S.A. has its first Volt owner
Engineering designer sees electric car as the next step after his Toyota Prius.
By Tracy Idell Hamilton
Published 12:00 a.m., Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Don Heihn is the first Chevy Volt owner in San Antonio. By JENNIFER WHITNEY/ special to the Express-News
Don Heihn long has embraced new technology and energy efficiency.
In the early 1980s, he bought a Commodore VIC 20, one of the first personal computers. More recently, he installed solar panels on his roof. Until last month, he drove a hybird, the Toyota Prius.
Now, the engineering designer is the first person in San Antonio to own a Chevrolet Volt, General Motors Co.'s award-winning plug-in electric car, which went on sale last month in a handful of markets.
Heihn bought his in Austin — San Antonio Chevrolet dealers don't expect their first Volts until March.
“I think electric cars are the future,” Heihn said, standing between his silver Volt and a primer-gray MG Midget that he and a friend are converting into an electric car.
He sees the Volt as the next logical step after the Prius, which he described as a gas engine with an electric assist.
“The Volt is the opposite: an electric engine with a gas assist,” he said. “The gas doesn't come on 'til the battery is depleted.”
He offered a quick test ride, punching the “Sport” button on the sleek white center console to show off the sedan's get- up-and-go.
Then he floored it. The car accelerated so quickly a reporter's head bounced back against the black fabric seat.
The only thing missing? The sound of a gunning engine as the Volt shot silently down the street.
Heihn, a ball cap shading his eyes, smiled.
Sporty it may be, but once the Midget is complete — he hopes by the end of the year — Heihn will drive that to work while his wife Connie drives the Volt. Both will be able to plug in at work, albeit into 120-volt plugs.
That's the voltage of most home plugs. In general, they're capable of recharging an electric car, but more slowly than a 240-volt outlet. Most homes have 240-volt outlets for washers and dryers, but not much else.
The Heihns will install a 240-volt charging station, which can repower the Volt's batteries in as few as four hours.
They'll get help from CPS Energy and the city of San Antonio, which will rebate 50 percent, up to $1,000, toward the cost of a 240-volt vehicle charger.
The city gave the utility $50,000, part of a U.S. Department of Energy stimulus grant, to distribute on a first-come, first-served basis. Heihn is one of three people so far who have contacted the utility about a rebate.
He's no stranger to CPS' extensive rebate program, which is aimed at encouraging renewable and energy-efficient technologies.
CPS rebated $16,000 for the 6 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic panels he's installed on his roof; he received another $500 back for upgrading his air-conditioning system.
He thinks installing the charger will cost about $2,000 before the rebate.
Martha Wolf, who has a charger installed but won't see her electric Nissan Leaf delivered for another three to seven months, said her charger cost closer to $3,000, partly because she had to upgrade her electrical panel.
“Everything I read says prices will come down,” said Wolf, who chose the Leaf because its 100-mile driving range means she could make her 60-mile daily commute without recharging.
“It's better for the environment, better for the country — we can't keep sending our money over to Dubai — and better for me, since the price of gas keeps going up.”
And while CPS will have little to worry about while electric cars are scarce, the utility knows it needs to spread the word about the best times to charge — and the worst.
The nightmare scenario is thousands of drivers plugging their cars in as soon as they get home from work, when the demand and cost of electricity are at their highest. On a smaller scale, many electric cars in one neighborhood, plugged in at the same time, could overload a single line, disrupting service to all.
“There are still huge issues to work out,” said Paul Barham, senior director of energy market operations at CPS. In the not-too-distant future, CPS will have the ability, thanks to smart meter technology, to offer time-of-use pricing, which will more accurately reflect CPS' cost per kilowatt hour at different times of the day.
Today, those amounts are averaged into one price for consumers. Barham believes the prospect of paying more at peak times will encourage customers to plug in later in the evening.
Another benefit to charging up at night: doing so means largely charging up on wind power, since West Texas wind, which makes up most of CPS' renewable portfolio, blows hardest at night.
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