Electric drivers confident in their choice


While supply issues and the delayed introduction of Government grants held up the arrival of electric cars, the first owners here are convinced that electric vehicle technology is not going away, writes RONAN McGREEVY

WITH THE ARRIVAL of the much-hyped electric car, Irish motorists are among the first in Europe to follow the electric way, pioneers in an experiment in which Ireland is in the vanguard, but which could also turn out to be another false dawn for the electric car – to go with all the previous false dawns.

The introduction of the Nissan Leaf coincided with record prices at the pump for Irish motorists last month, incentive in itself for buying a vehicle which its makers claim costs just a tenth of the cost of a conventional petrol car to run.

The Nissan Leaf came to Ireland trailing clouds of glory with its designation as the European Car of the Year for 2011, and the general feeling from reviewers is that the company would appear to have squared the circle of creating a viable mass-market electric car.

Set against that is the cost (€30,000), delays in rolling out charge points to make electricity easily available, the limited range (between 120km and 160km on a charge) and uncertainty over the battery life.

None of this has deterred the hardy motorists who have bought the first cars. When the former president of University College Cork Prof Gerry Wrixon drove away from Windsor Motors in Cork in a Nissan Leaf, he became the first person in the county to buy one.

Prof Wrixon is also hoping for another first. He believes he can be the first motorist in Ireland to effectively run his car for nothing and have emission-free driving.

He is striving to achieve this by charging off the photo voltaic (PV) array at his home in Kinsale.

Prof Wrixon’s 6 sq m array generates 7,200 kilowatt (kW) hours a year; he estimates that his car will need 5,000kW a year to satisfy his driving requirements, which are around 10,000km a year. His journeys are mostly short ones to Cork city and back.

He has noted that on several journeys which are mostly downhill the range of the car actually increases because of the regeneration of the batteries, and he says the 160km range is valid if motorists drive in eco-mode by maintaining a moderate speed.

To date he’s driven more than 600km and has only charged the car off the mains once.

He also estimates that 90 to 95 per cent of the time he will charge the Leaf directly from the PV array. When he has to use the mains, he says, he will offset that by selling surplus electricity from his PV back to the grid.

The former professor of microelectronics and head of the Tyndall Institute is enthusiastic about PV.

He believes that a crescent of coast, stretching from the south-east to west Cork, has enough sunshine to make PV a viable proposition for powering electric cars in spite of Ireland’s generally cool climate.

“The cooler the ambient temperature for the solar cells, the more efficient they are at generating energy,” he says. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but it works.”

Prof Wrixon is retired and also owns a Toyota Prius. At the other end of the scale Brian Cullen is a 35-year-old IT consultant who lives in Killiney, Co Dublin, with a wife and two young children.

He has traded in his Ford Mondeo for the Nissan Leaf as the family’s sole car. He describes the electric car as a “no-brainer in a country where the large urban areas are only a single rapid charge away. For Ireland it works, it really does.”

To date the furthest he has driven has been from Newcastle in Dublin to Glendalough, a round trip of 108km, though a fellow Nissan Leaf driver from Wexford drove 137km to meet him in Dublin on a single charge.

Though the range of the Leaf is the single biggest deterrent to motorists, he believes it will not be a major issue once charging points are rolled out.

Otherwise he describes the Leaf as a “50-grand car” which cost €30,000. “You get a lot of bang for your buck. It has a lot of features. It has got a five-star NCAP , ABS, climate control, automatic lights and window wipers, the navigational system, the transmission, the quietness, the smoothness and the comfort. It reminds me of the Volvo V70.

“It is not like ‘who killed the electric car’. Early users take risks, but this car is not going to go away,” he said.

Mr Cullen has set up a website, irishevowners.com, for those who want a community forum to talk about the car.

Nissan’s product director Peter Dynan said the company has sold 50 Leafs with orders for another 100.

Nisssan hopes to sell between 600 and 700 by the end of the first quarter next year, down from the initial estimates of more than 1,000, but he stressed that this was a result of the supply problem and delays in the infrastructure.

“For 90 per cent of motorists out there, the Leaf will not be for them, but for the other 10 per cent it makes perfect sense. We believe the Leaf will do well over time.”