March 24, 2018
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Island proving ground


A Maine island could be the perfect proving ground for emerging technologies such as the electric car. With a little help from state and federal energy grants and private money, electric cars could be tested on one of Maine’s islands with a year-round population. Even if the results do not clearly suggest the technology is appropriate for mainland use, islanders might find the electric car is the perfect fit for the necessarily short trips that come with island life.

The Massachusetts island of Nantucket, 30 miles south of Cape Cod, recently won state energy grants to establish five charging stations for electric cars. With several funding sources, including a settlement from an Ohio power plant for alleged pollution-control equip­ment violations, that state will construct 105 electric-car charging stations in 25 towns and cities across Massachusetts.

Electric cars are seen by some as the next step after hybrid vehicles. About 10 years ago, hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight were introduced to a skeptical market. When gasoline prices spiked a few years later, that skepticism faded and those hybrids became symbols of green frugality.

Hybrids work on the simple principle of converting kinetic energy, gathered in slowing the vehicle down, into stored energy. Since cars have to brake from time to time, the “aha!” moment came when someone considered engaging a charger to slow the vehicle. Each time the vehicle is slowed, in part, by engaging the drag of the charger, a battery stores the energy.

Of course, hybrids also have gasoline engines which are assisted by the battery-driven electric motor.

The batteries, though, represent the most technologically challenging part of the vehicle. As storage capacity continues to improve and costs drop, cars operated purely by electric motors are becoming more feasible.

Nissan last year introduced the electric-only Leaf, with a cruising range of about 100 miles. Owners must install a 220-volt charger — similar to the receptacle for an electric clothes dryer — at which the Leaf is charged overnight. Not coincidentally, electric rates drop at night. And also not coincidentally, wind turbines generate most of their electricity at night.

Suzanne Pude, community energy director at Rockland’s Island Institute, says the organization has worked with Vinalhaven, where wind turbines recently began operating, to use excess wind-produced electricity for heating some island buildings. Further discussions have explored the use of electric cars on the island.

On Nantucket, which is only about 15 miles long, electric cars would work with minimal charging. Islanders try to dissuade visitors from bringing their own cars, so a fleet of electric rental vehicles, which could be charged at stations at the airport and other appropriate locations, makes sense.

Electric cars also may make sense on Vinalhaven and perhaps other Maine islands. It may represent a small change, but every step away from oil dependence is a step in the right direction.

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