June 21, 2011
A new leaf
It was Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal who finally convinced me to buy the Nissan Leaf.
Almost a year ago, I heard about the car — an all-electric production vehicle that would deliver 100 miles per charge, had all the room of a Prius and cost, after $16,000 in government rebates and subsidies, less than a cheap Kia. I immediately logged on to the Nissan Web site and plunked down a $99 deposit.
Many technical delays and a tsunami later, the Nissan Leaf hit the market. But by then I was wary. When I made my reservation, the hyper-friendly Nissan e-mails assured me I’d receive a free, government-subsidized 220-volt charging station in my driveway. The date came to pick up the car, but due to an incredible corporate/government muck-up, I had no simple way to charge it.
That only increased my fear of being an early adopter. The first mass-produced electric car, the General Motors EV1, released with great enthusiasm in the mid-1990s, faced an ending so sudden and final, they made a movie about it. A few years ago, not long after I bought a VW Passat TDI to drive on biodiesel, California essentially outlawed its sale. I worried that in my personal quest to drive oil-free, I’d again come to a dead end.
So I was about to go back to gas … until I saw the prince. There he was on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” the grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia, saying that he wanted oil prices to come down from more than $100 a barrel to $70 or $80.
“We don’t want the West to go and find alternatives,” bin Talal said, “because, clearly, the higher the price of oil goes, the more they have incentives to go and find alternatives.”
And that would be terrible. A viable set of alternatives to oil would deprive oppressive Middle East regimes of their single most important source of power. It would shrink the wallets of those who fund terror and who spread the most extreme forms of Islam. It would deprive many of Israel’s enemies of their geopolitical influence. It would help save us from the doom of climate change. Why would any sane Saudi prince want that?
Here’s what I did, and I realize this is somewhat of a family paper. I looked at that smug, but very honest, man on TV, and I said, out loud, “Screw you.”
I called Nissan and arranged delivery of my Leaf. The guy at the dealership told me I now owned the 1,200th one in America. I gulped.
It’s been two weeks now, and I can tell you the car, as a car, is great. Electric power comes on all at once — think of flipping a light switch — so the Leaf accelerates like a rocket. It handles swiftly, in absolute silence.
It’s roomy inside, with far better space and visibility than a Prius. The center console is 22nd century — I can turn the car on, check and charge its battery, control its cooling and heating all via an iPhone app.
The gulp part is that while I was ready for the Leaf, the Leaf isn’t quite ready for Los Angeles, or vice versa.
One problem is that the car, which is advertised as getting 100 miles per charge, gets significantly less when you turn on the air conditioning.
I thought to ask about the AC after I signed the leasing documents.
“Yeah,” the salesman said. “Um, you might want to just roll the windows down.”
When I chose not to drive through sweltering heat with freeway exhaust in my face, the little readout that counts down my miles-to-go from 100 drops precipitously. The dealer told me AC uses 30 percent more power. I’m seeing it’s more like 50. Practically, that means last Sunday I couldn’t drive my car from Venice to the Brandeis-Bardin Campus, out in Simi Valley, for an appointment. It’s only 65 miles roundtrip, but with AC, I’d use up all 100. I could do it, I explained to my wife, but I’d need a really long extension cord.
That brings me to the second, and biggest, problem. Those promised home charging stations, subsidized by the federal government and the DWP, have yet to materialize. As near as I can determine, the company with the federal contract to install the Blink charger — and receive $1,800 from the feds — got in a tussle with our own Department of Water and Power after L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the DWP would give customers $2,000 toward the cost of a home charger and vastly reduced rates.
It seems the contractor, ECOtality, and the subcontractors all wanted to make sure that government largess ended up in their pockets, not in the consumer’s. An electrician I consulted with predicted jacked-up installation costs — all on the taxpayers’ dime. Meanwhile, until all the deals could be worked out, we early adopters would just have to plug our cars into a wall socket.
The Leaf, I should add, takes a half hour to charge at 440 volts, seven hours at 220 volts, and 22 hours at 110 volts. (The dealer proudly pointed out that my model comes with a 440-volt charging port. “Where can I find a 440 charger?” I asked, all excited. “I think in Germany,” he said.)
After two weeks, I still don’t have a convenient way to charge my quick-to-deplete car at home.
Or anywhere else, for that matter. There are just a handful of public chargers scattered around Southern California. The majority seem to be located in Santa Monica, and downtown, in the parking lot of the DWP.
Neither the once-eager dealer nor the contractors are returning my calls or e-mails. But I called the DWP to find out why sticking it to the Saudis is still so frustrating. Raymond Harper, the EV Project coordinator, assured me his agency is not at fault.
“The mayor’s objective is to make L.A. the electric car capital of the world,” Harper said. “That can’t happen unless the DWP is cooperating with whatever technology is available.”
Kudos to our mayor for being all pro-green, I said to Harper, but maybe all these charging issues could have been dealt with before Angelenos started buying electric cars. If a year ago I knew Nissan was coming out with the Leaf, didn’t the government? If you want to encourage your citizens to go green, it helps not to slap around the first people on the bandwagon.
There is no path to freedom, security and economic and environmental well-being in America, the Middle East and Israel that doesn’t include eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. Period. Each one of us can choose to be a part of the solution. If I have to drive a swell car while dealing with bureaucratic headaches, well, that’s a small price to wipe that grin off Prince bin Talal’s face.
Meanwhile, I spotted just one other Leaf in Los Angeles over the past week. It was driving beside me on the freeway — with its windows down.
Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow Rob Eshman’s Leaf adventures at jewishjournal.com/foodaism or @foodaism.