By Jake Flannick
It was only a matter of time before they would find themselves driving one. But Joe Baum and his wife Lenore did not buy their first all-electric car a few years ago without seeking some reassurance.
Getting around in a gasoline-electric hybrid at the time, the couple spent a month logging the distance of their daily trips. They found that about half of them amounted to no more than 35 miles, and the vast majority, about 90 percent, were 65 miles or less.
“I said, ‘You know, it’s very practical,’” Baum says of buying a Nissan Leaf, a four-door hatchback with a roughly 85-mile range. It’s one of two plug-in cars the couple owns; the other is a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt. Both are powered by sunshine, via solar panels atop their home in Weaverville.
“It’s a great way to clean up the air,” Baum, a retired automotive engineer, says of their environmental impact. “No matter which way you look at it, you emit less of the bad stuff.”
The idea of electric cars is not, as some may think, a modern one. In the United States, they first appeared on the market in the late 19th century. Vehicles with internal combustion engines, however, eventually proved more attractive to consumers.
But in recent decades they have re-emerged as environmental stewardship has become increasingly relevant, marketed as a way to reduce air pollution. All major automakers these days assemble hybrid vehicles, most of them offering plug-in models. There are three types of electric vehicles: hybrids and plug-in hybrids, which use both gasoline and electricity, and all-electric models, whose motors run on electricity alone.
In the Asheville metropolitan area, there are more than 60 public charging stations for electric vehicles, some of them solar-powered. About seven years ago, there were none. Most stations are in Buncombe County, and last year the first one arrived in Madison County, in Hot Springs.
“In the last 15 years, air quality has improved tremendously,” says Bill Eaker, a senior environmental planner for the Land of Sky Regional Council, which promotes vehicles powered by alternative and renewable fuels. “Energy production is getting more and more clean. But we have to keep going further as the region grows,” he adds, noting that auto emission standards are becoming tighter. (Eaker, who drives a mint-green Toyota Prius, lays claim to being the second person he knew in Western North Carolina to own a gas-electric hybrid, also a Toyota Prius, in the early 2000s.)
A 50-year-old regional planning organization based in Asheville that represents local governments in Buncombe and surrounding counties, Land of Sky focuses on a range of issues from senior services and economic development to the environment and transportation. Working to improve air quality, it partners with local, state and federal agencies as well as alternative fuel and vehicle companies, offering technical assistance, arranging stakeholder meetings and applying for grants for local governments and businesses to help pay for vehicles and fueling and charging stations.
Air pollution in the region became a focal point in the mid-1990s, and not long thereafter Land of Sky launched a clean-air campaign that is still in action and that Eaker coordinates. In 2004, the organization created the Clean Vehicles Coalition to help clear the air of noxious gases such as nitrogen oxide, which are emitted by gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. The coalition, which Eaker also coordinates, includes fleet managers for public and private entities, auto dealerships and clean energy companies.
Then, around the time the Asheville metro area was recognized as part of the US Department of Energy’s Clean Cities initiative in 2012, the first public charging stations for electric vehicles arrived in the region, at Biltmore Park Town Square. One of the more remarkable ones, according to Eaker, is at the Asheville Outlets, including a so-called supercharger station for Tesla Motors cars that was installed in 2015.
Marking such progress, electric-car enthusiasts will gather at the mall on September 10 between noon and 4 p.m., as part of National Drive Electric Week, offering joy rides in some of the newest motorcars on the market. The promotional event in Asheville is being organized by the Blue Ridge EV Club, which was co-founded by the Baums, the Weaverville couple.
“It’s great for the environment,” Baum says of his electric car. “All the way around, it’s cleaner.”
To learn more about Land of Sky’s Clean Vehicles Coalition, visit cleanvehiclescoalition.org.