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Monday, January 13, 2014

Unplug your car and drive over to Science Cafe on Wednesday

David Brooks

I spend an awful lot of my life sitting atop 100 pounds of carcinogenic explosives. That seems kind of stupid but you do it too, and so does everybody else, because we don’t have much alternative.

Or, rather, we didn’t have much alternative to driving gasoline cars until recently. Nowadays we could drive electric cars, ditching those sloshing tubs of a volatile liquid with 12 times the energy density of gunpowder in favor of boxes of chemicals that shoot out electrons. ...

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I spend an awful lot of my life sitting atop 100 pounds of carcinogenic explosives. That seems kind of stupid but you do it too, and so does everybody else, because we don’t have much alternative.

Or, rather, we didn’t have much alternative to driving gasoline cars until recently. Nowadays we could drive electric cars, ditching those sloshing tubs of a volatile liquid with 12 times the energy density of gunpowder in favor of boxes of chemicals that shoot out electrons.

Those boxes have their own issues, as a couple of battery fires in Tesla sportscars have shown, but from a safety and environmental point of view they are butterflies and rainbows compared to petroleum-based fuels.

So why aren’t we all in electric cars? Well, there’s the whole running-out-of-energy fear, among other things.

But it’s an interesting question, which is why this week’s Science Cafe will discuss electric cars – specifically whether they make sense in New Hampshire, where cold weather reduces battery life and charging stations are almost nonexistent.

As always, it’s free and open to all. It starts at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15, at Killarney’s Irish Pub in Nashua.

Come and have dinner and a beer, ask questions of our three expert panelists, or just listen and learn.

One of our panelists, Steve Ncala, certainly thinks electric cars make sense, since he sells about 80 percent of the Leaf cars at Peters Nissan in Nashua.

The other panelists are from PSNH’s parent, Northeast Utilities – which has to handle the electric grid as we start plugging cars into it – and the state coordinator of U.S. Department of Energy program to reduce petroleum consumption through alternative fuels for transportation, including electricity. It’s a nice mix of expertise, and hopefully things won’t get messed up by our fumble-tongued moderator (that would be me).

The Leaf is the nation’s best-selling electric car – the Chevy Volt is a hybrid, albeit a very interesting one – and Nissan dealerships provide the bulk of the state’s public car-charging stations, so Science Cafe wanted some perspective on how they’re doing.

Ncala says they’re doing pretty well, partly because of our tech-y surroundings.

“A lot of the buyers are engineers,” he said.

And they’re really, really prepared.

“A regular consumer who says I’m looking for a car that has great gas mileage, they tend to be scared of it, because they don’t know much about it, don’t have a neighbor that drives the same car. ... The engineers have calculated it down to a penny, how much it’s going to cost. They know everything about it,” he said.

All that Internet preparation is actually feeding the supply chain.

“The more people inquire online, the more Nissan looks at it. Nissan has given out two times more inventory than when they first came in,” Ncala said.

Let’s not get carried away, however: In 2013 Nissan sold 22,610 Leaf cars. (Is it “Leafs” or “Leaves”? I’ll be sure to ask Ncala at the Cafe.)

That is more than double the 2012 total, which is impressive, but it’s still only 3 percent of the company’s U.S. vehicle sales. Most of those were leases, since that financing method gives people a $7,500 federal incentive up front, instead of when taxes are paid.

So they’re still very much a niche market, and probably will be for many years – if not forever.

But it’s an niche that’s expanding, as the announcement that one of Mario Andretti’s grandsons has singed up for an electric version of racing Formula 1-like cars. You can thank the super-sexy Tesla sports car for the public’s ability to link the concepts “electric car” and “non-geeky,” but the mainstream Leaf is happy to go along.

The biggest problem with electric cars is, of course, range and 100 miles in between “fill-ups” in a Leaf, depending on circumstances can be challenging. In cold weather, studies indicate, that number can fall by 20 percent or more.

Getting a fill-up is still hard. Peters Nissan was the first public charging station in the city and we still only have two – Toyota of Nashua has one now, targeting its plug-in hybrids since Toyota doesn’t make an electric car.

As far as I can tell from online maps, more than three-quarters of the charging stations in New Hampshire are at Nissan dealerships, which leaves you in the lurch when traipsing through most of the state.

But I think electric cars are going to be a bigger part of our roadway scene, even if they don’t take it over. So why not show up and join the discussion about it now?

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).