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Options growing for charging electric cars

Gillian Holmquist knows a thing or two about electric vehicles. Her husband, Randy, owns Canadian Electric Vehicles, an Errington-based firm that sells electric conversion kits that turn gas-guzzling combustion vehicles into electric ones.

Gillian Holmquist knows a thing or two about electric vehicles. Her husband, Randy, owns Canadian Electric Vehicles, an Errington-based firm that sells electric conversion kits that turn gas-guzzling combustion vehicles into electric ones.

She drives a 1998 Volkswagen Beetle that has been through the conversion process.

"I've been the company's guinea pig/stunt driver for nearly 20 years now," she said with a chuckle.

At first, she said, they used lead acid batteries, and the range was very limited. This vehicle is the first she's had with a lithium battery, and it's more than doubled her range.

"Now it's not a problem - the leash is much, much longer."

That long leash allows Holmquist to take a roundtrip from Errington to Nanaimo without having to recharge her vehicle.

But when she stops by the Vancouver Island Regional Library in the downtown core, she always plugs her car into one of the city's four public charging stations in the parkade below.

Another charge station is located in the Port Theatre parkade, and two are at Beban Park.

"The first time I plugged in, it was so exciting I wished I was one of those Twitter people," she said.

"I wanted to shout it out to the world, because we've been at this for 20 years. It was like a dream. You know, like 'Wow, I'm living the future.' It was so cool."

Holmquist is one of a minority of drivers who use electric vehicles, however.

There are only 10 registered electric vehicles in Nanaimo, according to ICBC, and only 65 on Vancouver Island.

But there is a growing effort to change that in Nanaimo and provincewide.

"I think we can all agree that [the use of electric vehicles] is going to grow between now and 50 years from now," said Susan Clift, director of engineering and public works for the City of Nanaimo.

"Our responsibility is to make sure we continue to monitor the uptake on these vehicles and the need for infrastructure. And so that's what we're planning to do, and that's what we're doing now. It's a very chicken and egg thing."

Holmquist said that despite the environmental benefits, increased range and fuel savings associated with electric vehicles, many people are still reluctant to invest in them because of a lack of infrastructure to accommodate them.

"And that's why it's really important for municipalities and businesses to step up and provide that," she said.

Newcastle Nissan salesman Ryan Biggs said the dealership has sold approximately 20 all-electric Nissan Leafs during 2011 and 2012.

He said teachers, other professionals and people who do a lot of commuting downtown tend to like the vehicle, but many potential buyers express two common fears: limited range and battery life.

"People are scared of being left on the side of the road," he said, noting, however, that the vehicles come with a roadside assistance package and a 10-year battery lifespan.

Nanaimo was one of 12 local and regional governments to apply for a provincial planning grant administered by the Fraser Basin Council, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable projects.

The funding is available thanks to the $2.7-million Community Charging Infrastructure Fund announced in April by Environment Minister Terry Lake, which aims to kickstart a network of up to 570 charging stations across the province.

Both Nanaimo and the Regional District of Nanaimo received grants to help plan and identify priority locations for up to 12 Level 2 (220-volt) charging stations in each of the jurisdictions.

Nanaimo fleet manager Bruce Labelle said the city is primarily interested in working with "community hand-raisers" in the private sector who are interested in having a charging station on their properties.

Regional district staff have compiled a long list of potentially suitable sites, and will be contacting owners of the top-ranked sites next week to gauge their interest.

The deadline to prioritize sites for charging stations rolls around at the end of November. The city also hasn't ruled out trying for a charging stations incentive offered under the fund, which can cover up to 75 per cent of eligible costs of a station, to a maximum of $4,000.

There are also two stations slated for installation at Woodgrove Centre, and Shape Properties Corp. has received grant funding for two stations at Nanaimo North Town Centre.

The Town of Qualicum Beach has already powered ahead and received a grant to implement five public charging stations throughout the town, in addition to the five stations already installed in the municipality.

The town estimates it has reduced its carbon footprint by 2.5 tonnes of CO2 since it began using two electric vehicles and one hybrid vehicle in 2011.

But Nanaimo is no slouch in the electric-car game either. In addition to providing the four public charging stations, the city runs three all-electric Nissan Leafs - two 2011 models and one 2012 - as well as an allelectric Ford Ranger converted with a kit from Canadian Electric Vehicles. The Leafs are expected to yield the city about $6,000 each in fuel savings over their 10-year life span.

"They have performed flawlessly," said Labelle "We've never had a problem with them. They're beautiful."

The cars are currently kept at the city's aboveground parking lot off Franklyn Street.

Each electric vehicle space includes a Level 2 charging station, which can charge a fully depleted 2011 Leaf battery in about seven hours.

The 2012 model, equipped with a higher onboard converter, can fully charge in just four hours.

But the cars - with an estimated range of 180 kilometres - are always kept plugged in when they aren't being used, a practice staff call "opportunity charging." "I bet they never [fall] below 50 per cent," said Labelle.