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The Electric Car Boomlet

Guest post by Jess Scanlon

As the summer driving season kicks off with Memorial Day weekend, more cars than ever will be skipping the gas station in favor of electric charging ones. These include the 88 Tesla “supercharger” stations in the United States. Tesla is the high-end option of the modest but growing electric car industry. The company produces sporty roadsters (such as the one pictured above) and high-end sedans, like its Model S (prices start at $70,000), which Consumer Reports last year rated a “nearly perfect car.”

The most recent Tesla Supercharger station, debuted in April in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, a suburb of Trenton located near exit 7A of the New Jersey Turnpike, a road many drivers will use this weekend on their way to the Jersey Shore. It is part of  Tesla’s expanding coast to coast network of free electric charging stations.

So who killed the electric car?

Okay, that was then, this is now.

In 2010, 19 electric cars were sold in the U.S. Last year, that number jumped to about 96,000. But it’s worth noting that hybrids—which have a fuel tank and electric components–still rule the green-conscious car buyer market. Nearly 500,000 hybrid vehicles were sold in 2013, including popular favorites like the Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt.

But Tesla’s design and performance has won it a passionate fan base. (Wall Street loves the company, and so too does a well known cartoonist) Last year, after John Broder, a New York Times reporter, wrote about his experience driving a Tesla Model S that ended in the vehicle stalling on the road, angry Tesla fans and CEO Elon Musk accused him of faking the story. The uproar was such that Margaret Sullivan, the NYT public editor, felt compelled to address the charges. She concluded: “I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.”

When the New Jersey Tesla charging station had its ribbon cutting last month, Tesla owners and fans came out by the dozens to check it out and the cars they drew in. Proud owners preened in front off their sleek Model S sedans and Roadsters, while drivers waited patiently to charge their vehicles.

Stations like these are an example of the growing infrastructure available for electric vehicles.  This is made possible by the local electric grid. In New Jersey, the power in those lines comes from natural gas, including fracked gas, from neighboring Pennsylvania and other states, and nuclear power plants in state. Despite fossil fuels being a partial source for the vehicles’ electricity, electric cars still produce fewer emissions per vehicle than conventional cars according to reports by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). See this NRDC post for more on that and also for a link to a handy tool from the U.S. Department of Energy that helps you determine if an electric car is the greener option in your area.

What would it cost if you wanted to join the growing ranks of electric car enthusiasts? The Tesla Model S can be had for a little more than $60,000 after tax credits. The partially electric Chevy Volt is yours for $34,000 before dealer taxes and tax credits. The Nissan Leaf is a relative bargain at $21,000 after the tax credits.

Bringing the price down would require additional tax breaks at both the federal and state level. Improvements in technology will also help to lower the cost just as it did for other devices such as computers and cell phones. Also, increased demand will scale up the manufacturing process, further reducing cost. Some companies are already planning to make their cars more affordable. Tesla, for example, plans to introduce a model in the $35,000 range, roughly half its current price.

So is the electric car revolution underway?

Let’s not get carried away. The U.S. Department of Energy has predicted that electric cars won’t be taking over the roads anytime soon.



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