Q&A: USVI Advocates Answer Questions About Electric Vehicles

A Nissan Leaf at a charging station enjoys free power beachfront at Margaritaville. (Photo provided by St. Thomas Drive Electric day organizers)
A Nissan Leaf at a charging station enjoys free power beachfront at Margaritaville. (Photo provided by St. Thomas Drive Electric day organizers)

This week, St. Thomas electric vehicle owners and advocates are taking part in National Drive Electric Week events in an effort to encourage more Virgin Islanders to make the switch to electric. The local EV community has compiled and answered the most commonly asked questions about owning an electric vehicle in the USVI, covering such key issues as charging costs, power outage issues and battery life.

On Saturday, dozens of St. Thomas drivers will demonstrate the widespread availability and benefits of electric vehicles with an around-the-island tour and technology displays at the inaugural St. Thomas Drive Electric Day. The free event will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday at Market Square East, St. Thomas.

St. Thomas’s event is one of more than 280 across North America where electric vehicle owners and their communities will hold electric car parades, “tailpipe-free” tailgate parties, recognition of leaders promoting EVs, launches of new public EV charging stations and other public events.

There will be a Poker Run Rally for electric vehicle owners with registration beginning at 9 a.m., departure will be at 10 a.m. Participants can test drive the 2019 all-electric Nissan Leaf between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Electric vehicles and technology demonstrations will be on display throughout the day.

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Q. How does your electric vehicle perform on the hills?
A. Unlike gasoline engines, electric vehicles have instant torque. In a car, torque is the force that pistons put on the crankshaft, causing it and then the wheels to turn. Because the motor does not have gears like a typical gasoline vehicle, there is no lurching to shift up hills. If you want to go faster you just push on the pedal and the car goes. If you want to be more conservative with the battery you can drive at a constant speed up the hill. Without a transmission, there are a lot fewer moving parts, too. Going downhill, you can recharge the batteries by converting the braking mechanism back into electrons. This means that the brakes last longer too – no burning brake pads at the bottom of Mafolie Hill. You learn to drive differently, once you understand the ways to conserve range.

Q. Can electric vehicles be four-wheel drive?
A. Some are, but the Nissan Leaf, the most common and affordable EV available in the USVI, does not yet come in all-wheel drive. However, because of the low center of gravity and smooth power distribution curve, it has better traction than other front-wheel-drive vehicles with similar ground clearance so you’ll be hard pressed to find a driveway that needs it.

Q. How do charging costs compare to gasoline costs? Does your WAPA bill go up?
A. Your WAPA bill will go up, but most EV drivers report that it’s by less than what they paid per month for gasoline, and their maintenance expenses are minimal. One EV owner on St. Thomas said, “ Our WAPA went up about $30/month with the first car, and another $30/month with the second. It beats $30/week each for gas, and saves time. Plug in at home. Our maintenance expenses in three years for both cars have been less than $300 (tires).”

Q. What about high WAPA rates?
A. Despite the high WAPA rates in the VI, EVs are 50-200 percent more efficient on a cost per mile bases versus a gasoline vehicle of similar size. Further, if you are using a few solar panels to charge your car, you are now driving for FREE once you’ve paid off you panels. Additionally, when you put value on the belts, brakes, and fluids you no longer need to maintain or replace, the savings multiplies exponentially.

Q. How often do electric vehicles need to be charged? And how far can you drive?
A. Local electric vehicle owners report having to charge their cars every two to four days. According to one electric car owner on St. Thomas, “The car’s dashboard says about 82 miles per charge. That is more than enough to go anywhere on St. Thomas for the day. We typically recharge when the battery is less than 40 percent. We drove below 10 percent once, which was a bit scary, but it seemed like there was a lot of extra charge at the lower range of the battery.”

Q. Where do you charge the car?
A. You can use a standard 120V cord to charge from a wall outlet. It takes about 8 hours to get a full charge, which was good for an overnight. You can also install a 240V fast charger. That way, you can get back to full charge in about three hours, or, a quick recharge to “top-off” the battery in half an hour.

Q. What do electric car owners do when the power goes out?
A. Some EV owners have a second gasoline car. You can also charge from solar panels. Having about three panels directing energy right into the EV itself during the day would provide the freedom of mobility during a long power outage. In a bind, you could also charge at charging stations around the island given the WAPA grid does not supply them with energy.

Q. How do electric cars hold up during a hurricane?
A. An electric car has a sealed and pressurized battery pack. Therefore, and don’t go out of your way to test this, it is less likely to suffer mechanical damage driving through high water on flooded streets than a gasoline car. And because of the low center of gravity, it performs better in that water. A small investment in solar means you are charging your car at home when the power is out so you have mobility independence. And the best part is that you don’t have to wait in gas lines.

Q. How much does an EV cost?
A. Because of the $7,500 tax rebate for select EV models, it costs a lot less than a conventional gasoline vehicle of comparable interior luxury. The vehicle performance cannot be beaten by any but the higher-end luxury vehicles. Many people choose used electric vehicles, which are not eligible for the tax credit but are great deals.

Q. How do government EV tax credits work?
A. The U.S. government offers financial incentives for anyone who wants to buy a battery-powered automobile. To determine if you’ll get the largest incentive, consult with your local dealership. The Nissan Leaf still qualifies for the full $7,500 tax credits when bought brand new, while cars like the Toyota Prius Prime would only qualify for $4,502. In 2019, Tesla no longer receives the full $7,500. Their incentive got slashed to $3,750.

Q. How long do electric cars last?
A. Electric cars last longer than petrol cars because they have fewer moving parts and as a whole, there’s less strain on components. With petrol cars, problems tend to be more mechanical in nature.

Q. How often do you have to replace the battery?
A. In most EV’s, you won’t have to replace the battery in its lifetime. It’s not uncommon to have these vehicles go hundreds of thousands of miles on the original battery. Factors such as extreme heat, cold, and rapid charging play a significant role in the lifespan. There is much discussion about how long the useful life of the Lithium Ion batteries is. They do indeed slowly decay over time and lose potential range. With proper care they can last 10 years or more before becoming weak. It has much to do with how they are charged and maintained. The replacement and refurbishment market is exploding with options and it’s a large focus of many entrepreneurs to solve this issue and secondary markets are popping up every day.

Q. What if the battery does die?
A. The market for battery replacement already exists and one can replace a pack for a new one for approximately $6,000, rending the vehicle practically brand new. By almost any measure, the replacement cost divided by the life of the pack is a monthly cost lower to maintain than a gasoline car. Additionally, refurbished packs are hitting the market for $2,000.

Q. How can I care for my car’s battery?
A. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, keeping your electric car fully charged can actually damage its battery, because of the heat generated during recharging. Most lithium-ion batteries perform at their best when they’re at between 50 and 80 percent of capacity. Charging the last 20 percent of a battery also takes longer than the first 80%. Overcharging can also reduce capacity at a higher rate, which means you should not leave the car plugged in after it has reached between 80 and 100 percent of its charge. The Nissan Leaf has a timer tool to limit the amount of charge the vehicle will receive. Another factor is temperature. Extreme cold or heat can negatively affect your car’s battery and therefore the range you can travel.

Local partners in National Drive Electric Week include DriveGreenVI, ProSolar, Magens Bay Authority, Virgin Islands Energy Office, Rotary Club of St. Thomas East, Yacht Haven Grand, Margaritaville Vacation Club, V.I. Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy, and the Island Green Living Association. Plug In America, the Sierra Club and the Electric Auto Association are national organizers. The Nissan LEAF is the exclusive national automotive sponsor.

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