. He said the Prius, a hybrid car that relies mainly on gasoline, is currently Toyota's most popular car in Berkeley and the rest of the Bay Area.

Abrams also mentioned that a plug-in hybrid electric version of the Prius is being developed.

Still, Abrams said he felt that California is not quite ready for vehicles that need to be plugged in.

"We don't have the infrastructure to recharge (the batteries)," he said.

To accommodate a large increase in the number of electric cars being used, PG&E is considering modifications to its grid.

"We will have to reinforce our distribution network," said company spokesperson Kory Raftery in an e-mail. "Electric cars can use as much power as a home, so utilities may need to run more lines into particular neighborhoods, even when there are just three or four cars."

The utility currently offers a program for electric vehicle owners that charges different prices based on the time of day when electricity is used.

"The different rates offer customers a significant incentive to charge their vehicles during the off-peak time (at night) when the demand for electricity is lower," Raftery said.

If the state can properly support a larger base of electric vehicles, Abrams said he is confident the cars would sell.

"Oh my God, they'd fly out of here," he said.


Contact Michael Garcia at [email protected]

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