Electric vehicle sales grow in Sonoma County

Once the bailiwick of tinkerers and hobbyists, electric vehicles are popping up all over Sonoma County as green-minded and tech-savvy drivers warm up to plug-in cars.

The market for EVs has expanded dramatically since December 2010, when the Nissan dealership in Petaluma became the first car dealer in the nation to sell the Leaf, the world's first mass market all-electric car.

Today, consumers can choose from more than a dozen all-electric vehicles, including two Tesla models and the top-selling Nissan Leaf, as well as plug-in hybrids, like the Chevrolet Volt, that run primarily on batteries but have gas-powered generators to extend battery range.

More and more are showing up on the roads in Sonoma County, which has the ninth-highest concentration of EV drivers in California, according to data compiled by the California Center for Sustainable Energy, which manages the state rebate program for electric vehicles.

"We have had a lot of early adopters here," said Alan Soule, president of the North Bay Electric Auto Association. "As people see them driving around, they are getting used to them. It's sort of a social thing. They realize they are economical and good for the environment."

June was a record month for EV sales. More than 8,000 cars that can be plugged into the grid were sold nationwide, up 160 percent from a year ago, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an EV trade group.

The U.S. market began to slowly shift in 2000, when Toyota debuted the Prius, a hybrid that ran on both gas and electricity. Since then, automakers have introduced more than 60 different hybrid models in all sizes, ranging from large SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe to small cars like the Honda CR-Z.

Consumers who bought the first generation of hybrid cars are now adopting the all-electric technology, said Brian Wynne, president of the EDTA.

"A big percentage of people buying plug-in cars are hybrid owners," Wynne said. "What's going on here is a steady build of electric drives entering the marketplace. Hybrids are considered a mainstream product. Our goal is to make EVs a mainstream product."

North Bay Nissan of Petaluma was the top Leaf dealer in the United States in 2011, according to Ron Coury, e-commerce director for North Bay Nissan. The dealership has since sold nearly 500 Leafs and currently moves about 50 units each month, more than any of its gas-powered models, Coury said.

"People are a little bit greener here," Coury said. "They understand the technology. A lot of folks here want to get off of fossil fuels."

Santa Rosa resident Chris Jones wanted to go electric in 2006, long before Nissan introduced the Leaf. Without any manufactured models for him to choose from, the Agilent Technologies electrical engineer decided to make his own.

"I wanted to minimize my use of gasoline," said Jones, who spent five months converting his dark blue 1966 Mustang into an all-electric vehicle. "Back then, I couldn't buy a Nissan Leaf. If I could have, I would have bought a Leaf."

A growing network of EV charging stations in Sonoma County is giving people the confidence to drive plug-in cars, which get between 75 and 150 miles per charge, Soule said.

"Now that we have a better charging infrastructure, people feel good about driving electric vehicles," he said.

Nearly 100 public and private charging stations have sprouted up in Sonoma County in the past three years. The county plans to have 50 additional public stations by year's end. Businesses such as Coddingtown Mall, the new East Washington Place in Petaluma and some wineries have added charging stations for customers to use, many for free.

As a result, Sonoma County was named the "Most Electric Vehicle-Ready Community" of 2012 by the Bay Area Climate Collaborative, a San Jose-based clean energy initiative.

Large financial incentives offered by the state and federal government have helped spur demand for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

California provides a $2,500 EV rebate while the federal government offers a $7,500 tax credit. Add in fuel costs that are a quarter of gas prices, and the cars start to look pretty economically attractive, said Colin Santulli, program manager for the California Center for Sustainable Energy.

Sonoma County drivers have received 386 EV rebates since the program began in 2010, making it the county with the ninth most EV drivers per capita, according to the center. The state has given out a total of 26,331 EV rebates since the program began. It currently offers rebates on 16 EVs and five plug-in hybrids.

"The goal is to get the cost of EVs down to the cost of a comparable car in their class," Santulli said. "As costs come down and early adopters spread awareness, you are going to see the EV market grow."