By Ann McCreary
“Electric tourists,” a new breed of traveler, began frequenting the Methow Valley this fall.
That’s what Anna Kominak calls the owners of electric vehicles who use a new charging station at Pine Near RV Park in Winthrop.
“Our charger was installed on Sept. 23, and even though this is late in the tourist season, we’ve hosted 22 separate charging sessions as of Nov. 10,” said Kominak, co-owner of the RV park.
The electric vehicle charging station at Pine Near RV Park was the first installed in central Washington, and helped open the region to people traveling in electric cars. Another electric vehicle charging station was installed in early November at the Mazama Country Inn, and a third charging station is scheduled for installation soon at the Twisp River Pub.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to install a charging station at the RV park “was a no-brainer,” said Kominak. She began getting calls earlier this year from electric vehicle owners interested in using 50-amp power pedestals installed at the campground for recreational vehicles.
Those RV power pedestals take six hours to fully charge an electric car. The new electric vehicle charging station does the job in a couple of hours, Kominak said.
For a tourism-based economy like the Methow Valley, the availability of charging stations is a real plus, Kominak said.
“It made us able to reach an audience that we couldn’t reach before. While their cars are charging, they’re downtown eating and shopping. I see it as a win-win,” Kominak said.
“It’s been great exposure. We’ve got the electric tourists talking all over the Internet and there’s no better advertising than word-of-mouth,” Kominak added.
Installation of the charging stations has been facilitated by a program called “Plug-in North Central Washington,” a nonprofit organization funded through the North Central Washington Economic Development District.
Jack Anderson of Orondo is project manager of the program aimed at “electrifying transportation” in North Central Washington. A retired insurance executive, Anderson volunteers his time creating partnerships with businesses to set up charging stations at strategic locations around the region.
Anderson drives a Tesla Model S electric car and became interested in the idea of creating a network of charging stations in this part of the state. He heard about the Plug-in North Central Washington program and offered his help in finding hosts for the new charging stations.
A fully charged electric vehicle has a range of 100 to 250 miles, depending on the model, Anderson said. “We base our siting strategy on the Nissan Leaf,” with a range of about 100 miles, he said.
There are 3,000 Nissan Leafs registered in Washington, most on the west side of the Cascade Mountains where charging stations are plentiful. Washington is second only to California in the number of electric cars per capita, Anderson said.
In June, Plug-In North Central Washington announced the opening of a dedicated “electric vehicle tourism corridor” on Highway 2 between Seattle and Wenatchee, with charging stations at Monroe, Sultan, Skykomish, Stevens Pass, Leavenworth and Wenatchee.
Anderson wanted to open the North Cascades Highway to electric tourists as well and suggested to Bill Pope, co-owner of the Mazama Country Inn, that the inn consider hosting a station.
“As soon as he talked to me I said I was very interested,” Pope said. “Having a charger in Mazama is critical for people to get over the pass and back down, particularly if they have a Nissan Leaf.”
The inn had to upgrade its electrical transformer to accommodate the charging station, but Pope said it was worth the cost. “I’m hoping it’s a kind of long-term investment. And I like to be on the leading edge of things,” he said.
Station’s cost paid for
The plug-in program provides the charging station, which costs about $2,200 at no cost to the host, Anderson said. The program installs what are known as “high amperage Level 2” chargers.
“A high amp Level 2 charger can provide 50 miles of range for every hour of charge,” Anderson said. That calculation is based on a Tesla Model S. Other models of electric vehicles charge at a slower rate, he noted. Most drivers “top off” their charge as they travel so their charging times are relatively short, Anderson explained. “They just add 80 miles and go,” he said.
Under the plug-in program, the host agrees to pay for the costs of installation, which is generally around $1,000, and pay for the electricity used by the charging station, Anderson said. Most charging sessions will cost the host $1 to $2, he said.
Because Plug-in North Central Washington is a nonprofit organization, host facilities are not allowed to charge a fee to motorists using the chargers for the first three years, but can accept donations.
Anderson said electric vehicle drivers have an informal policy of making donations to compensate their hosts for the electricity they use.
Kominak said the electricity costs for the charging station at Pine Near RV Park totaled about $40 since service began Sept. 23. Total donations from drivers have been about twice that amount.
“They’ve donated between $5 and $20 [per charge]. We have taken in enough contributions to pay for the electricity we’ve expended and to go toward the cost of installation,” Kominak said.
The RV park also rented three cabins and two RV sites that can be attributed to having a charging station, Anderson said. That is the kind of data Plug-in North Central Washington plans to track over the next 36 months.
“We’re trying to keep track of usage and benefits and problems,” Anderson said. “We hope to say our locations were good for business.”
Aaron Studen, owner of the Twisp River Pub, has signed an agreement to host a charging station that will be installed soon on the Second Avenue side of the pub.
“It fits in with sustainability philosophy of the pub, that goes for food we buy to the energy we use,” Studen said.
Electrician Tim Otonicar of Winthrop installed the chargers at Pine Near RV Park and the Mazama Country Inn, and will do the installation at the pub as well. He said the work fits in with his focus. “I do energy conservation. That’s the majority of my work,” he said.
A trip over Highway 20
Anderson said the successful placement of electric vehicle plug-in stations throughout the Methow Valley has prompted Seattle City Light to commit to installing two chargers at Newhalem. They will be located in the picnic area on the north side of Highway 20. That means, Anderson said, that electric vehicles will be able to reach the Methow Valley via the scenic highway.
A charging station is available in Burlington, and beyond that “the I-5 corridor is well saturated” with plug-in stations for electric vehicles, Anderson said.
To prove that electric cars can make the trip over the North Cascades, a Nissan Leaf owner will drive from Burlington to Pateros, Anderson said. Plug-in North Central Washington will provide a shadow car and has agreed to hire a flatbed if the car runs out of energy.
Anderson is also working to electrify Highway 97 between Wenatchee and Osoyoos, and has an agreement in place for a charging station to be installed at the Pateros Lakeshore Inn.
By 2015, electric car owners will be able to drive from Seattle to New York on Interstate 90, stopping at a “supercharger” every 150 miles, Anderson said.
For now however, drivers of electric vehicles – which came into mass production only three years ago – still need to plan their trips carefully. There are about five smart phone applications that provide information on charging sites, and drivers can check websites mapping charging stations, Anderson said.
The new charging stations in Winthrop, Twisp and Mazama have put the Methow Valley on the map, he said.
“As rural towns relying heavily on tourism, we need to keep abreast of the trends,” said Kominak. “Electric cars are here to stay and we need to make them welcome.”