This morning at 11:00 AM Pacific Time, Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire, accompanied by local officials, electric vehicle drivers and business people, will participate in a ribbon-cutting at the Sehome Village Shopping Center in Bellingham, opening up the latest expansion of the West Coast Electric Highway.
The West Coast Electric Highway is the section of Interstate 5 running from the Canadian border to the northern California state line. With the help of a $1.32 million federal grant, it has been made EV-friendly with the installation of recharging stations located at 25-30-mile intervals, well within the range of current EVs operating at highway speeds. The idea is to expand the opportunities for travel by owners of electric cars who might otherwise be reluctant to travel any distance by highway. It also allows drivers to travel Interstate 5 from the Canadian border to California without using any gasoline.
Most of the charging stations are located in areas where motorists can get some refreshments or shop while their car is getting juiced up. Even with the fastest charge, it’s still 20-30 minutes (or as the folks in Washington like to say, time to grab a cup of coffee) before the vehicle is charged.
So what’s the downside? According to the EPA, a Nissan LEAF has a 70-mile range traveling at 55 miles per hour with the air-conditioning on. It’s about 254 miles from Bellingham to Vancouver; almost the entire length of Interstate 5 in Washington state. At 55 miles per hour, that’s a journey lasting about 4 hours and 37 minutes. In a conventional automobile, there would be no need to stop at all except possibly for that cup of coffee. In the Nissan LEAF, there will be three 30-minute stops to recharge. That’s a fair number of coffee breaks or shopping trips and it extends the total time of the trip to over six hours.
It gets worse: the national 55 mph speed limit ended long ago. The speed limit on most of Interstate 5 is now 70 and doing 55 could be hazardous and certainly won’t win any friends. In obedience to the laws of physics, the LEAF’s range drops as the speed increases. MIT’s Technology Review estimates the range could drop to 62 miles, meaning an additional stop, and another 30-minute coffee break, just before the end of that Bellingham-to-Vancouver journey.
Washington, Oregon and California were among six states selected to participate in The EV Project, a $230 million U.S. Department of Energy project to spur electric vehicle ownership and infrastructure. This includes deployment of thousands of charging stations. The government is taking a proactive approach to building the infrastructure that will be required to make electric vehicles a practical, if expensive, mode of transportation.
Te West Coast Electric Highway is a step in that direction. Electric charging stations are the least expensive refueling option among alternative technologies that don’t use fossil fuels: natural gas or hydrogen distribution and dispensing systems are far more costly, even though there need to be fewer of them. And the most critical component of widespread acceptance of any alternative-fuel vehicle is infrastructure. A potential owner wants to be sure they won’t be stranded between refueling points. Time spent sipping a beverage or browsing in a shop is acceptable: time spent sitting on the side of the road, waiting for a wrecker, is not.