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Spark grows for electric vehicles in greater Portland

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Spark grows for electric vehicles in greater Portland

PORTLAND — Turning over a new Leaf has worked well for Scarborough resident Marc Lausier.

"I can say with confidence that I’ll never own a gas-powered car again,” Lausier said, standing next to his Nissan Leaf outside Revision Energy on Presumpscot Street.

Lausier bought the first Leaf sold in Maine 2 1/2 years ago. On July 17, he became the willing embodiment of a 37-page report released by Environment Maine urging state government officials to embrace electric vehicles.

"If every state adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle program, more than 13 million electric vehicles would be on the road by 2025. This would prevent 14.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollution," according to the report, written by Elizabeth Ridlington of the Frontier Group and Travis Madsen of the Environment America Research & Policy Center.

The advocacy group Plug In America estimates almost 231,000 electric vehicles have been sold nationally. There are 39 states offering owner incentives such as tax credits, reduced insurance premiums and exemptions from inspections and emissions testing. There is also a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for buying electric vehicles.

The report urges creating state financial incentives, while shifting the electricity grid away from electricity generated by fossil fuels.

"We cannot afford not to subsidize," Lausier said.

In Portland, South Portland and Scarborough, governments are changing fleets and adding charging stations.

Portland City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the city will soon install a charging station at the Elm Street parking garage, and then lease an electric vehicle for Inspections Department use.

The vehicle will be leased in part with a grant from Central Maine Power, and the garage on Fore Street now has a charging station.

At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, July 24, a charging station will be officially opened at the South Portland Community Center on Nelson Road. Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings said the city will add electric vehicles to its non-emergency fleet "in the near future."

That future has arrived in Scarborough, where the Planning Department has leased a Leaf for the next three years, also using a CMP grant. Town Manager Tom Hall said the Leaf replaces an SUV. The town also bought a hybrid Ford Escape last year.

"I drove (a Leaf) when we had the loaner here," Hall said. "It had plenty of acceleration, good for in-town driving."

The loaned car was provided by the Greater Portland Council of Governments last fall through the CMP grant program. South Portland officials were among the first to try it out.

Lausier, who traded in a Nissan Murano, said he measures the Leaf's performance by its kilowatts-per-hour rating, which can be converted to 155 miles per gallon. It uses no gas or oil in its operation.

Although he has not paid the state and federal fuel taxes used to fund highway repairs, Lausier said it is time the tax is calculated by vehicle weight or miles traveled, instead of at the gas pump.

Lausier said the Leaf has silent power and good comfort.

"I found myself driving too fast because I had no audible cue from the engine," he said.

Hall's observation about "in-town driving" is critical: the Leaf's battery has a range of about about 90 miles and needs at least 30 minutes to recharge. Recharging at home can take several hours.

The Chevy Volt, which also has a combustion engine, has a battery range under 40 miles. High-end Tesla all-electric cars have a range estimated at 265 miles.

The lack of charging stations is noted in the report, which calls for government funding, building codes requiring them in new construction, and price breaks from utilities to reduce the charging costs.

There is also mixed opinion on how obtaining components and manufacturing electric vehicles affects the environment. Lithium batteries and magnets include elements not easily found or mined, and manufacturing solar panels emits sulfur hexaflouride, a greenhouse gas.

A 2010 study by the National Academies, commissioned by the U.S. Congress, and a 2012 Norwegian study concluded the life cycles of vehicles present at least as many environmental hazards as ones running on combustion engines.

Revision co-founder Phil Coupe and Lausier don't buy the conclusions.

"Be careful with life-cycle analyses," Coupe said, while Lausier noted the emissions questions end once an electric vehicle is on the road, while combustion engines continue to pollute.

Coupe said research and development is creating batteries made with semiconductors and fewer rare elements. Lausier noted the Leaf contains at least 30 percent recycled materials.

The environmental issues also revolve around electricity used to charge vehicles.

In its most recent standard offer disclosure with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, CMP power sources are comprised of 30 percent natural gas, 23 percent nuclear, 5 percent oil and 4 percent coal. Wind power is 2 percent of the CMP supply, and solar power is not included.

"The cleaner we make our electricity system," the report said, "... the less global warming pollution electric vehicles will produce."

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.