Birmingham electric vehicle owners find happiness at their plug, not the pump

Birmingham electric vehicle owners find happiness at their plug, not the pump
Paul Franks enjoys the technology in addition to the fuel cost savings that come with his Tesla Model S electric vehicle. (contributed)

Blair Farley wanted an electric car so much that she moved into a house so she could plug it in. Paul Franks wants his car to stay as up to date as his smartphone.

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition discovered that these two Birmingham-area residents are a part of a growing trend in Alabama and across the nation – people who are shunning the gasoline pumps, taking advantage of a discount on their electric bills by driving electric vehicles and praising the use of clean alternative fuels.

“Gas prices are inching up again, as they always do,” said Mark Bentley, Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition executive director, “and people all across our state are finding ways to save money and help keep our air cleaner. Blair and Paul have unique views on electric vehicles based on their own experiences. The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition is the place to turn if you want to know more about great alternative energy vehicles.

“In the past, the high cost of electric vehicle batteries was a hindrance in EV sales,” Bentley said. “Since 2009, battery costs have fallen 71 percent and the cumulative sales of plug-in vehicles has risen to in excess of 450,000 nationwide. In Alabama, all EV sales – hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric – have risen 13.7 percent since 2013 with pure battery electrics such as Tesla and Leaf model sales increasing 55.6 percent.

“Major automobile manufacturers are now incorporating – or are planning to incorporate shortly – electric vehicles as a major part of their product offering,” Bentley said.

Farley, a research engineer at Southern Company, leases a Nissan Leaf SV. “I got to drive all kinds of electric vehicles in my work and do research around them, and I really wanted one,” she said. “The car I had was the one I got when I graduated from high school, so my first car choice was to lease the Leaf. I lived in an apartment and as much as I tried to convince them to get a charging station, I couldn’t get one. So, I moved into a house for it.

“I am incredibly enthusiastic about electric vehicles,” Farley said. “I plug it in outside my home, so it’s visible. My friends probably hear more about them than they care to, but I get a lot of questions about it. They do think it’s pretty cool, and I take them for rides to show off the acceleration.”

Franks is CEO of ThinkGard in Pelham, and has about 25 years in the high-tech industry. “I enjoy the technology part of the Tesla,” said Franks, who leases a 2016 Tesla Model S 70D. “I looked at all the different electric vehicle models that were out there that were true EVs. I wanted something that was longer range, something that had more of the tech than just the standard EVs today. Tesla struck a chord with me. I took a test drive while I was on a business trip in Atlanta and probably six months later I bit the bullet and got one. It was not just that it was an EV, although that’s what I wanted, it was more the technology in the car and the advancements coming in the future.

“I kind of look at it like my iPhone,” Franks said. “The smartphones get better with every update. Tesla is getting better with every update. The problem is that you can only go so far with software updates before you have to do a hardware update. They are going to need more sensors and cameras when they come out with the total self-driving model. By leasing, I can turn this one in and upgrade to a newer model with the latest hardware and let Tesla deal with the resale.”

By driving an electric vehicle, both Farley and Franks get a discount on their power bills for charging the cars between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. each day. The discount from Alabama Power is not just for charging the car, it is on the total electric bill. Farley said she schedules her dishwashing and clothes drying for after 9 p.m. to take advantage of the deal.

“The Alabama Power EV rate gives me cheaper electricity from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., shifting the load to the off-peak hours,” Farley said. “I tend to charge the car at night, but I could override that and charge whenever I want. I tend to plug it in and not think about it.”

Farley said her work research has taught her that 75 percent of the U.S. population drives 40 miles a day or less. “My commute is 32 miles,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know how long their commute is. We tend to associate how long we spend in the car with how far it is and that’s not true. When I charge my car, I only need it to be as ‘full’ as the next trip. I never charge it from zero to ‘full.’ If my next trip is to the grocery store, then I just need it to be charged for 2 miles. My charger gets 20 miles per hour on a charge, so it takes about two hours for a full round-trip commute.”

Franks’ more expensive Tesla has the technology to map out trips showing the location of superchargers, the free stations that charge batteries in minutes rather than hours. Franks said long-distance travel requires a little more planning than in his previous vehicles – but that’s part of the fun.

“I have the Model S 70D, which means it is the 70-kilowatt-hours battery,” he said. “If I went to a station and ‘filled’ it up, the rated range is 240 miles. I would say that probably, driving in Alabama where it’s fairly hilly and where it’s warm and I run the air conditioner, it’s more like 220 to 225 miles. The beauty of Tesla is they have superchargers all over the place. When you’re charging, it will tell you – even on your phone with their app – when it’s done or when you have enough to get to the next charger.”

Franks said his EV saves money on fuel costs and maintenance but he doesn’t see it being an overall money-saver. “Anybody who tries to justify buying a vehicle to save money, I don’t care if it’s a gas motor, EV or whatever, it just can’t be done,” he said. “There is no return on investment on this car because they are so expensive. That is something that will happen far down the road (as prices fall). To sell my friends on this EV, I tell them you’re buying a car that is getting better every single mile down the road. They are learning more and more to upgrade the vehicle. Once you buy a car, it’s done, it’s your car. With the Tesla, they are going to upgrade it. It may be software or it may be the hardware, but they are going to upgrade.

“This is by far the best vehicle I’ve ever owned. By far.”

Tesla has announced plans to sell a new model that starts at $35,000 that could be cheaper with incentives. In the future, Farley said, price will bring more EV models onto Alabama roads.

“I see larger batteries with more capacity and longer range,” she said. “The charge times will come down, too. I think we’ll see lots of models, a lot of plug-in hybrids and lots of full-electric vehicles. I don’t think there will be a single model to fit everyone’s needs. Some companies are also working on plug-in pickup trucks, too. The top three selling (traditional) vehicles in the U.S. are all pickups, so it’s definitely a large market out there.”

Franks said other manufacturers are showing interest in the EV market. “We’re starting to see manufacturers, who were laughing at Tesla at first, starting to get serious about electric vehicles now,” he said. “From the things I’m reading, I think by 2020 EVs will be just as cheap to buy as gas versions. By then, I bet it will seem that every other car on the road is an electric car.”

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