Blaine couple make the switch to plug-in vehicles

It took some time for Megan Villella to become comfortable with the idea of driving an electric car that you need to plug into a garage outlet every night.

Sam and Megan Villella of Blaine have been very pleased with their plug-in vehicles. The Tesla Model S (left) is completely battery powered. The Chevrolet Volt (right) has a 9.5-gallon gas tank back-up, but still must be plugged in every night to recharge the battery, which hybrid car owners do not have to do. Photo by Eric Hagen
Sam and Megan Villella of Blaine have been very pleased with their plug-in vehicles. The Tesla Model S (left) is completely battery powered. The Chevrolet Volt (right) has a 9.5-gallon gas tank back-up, but still must be plugged in every night to recharge the battery, which hybrid car owners do not have to do. Photo by Eric Hagen

Her husband Sam Villella was a persistent advocate and she is happy to have made the switch from a gasoline-powered Volkswagen Jetta to a plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt, which does include a 9.5-gallon gas tank back-up.

“I was pretty negative about it. I don’t know why. I guess just because it was something new and I wasn’t quite sure, like with anything, if it was going to be all that,” Megan said. “I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked it. How smooth it drove is what sold me.”

This Blaine couple is among a growing number of consumers willing to drive plug-in electric vehicles. According to Electric Drive Transportation Association, 17,735 plug-in vehicles were sold in 2011, 52,835 in 2012 and 96,702 in 2013. These numbers still dwarf other automobile sales. In 2013 alone there were over 15.53 million vehicles sold in the United States, including 495,530 hybrids.

Robert Moffitt said plug-in electric vehicles is a niche market similar to hybrids a decade ago, which use electric motors and batteries to reduce the gasoline engine’s consumption but do not need to be plugged in because the battery recharges while you are braking or coasting.

“As battery technology improves, the popularity of these vehicles will grow,” said Moffitt, who serves as communications director for the Twin Cities Clean Air Coalition.

Sam, 40, and Megan, 34, were already averaging over 40 miles per gallon on the highway with their two Volkswagen Jetta TDIs.

Sam eventually convinced his wife to lease a Chevrolet Volt starting in January 2012 once they saw that the vehicle would have enough range to take her on the 35-mile round trip between their Blaine home and her job in Brooklyn Park.

One year later, they made a huge financial commitment by purchasing a Tesla Model S that cost about $90,000 after taxes, title and licensing fees, but before he received the maximum $7,500 federal tax credit for a plug-in vehicle.

“For him, this was a big decision. He’s very frugal,” Megan said.

What sold Sam were the savings in gas and maintenance. The Tesla has an eight-year, unlimited miles warranty. But maintenance should be minimal, other than the occasional tire rotation. Oil changes are unnecessary because there is no gasoline tank. He said he could drive up to 300 miles on a nice summer day without recharging and about 200 miles on a winter day.

He also loved the quiet drive and smooth acceleration because of the lack of gear changes.

“I like the idea of it, strictly from an efficiency standpoint,” Sam said. “Once you test drive one, it’s quite impressive.”

Not everyone can afford a luxury vehicle, so vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF will be much more common. Brian Brockman, Nissan’s senior manager of corporate communications, said the 22,610 Nissan LEAFs sold in 2013 was a 130 percent increase over 2012.

According to Brockman, what helped boost sales is the suggested retail price of the Nissan LEAF dropped by $6,000 between the 2012 and 2013. This was possible because the company introduced a more basic option without perks such as a navigation system and steel wheel covers and the company moved production from Japan to Tennessee.

“We expect sales to increase as people learn more about EVs (electric vehicles),” Brockman said.

Brockman said increasing consumer awareness about plug-in electric vehicles will be one of the challenges facing the automobile industry going forward. The LEAF can be a great car for many commuters, but might not be the right fit for driving 120 miles in a day, he said. The 2014 Nissan LEAF tests showed it could go 84 miles if fully charged, but Brockman said driving habits factor in.

General Motors could not be reached for comment for this article.

The Chevy Volt battery includes enough juice for Megan to make the 35-mile round trip between Blaine and Brooklyn Park on most days. Sam said the Volt will automatically turn on the gas engine to generate heat for the lithium ion batteries when it gets too far below freezing temperatures, which happened a lot this winter.

