Kathy Allen

Allen

In 2006, a documentary called “Who Killed the Electric Car?” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

It suggested that the oil and auto industries undermined the development and production of electric vehicles during the late 1990s.

Electric vehicles or “EVs” were a clear threat to the profits of oil companies, and the required investment in developing new technology could be costly for the auto industry. But within the past few years, EVs have resurfaced and appear poised for a surge in popularity. What led to this turnaround?

It may have started with Tesla, a name that has become almost synonymous with EVs. Founded in 2003, Tesla delivered its first car in 2008, which happened to be the first EV with a range of more than 200 miles per charge. However, the luxury sports car had a price tag over $100,000. Tesla has produced several more EV models since, but until recently all of its cars cost a small fortune.

In 2010, Nissan introduced its EV, the Leaf, to the U.S. market. It had a range of about 100 miles and a cost around $30,000. Finally, an EV that was affordable to drivers without a six-figure salary. Yet many consumers still felt uneasy about the limited range.

In December 2016, GM became the first automaker to release an EV with a range of more than 200 miles but a price below $40,000 — the Chevy Bolt. The Bolt has a range of 238 miles per charge with a price around $37,000, which drops to under $30,000 after a $7,500 tax credit.

At first it was only available on the West and East coasts, but it became available nationwide earlier this year. In mid-October, I became the proud owner of a Bolt, about six weeks after placing an order through a Minnesota dealership.

The extension of vehicle ranges and the lower prices are making EVs a viable option for many more Americans. Finding public charging stations outside of major cities can be a challenge in the Midwest, but this infrastructure is developing quickly.

In the La Crosse area, charging is now available at the airport, Western Technical College and several car dealerships, in addition to other locations. Some small towns, like Sparta and Richland Center, are installing free public charging stations.

So what’s it like driving an electric car? Well, it’s very quiet.

When an EV is in park, you may not even be able to tell that it’s on. There’s no noise and no visible exhaust because there’s no muffler.

Most of the time, driving on the road doesn’t feel much different than a traditional car. The acceleration is fast and effortless. The biggest difference, of course, is not having to stop at gas stations. No more maneuvering to find an available pump on the right side for my car or worrying about getting the smell of gas on my hands or clothes. But best of all, I’ve reduced my dependence on oil and my carbon footprint.

The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, transportation sources made up 27 percent of all emissions, with 60 percent of transportation emissions from “light-duty vehicles” (passenger cars and trucks). Each gallon of gasoline burned by a vehicle produces nearly 9 kilograms of CO2, along with small amounts of methane and nitrous oxide.

You may wonder whether EVs are really any better for the environment if the electricity used to charge them comes from fossil fuels, as much of our electricity in Wisconsin still does.

The answer is yes, because EVs are more efficient than gasoline-powered vehicles, meaning they use less “fuel” overall. The Chevy Bolt gets the equivalent of 119 miles per gallon (MPGe). Tesla models average around 100 MPGe and the 2017 Nissan Leaf gets 112 MPGe. In addition, EVs don’t have engine oil, so there’s no used oil to dispose of.

Many automakers are pledging to shift toward EV production.

General Motors has plans to produce 20 all-electric models by 2023. The Volkswagen Group has set an ambitious goal of selling two million to three million EVs annually by 2025.

Some European countries have announced goals to phase out gas-powered vehicles in the coming decades. France and the United Kingdom are planning to ban new gas and diesel vehicles by 2040.

It seems safe to say that EVs and greener transportation have a bright future.

Kathy Allen holds a master’s degree in conservation biology and sustainable development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and works as a natural resource specialist with GeoSpatial Services in Winona, Minn.

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