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First Nissan electric car delivered in Pacific Northwest

Nissan Leaf

The debating and waiting can now take a back seat.  Here comes the real world test whether Northwest drivers will embrace electric vehicles.  Carmaker Nissan has made the first customer delivery in the region of its fully-electric Nissan Leaf model.

A college English instructor in Portland drove away with the first production model to leave an Oregon showroom on Wednesday, with a similar first-delivery ceremony in Seattle on Friday.

John Duncan says he’s waited for this day for ten years.  His moment finally arrived at a suburban Portland car dealership.  Cameras clicked as the 61-year-old community college instructor pulled back the cover on a brand new silver Nissan Leaf.

Duncan was among the first Oregonians to put his name on the Leaf waiting list.  He says Nissan’s much-hyped initial entry into the electric car market meets his criteria for price and performance.

“I also don’t like dependence on foreign oil. I’m old enough to remember back in the 1970’s when President Carter said we have to end this,” Duncan said.

“I think 30 years is a long time to talk about that without doing anything about that. Now we’re starting to do something about that.”

Turning a new Leaf costs $26,000 or $27,000 after you take state and federal tax credits.  In Duncan’s case, the Leaf replaces a 1997 Saturn sedan.  His wife will keep her conventional gasoline car for longer trips.

Nissan chose Oregon, Washington and California to be launch markets because the states are in the forefront of building public charging networks. 

More than a year ago, the federal Department of Energy awarded tens of millions of dollars in economic stimulus money to create more plug-in spots.  But so far, that money has produced just three public charging stations in the Seattle suburbs, and none in Oregon.  Investor James Billmaier advises several of the companies working on the local stimulus contracts.

“First of all recognize that most charging will take place at the home,” Billmaier said.

“But for the 20 percent of charging that you want to do when you want to what we call ‘top off’ when you’re at the mall or whatever, we were hoping it would go into the ground a little bit sooner. But you know with any typical governmental kind of thing, it’s just been slow in coming.”

The first driver to take delivery in our region of an all-electric Nissan says the car’s 100 mile range is enough for his daily needs.  Duncan says public charging stations may be scarce, but he’s not worried.

“My job is eleven or twelve miles away from my house. Stores are close, all that sort of thing. So I would very rarely need to use a charging station anywhere else but my house.”

Electric cars will likely remain pretty rare on our highways for another year.  The Pacific Northwest is not a launch market for the Chevy Volt, another much hyped plug-in car.

Nissan says deliveries of the all-electric Leaf are all spoken for through next summer.  Though Nissan director of product planning Mark Perry won’t say exactly how many cars that is.

“We see global demand higher than what we can build right now,” Perry said. “So that’s a good news and bad news story.  Folks have to be a little patient with us, a little patient.”

This could also be said for Ecotality, the company that received the biggest federal grant to build charging stations.  Pacific Northwest manager Rich Feldman says he’s still actively recruiting businesses to host electric car charging stations. 

“We don’t want lots of publicly available charging stations sitting there empty while the vehicles are coming on line,” Feldman said. “So we’ll be gearing up on the commercial side in the first quarter of 2011.”

By later next year, Ford, Mitsubishi and a Chinese carmaker tentatively plan to bring their own 100% electric cars to showrooms on the West Coast.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.