“We’ve burnt more gas in the last two months than we have in the first two years –just because it’s been so brutally cold,” Sam said. The Volt has almost 25,000 miles on it, but Sam said it has only burned through 80 gallons of gas.

Sam knows that the newer model Volts allow drivers more flexibility to keep using their batteries in cold temperatures. The main reason they leased the Volt at the time was because of concern about depreciation as the battery technology improved.

In contrast, the Tesla takes power from the batteries to generate heat. If it sits for a long period in extreme heat or cold it will lose battery charge, Sam said.

Brockman and Moffitt said what will also help with plug-in vehicle sales is continuing to develop the charging station infrastructure. Tesla comes with an in-dash computer with Internet access and points out all Tesla charging stations where its owners can recharge for free. The nearest charging stations to the Twin Cities are in Albert Lea and La Crosse, Wis.

There are numerous other charging options beyond your garage. You just have to know where to look. Sam said PlugShare and ChargePoint are a couple of apps on the market that help you find places to plug in.

The challenge is there is no consistency between locations. Locations such as Goodwill or the Mall of America offer free access. Others charge a flat fee or an amount based on how long you are plugged in. You could also plug in your vehicle at the campground if an outlet is available.

“We just have to make sure we know how many miles we’re going. We have to plan ahead a little bit more,” Megan said.

The Villellas are in an optimal situation because they have two vehicles that can meet their various needs.

“The Volt is great for going to the grocery store, taking the kids to soccer, picking the kids up from school,” Sam said.

On the other hand, they pull the Tesla out of the garage when taking a trip to the Minnesota Zoo or if they are going out of town.

This past Labor Day weekend, Sam, Megan and their two kids Kincaid, 6, and Khyber, 4, took the Tesla up to Lake Vermilion. The drive was 228 miles and the Tesla gauge reported they still had 55 miles of range.

However, the cabin they stayed at only had a 110 killowatt-hour outlet so it took two-and-a-half days to fully charge the vehicle.

Sam needed a vehicle with a longer range because he works at the Cambridge Medical Center. He remembers one day “in the dead of winter” driving from Blaine to Cambridge and then to a convention in St. Cloud before driving back to Blaine and still having 100 miles of range on the battery.

“It’s like with an iPad or a MacBook. If you leave your stuff dead, uncharged, for extended periods in the cold or leave them sit in the sun on the beach that’s bad for them,” Sam said.

Connexus Energy program

Before the Jetta, Sam drove a 2010 Chevrolet Camaro and was spending $70 a week on gas.

The Villellas now pay $60 to $65 a month to charge their two vehicles at home, but they said it could have been more had it not been for a new program that allows customers to pay lower rates to charge their plug-in electric vehicles. Sam is campaigning to be on the Connexus Energy Board of Directors.

Ken Glaser, energy efficiency programs coordinator for Connexus, said about 20 customer vehicles are part of this new option.

A few of these people have also chosen to install a time-of-day meter that charges you for the electricity you use throughout your home, including to charge your vehicle. Electric car owners who get this specialized meter get a $270 rebate. In addition to the base $9.50 monthly fee, they would pay a maximum of $0.438 per kwh during peak summer periods on weekdays in June through September and at 4-8 p.m. If they wait after 8 p.m. to plug in their vehicle and use the most electricity, the year-round off-peak rate would be $0.057 per kwh.

According to its website, the regular Connexus rates are $0.113 per kwh in June through September and $0.103 per kwh in October through May.

Contact Glaser at 763-323-2648 or [email protected] for more information.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]

  • Jay

    “The Volt is great for going to the grocery store, taking the kids to soccer, picking the kids up from school,” Sam said.
    I realize that this statement was made in the context of going fully on electric, but the Volt really is a multi-purpose vehicle. It is nice to see families with multiple plug-in vehicles. However, the beauty of the Volt is it can be your only car that meets your daily commutes and longer trips. I currently have 15,000+ miles on my 2013 Volt and have driven it 90% on electricity. This past winter was indeed brutal and the engine ran quite often as our temps went below 15F (the lowest setting allowed), but as we move on to spring I’ll be going almost fully on electric again, save for some longer trips.

