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EV in the TV

Electric vehicles face a chicken-and-egg challenge in the Treasure Valley

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There is a 1962 Mk2 Austin Healey Sprite sitting in Mark Hayes' garage, but no oil stains on the concrete beneath it. The exhaust pipes on the car are actually mounts for Hayes' bike. When he unscrews the gas cap, there's an outlet instead of a tank. The license plate says "ELECTRIC."

When he received the car as a gift from the best man at his wedding 35 years ago, it was nothing more than a rusted out, dented body. A few years ago, he spent about 2,000 hours rebuilding it from the wheels up. He decided to make it completely electric, and his wife dubbed it "Little Go Green."

Hayes is a tall guy with dark brown hair and a matching push-broom mustache. When he painted the convertible sports car, he paid special attention to the white stripes on the hood.

"I wanted to put some of myself into it," Hayes said. "If you look at it real close, if you look at the way the stripes come down, that's supposed to be my mustache."

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Little Go Green is one of only 165 completely electric cars on the road in Idaho.

Hayes, who retired from Hewlett-Packard a few years ago, has a background in mechanical engineering and a passion for green energy that came in handy when converting the car to run off batteries. He uses it exclusively as a commuter car, getting up to 50 miles on a full charge—which takes about three hours in his garage.

Everywhere he drives, people notice.

"It's like always being at a car show wherever you go," Hayes said. He uses the attention to educate curious folks about electric cars and other options that kick fossil fuels.

No doubt this is a major goal of the Sierra Club as well. In an effort to stall the impacts of climate change and clean up the air in the Treasure Valley, the Idaho chapter of the Sierra Club installed an electric vehicle charging station at its downtown office in September. On Nov. 18, the organization hosted a press conference to announce the charger's presence.

"If you didn't know what it was, you'd think it was a holder for a garden hose," said Harold Orien, chairman of the Sierra Club's Idaho chapter, during the press conference.

Using donations from its 2,300 members statewide, the Clipper Creek 240V EV Charging Station was installed for less than $1,300 on the corner of Fifth and Franklin streets. It will fully charge an electric car in four hours, and it's one of only a handful in Idaho.

"We wanted to lead by example," Sierra Club Idaho Director Zack Waterman told Boise Weekly. "We thought that it was an opportunity to educate folks, it was an opportunity to promote this technology and since we want to see other folks do the same thing, we figured we might as well take the first step and show how affordable it is and how awesome it is."

Waterman said the lack of electric cars on Idaho roads poses a "chicken-and-the-egg" problem: Drivers aren't as willing to invest in an electric car because the infrastructure to charge them is weak, but agencies like the Idaho Department of Transportation and the Ada County Highway District aren't willing to invest in the infrastructure because so few people drive electric cars.

There are a few chargers in the Boise area—two in the Lincoln Parking Garage at Boise State University, two in the airport's parking garage, a handful at HP and one at an electrician school in Garden City, but that shortage can create range anxiety for drivers of electric cars, which typically can't get more than 100 miles on a full charge.

Waterman said the downtown charger helps alleviate that "range anxiety." He's already seeing the new charging system getting use, with drivers using the station at least three times a week.

Reed Burkholder is one of those passionate drivers. He drives a maroon Nissan Leaf with the words "ZERO EMISSION" stamped along the sides and a license plate that reads "KICKGAS." He's a self-proclaimed "electric evangelist."

"As a town car, you can't beat these," Burkholder said. "In this car, I am getting 200 miles for the electricity cost of $3.70, the same price as one gallon of gasoline, which I think is freaking off the scale. This is a superior technology."

The power streaming into Burkholder's car from the Sierra Club's charger costs him nothing, as the Sierra Club absorbs the higher energy bill. Still, the charger only racks up 50 cents per hour of use.

Burkholder shows off the inside of his car, which cost $22,100 after tax credits—$7,500 from the federal government. On the dashboard, there's a percentage of battery charge next to the speedometer and that's about it. There's no fuel pump, no oil, no exhaust system, not even a transmission.

It's a good option for running errands, but not so good for road trips to the Sawtooth Mountains or McCall. Charging the car takes significantly more time than pulling up to a fuel pump.

"Yeah, but have you heard of a little thing called global climate change?" Burkholder said. "This car is part of the solution. Those pollute-mobiles are part of the problem."

While running for a seat on the Ada County Highway District Commission, J.J. Howard used his campaign to spread that exact message. The retired civil engineer conducted most of his campaign from his bike and seized almost every opportunity he could to talk about electric cars.

"I say what the voters want to hear, and then I go off on this tangent and I say we've gotta embrace this technology because one day, my car is going to be electric, it's going to pick up sensors in the roadway and it's going to drive me to town safely," Howard told BW before the Nov. 4 election, in which Howard lost to Paul Woods for the ACHD District 3 seat.

Despite talking about electric cars throughout his campaign, Howard said voters didn't seem interested.

"I can't get any traction with it," he said. "It just seems so distant to them. But it isn't distant. It's coming."

Howard envisions a day when oil, antifreeze and heavy metals don't drip onto the street, get washed down the storm gutter and, eventually, end up in the river. He said more electric vehicles would help free Boise from its yearly inversion-clogged skies.

Howard pushed the message that ACHD should be doing more to accommodate this futuristic technology knowing it wouldn't make him the most popular of the six candidates contending for the open seat.

"It's not about winning," Howard said. "It's about shining the light on this technology."

But like most drivers on Idaho's roads, Howard doesn't drive an electric car. He said he's waiting for the technology to get better—again, it's a case of the chicken and the egg.

While major infrastructure supporting electric vehicles may seem as improbable as Howard's win in the ACHD election, a city not so different from Boise has already taken a step in the electric direction.

Tesla Motors installed a six-bay "supercharge" station in Missoula, Mont., last month—charging an electric car in 30 minutes to an hour, according to the Missoulian. The charging station in Missoula is the final link in a network of chargers along Interstate 90 in Montana, including Billings, Big Timber and Bozeman.

About 360 miles southwest, in Boise, the Sierra Club will continue to monitor the use of the charging station, hoping to encourage other businesses and municipal buildings to install their own.

"Look, this organization [the Sierra Club] has cracked new ground with that device on that wall," electric-vehicle driver Reed Burkholder said. "Boise's first downtown public level-two charger."