Laurie Saindon's car has all features you'd expect to find in a newer-model vehicle except one: a gas tank.
About a year ago the Tempest Aviation Group co-owner and his business partner decided to buy a Nissan Leaf electric car, which they share for personal and business use. Since then they and their families have driven about 17,000 kilometres in the car (which was bought used with 5,000 km already on it) in all types of weather, and have been impressed with the experience, Saindon said.
"When people get in it they are amazed," Saindon said. "I'd like to see way more of these out there. It just makes you feel good to drive [it]."
It was their environmental sensibilities which inspired them to make the move, he said.
"Basically we try to promote a healthy environment. We thought we should put our money where our mouth is," Saindon said. "When we heard about the Nissan Leaf... we decided to buy it."
Saindon isn't the only one. According to government and industry statistics gathered by Green Car Reports (www.greencarreports.com), between 2011 and 2013 Canadian sales of plug-in electric cars and plug-in hybrids have increased almost 600 per cent.
Sales have risen from 521 in 2011 to 3,106 in 2013, but still only make up 0.18 per cent of Canadian vehicle sales. Over the same period the variety of electric and plug-in hybrid (electric cars with gasoline or diesel generators to extend their range) available on the Canadian market has increased.
Currently Chevrolet, Tesla, Nissan, Smart, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Ford, Cadillac and Fisker all sell electric or plug-in hybrid models in Canada.
Despite its limitations, Saindon said he doesn't regret going electric. Making the switch has made him more aware of his driving habits and their impact on energy consumption.
"It's like a living thing, it has fixed limitations," he said. "If you drive at excess speeds, it'll reduce your range. There is a direct relationship between how you drive and how it performs."
Limited range is the biggest limit facing battery-powered electric cars. The Nissan Leaf's advertised maximum range is 160 km on a full charge, but real-world conditions reduce that.
"You can get an honest 100 km on this thing, because Prince George is hilly," Saindon said. "For commuting it's awesome. I leave home and have 137 km left, and when I get to work I still have 137 km -because it's mostly downhill, and it recharges on the downhill. But it uses more going back up."
On the 240 volt charger installed at his work, it takes about three hours to recharge the battery from nearly dead, he said, and on the conventional 110 volt plug in at home it takes longer - about eight hours.
Cold weather cuts the vehicle's range, he said, but not as much as people would expect. One of the biggest advantages is the operating cost, Saindon said.
"My business partner and I calculated it. It costs us $9 a month to operate," he said. "In the long run, it pays for itself. There is no oil changes. We really haven't done any maintenance except change the tires."
Saindon said he'd strongly encourage anyone who can afford to have two vehicles to consider an electric car for daily commuting and errands - especially in B.C. where the majority of the electricity used to charge it comes from renewable sources.
"When I have to give it back [to his business partner] it sucks, because it's such a good car to drive," he said.
In July 2012 the City of Prince George, Northern Health, Regional District of Fraser-Fort George and UNBC partnered to purchase a Nissan Leaf to be shared between the agencies.
Each of the agencies has the vehicle for three months of the year.
Kyle Aben, the program coordinator for the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at UNBC, said the university users have been impressed.
"They couldn't really tell its electric. Most people just jump in and drive it," Aben said. "[But] with only 160 km range it does cause some people some grief."
An electronic display in the car shows the power consumption and calculates the remaining range, based on current use, he said.
"We have found a 25 per cent to 30 per cent [range] reduction in the coldest parts of the year," he said.
Other than the reduced range, the car performs as well or better than a similar-sized vehicle in winter road conditions, he said, because the battery -the heaviest part of the vehicle -is low to the ground, making it very stable.
Similar to Saindon, Aben said the vehicle has required no maintenance other than tire changes in two years.
"In the first year I did the analysis. We spent $60 on electricity, when it would have been $400 in fuel [for a comparable-size car]," Aben said.
Between the four agencies the electric car has proven itself in a wide variety of roles, he said. At the university, students have been allowed to use the vehicle on weekends to promote student events, Aben said.
"They've showcased the car at the Shinerama... they've been able to showcase in situations it wouldn't otherwise," he said. "And the students have never brought it back dented or anything. It's been a very neat experience."
Aben said the university has also made the car available to staff members for two-day test drives to allow them to decide if they want to consider buying one for themselves.
Overall, the vehicle and four-agency partnership have, "been just fantastic," he said.
While Saindon and the four partner agencies are relative newcomers to driving electric, Regional District of Fraser-Fort George director Lara Beckett and her family have been driving a custom electric truck since July 2009.
Beckett, a longtime member of the provincial and federal Green parties, said it was a combination of Green sensibilities and curiosity which prompted her to attend a meeting of electric vehicle owners in Vancouver.
The meeting inspired her to purchase an electric conversion kit from B.C.-based Canadian Electric Vehicles Ltd. and convert a 1991 GMC Sonoma pickup truck from gasoline to electric.
"We asked the high school automotive class at College Heights secondary school help us with the conversion," she said. "We didn't have the mechanical knowledge and thought it would be an interesting experience for the students to be part of."
Purchasing the conversion kit was $12,000, plus another $6,000 for a bank of lead-acid batteries, she said.
With the lead-acid batteries the conversion was a partial success, she said. The vehicle had a range of about 80 km, enough to get the Becketts from their home outside Prince George to town to run errands and back.
"They worked well until the winter time. We just couldn't get up to speed on the highway when it was cold," she said. "They just couldn't do it in the winter."
In the third winter they had the truck parked, a light left on drained the batteries and they froze, she said.
"That was pretty devastating, and expensive," she said.
But in three years since they'd done the conversion the cost of lithium ion batteries had dropped significantly, she said. They still cost $13,000 to install, she said, but increased the range of the truck to 110 km and reduced the weight of the battery pack from about 1,700 pounds to 700 pounds. They also added a battery heater pad.
"That just improved the performance in the winter," she said.
They now use the truck for daily errands throughout the year.
"It just takes a little bit more planning, but you get into that habit," she said. "For just going into town and doing your shopping, picking up the kids it's fine"
Because of some of the technical challenges early on, they have only put 23,000 km on the truck since the conversion. Beckett said her husband has tracked their milage in a spreadsheet and calculated the cost of driving the vehicle is 4.5 cents per kilometre, compared to 12-15 cents per kilometre for a comparable gasoline-powered truck.
Beckett said she'd encourage anyone to consider an electric vehicle - but warned that doing a conversion requires more technical knowledge than buying a commercially-made electric vehicle off the lot.
"The first thing is the fear of getting stranded -range anxiety, they call it -after you've had it for a few weeks that goes away," she said. "It certainly changed the way I drive the vehicle. I think it has actually improved my driving skills, I pace myself more. For the majority of people, for 90 per cent of the time they use the vehicle, it's just fine. [And] every time you drive past a gas station you can just wave and smile."
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