  • Bruce Parmenter

    The headline
    >Blaine couple make the vehicle switch, go all electric<
    is misleading. The couple are not a two Electric Vehicle (EV) driving couple. One (the Tesla) is an EV, the other (the Volt) is not an EV, but a plug-in-hybrid (phev/pih).

    There is nothing wrong with a pih. It fits the needs of many drivers. But GM began calling it an EV, or ELR which is misleading the public, and media outlet continue the misinformation by drinking GM's koolaid, saying pih are EVs (and they are not).

    All the pih drivers I have talked to love their vehicle. And most of them drive it in electric-only mode most of the time (quite wise: costs less to run, saves the engine, etc.). But like the commenter, Jay, where a driver lives, their weather, driving style/patterns, or public charging (EVSE) infrastructure, may let them decide to drive a pih over an EV. And that is their choice.

    But it is not a choice if the consumer is constantly bombarded with misleading/misinformation confusing which-witch-is-which. At EVents like the annual National Plugin Day that occurs all across the U.S. and in many other locations, as a plugin (the term is used for both EVs and pih) advocate, I talk to the public in an effort to help them understand. Many of them are still confused by all that the media has pumped out. When they understand which vehicle is which (EV, pih, old-school hybrid/hev, mild-hybrid, fcv, etc.) they are not happy that the media information that they took as fact had mislead them.

    So, media outlet, please do not call a plug-in-hybrid an Electric Vehicle. A more correct term would be to call them both plugins or plugin vehicles. Perhaps the headline would be something like:
    Blaine couple make the vehicle switch, and go all plugin


  • jeremy mess

    The headline.
    Couple make switch to coal power car . Most of are power comes from coal, so the power for these cars more than likely come from coal . Driving cars like this does not mean your saving the world. These car are political statements.

    • Eric Sandeen

      Although the article doesn’t mention it, they also have solar PV on their roof, so you’ve made some assumptions there…

      • Bill

        I’ve got solar on my roof, but drive a 50 MPG gasoline powered vehicle. I’ll bet that my solar offsets more carbon than solar applied to a coal-fired car of similar mechanical efficiency. You might just do the math to see how much solar it takes to provide the 250 watt-hours per mile required here.

  • Jay

    Jeremy, Saving the world is just one of the reasons to buy plug-in cars. Have you ever driven one? Most converts buy them for the quiet & smooth ride due to electric propulsion. Most of these cars are quick off the blocks due to instant torque, not that they are supposed to be like race cars, but it’s nice to know you have that if you need it. Most converts love the advanced powertrain and gadgets that come packaged with a Tesla or a Volt or a Leaf, etc.
    Yes, many areas of the country use coal as their source of electricity, but for some that is a positive too – because that energy source is not imported from the Middle East or another country – some plug-in buyers prefer that.
    But there are many areas too where they have renewable energy (solar, hydro, wind) in their mix of sources for electricity. There are EV owners who have solar panels at home and some have windmills too. Most plug-in cars will charge at home and at work, and the public charging infrastructure continues to grow. As more renewable sources enter the mix, the switch from coal for electricity for these areas benefit electricity users. They don’t need to change anything in their car no matter what produces your electricity. And studies show that even if coal were the source, an EV still produces less pollutants from it than a car burning gas.

  • Jim Bendtsen

    How nice to see that some greenies can afford several high priced cars, subsidized by the rest of us. Let me know when I can get my electric F150 to go from Ramsey to downtown, back home, then up to Pine River and back on one charge, while hauling a couple people, a load of tools and materials. Unicorns and rainbows anyone?

  • R.Hill

    Jay–As The Obama Administration is trying to make coal fired plants go bankrupt. The cost of electricity will go up dramatically.

  • Jim Bendtsen

    How nice that some greenies can afford several high priced subsidized vehicles. Few can or would want to if they paid the actual, unsubsidized cost. Let me know when I can buy an electric F150 which I can drive from Ramsey to downtown and back, then up to Brainerd with several passengers, a load of tools and materials. As for electing this person to any electric utility: This is exactly the type of person the rest of us don’t want to have a policy position with any electric utility. They will skew the company to force the rest of us to further subsidize other people’s purchases of products and electric rates. Let those who want to use electric vehicles pay market rates and let the market determine success or failure.