Pushing the plug 

EVs prove punchy and increasingly affordable — but are they truly 'zero-emission'?

My head snaps against the passenger-seat headrest. A guy behind me asks to go back to retrieve his stomach.

I'm at the Southern Colorado Clean Cities Coalition's Driving Change event, at the First & Main Town Center, part of National Drive Electric Week. Three Teslas are generating the most excitement amid a batch of EVs, including a Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid and a Chevrolet Volt.

Tesla Motors' Performance S Model P85 proves not just stylish, but hella strong, hitting 60 mph in 4.2 seconds — as just demonstrated for us by Dien Nguyen, a local tech guy who waited four years on Tesla's list for a 2012 sedan. He shelled out around $110,000 for this vehicle, which can run 265 miles on a charge, and whose parent company keeps installing supercharging stations along interstate corridors that in 40 minutes enable 180 miles of travel.

After experiencing the quiet, smooth power of a Tesla, it's easy to understand his enthusiasm.

"I can't imagine driving any other car," says Nguyen, who's already earned a police warning for accelerating too fast off a red light.

Though prices for Model S versions have since dropped to between $69,900 and $93,400 (minus $13,500 with tax credits and Colorado incentives), the car remains out of reach for the average consumer. The good news is that options such as the 2015 Nissan LEAF are now attainable at under $30,000, before a $7,500 federal and $6,000 Colorado tax credit, making them cost-competitive with plenty of conventional cars.

Then there are the savings that come with not buying gas. According to U.S. Department of Energy data, drivers of the 2012 LEAF will save an average of $8,250 on fuel over five years, compared to drivers of the average new vehicle — which gets only 23 miles per gallon versus the LEAF's adjusted 99 mpg. (In this equation, a gallon of gas equates to the cost of 33.7 kilowatt hours of electricity.)

While letting me drive his newly leased LEAF, John Duprey says he figures he pays about the equivalent of 20 cents per gallon. For Nguyen, who drives his Tesla "a lot," it amounts to about $30 a month on his utility bill.

My LEAF ride is thrilling in its own way: It boots up more than revs up, and is whisper-quiet while punchy. A low center of gravity yields great handling. "It sounds like a heavy breeze passing by you," says my colleague.

I actually make the tires squeal (gleefully) as I hit the accelerator in a rare 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV brought from California by Jim Burness, the Denver-based CEO of National Car Charging, which installs EV charging stations.

"My biggest disappointment with this car," he says, "is I think I'll go through tires much more quickly." He adds, "It's fun to surprise BMW drivers at the stoplight with a little Rav4. ... The big secret is that these cars are a lot more fun to drive than their regular counterparts ... they're [not] just glorified golf carts."

Burness installed the charging stations at Colorado College and here at First & Main; plugshare.com shows nearly 20 public charging stations in metro Colorado Springs thus far. He says studies have shown that EV drivers will not only seek out places to charge, but they'll stay and spend money on-site — hence First & Main's willingness to give away energy when the unit alone costs $7,000. On these 220-volt, 30-amp chargers, each hour translates to 10 to 20 miles of range depending on the car; Teslas have an adapter to fit these, but charge faster at Supercharging stations, which drop 480 volts as direct current.

Which is all well and good. But when we talk about "zero-emission" cars, aren't we missing the fact that we're just using other fossil fuels by plugging into the grid?

Duprey buys wind credits via Colorado Springs Utilities for this reason. And CSU program manager Deborah Mathis notes that 11 percent of our grid energy does come from renewable resources, with 40 percent coming via coal and 49 percent via natural gas. To get closer to being truly off-grid, EV owners need to do what Ivywild School architect Jim Fennell did when he bought his LEAF in 2012, installing 12 solar panels for roughly $10,000, post-rebate. He'd asked Nissan for an adapter to charge straight from the panels, but the company couldn't help, so he opted to tie into CSU's grid for $10 monthly. (An area solar tech says off-grid can be achieved, but he has concerns about a reasonable cost for battery storage.)

Fennell's usage is net-metered, meaning CSU measures what he uses and what he sends back. He pays for overages, and they credit him if he produces more than he uses. He can continuously roll over kilowatt hours or cash out. The only rub, as some perceive it, is that he's paid at the wholesale rate, around 3 cents, whereas he pays the retail rate of around 9 cents. (Read why at csu.org.)

So, shall we agree that just as nothing is really free in this world, there is no such thing as "zero," ultimately? EVs may not have tailpipes, but they'll generate emissions somewhere along the line, from manufacturing to material transport.

Still, it appears they're a huge step in the right direction, environmentally — and damn, are they fun to drive.

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