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What will it take to get more Mainers driving electric vehicles? We hope to find out with our own EV

Susan EV 2.jpg
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Rebecca Ruth, a senior sales person at Lee Nissan in Topsham, shows Maine Public's Susan Sharon how to operate a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

Vehicles are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions in Maine. One goal in the state's climate change response plan is to get more electric vehicles on the road.

There are currently only about 6,000, which is a 90% increase from just a couple years ago. But it's still a drop in the bucket compared to the 219,000 the state wants to see in use by the end of the decade. Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine, says that would mean one of every six cars on the road would be electric.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

Deep Dive Climate Driven

"That's a steep ramp up. That's a really aggressive curve," he says.

But Stoddard says he's optimistic that the state can meet that goal. The first hurdle to clear, he says, is cost. The lowest sticker price for a new EV is around $30,000. State and federal incentives can bring that price down. Efficiency Maine offers rebates between $1,000 and $5,500, depending on income level and whether the car is electric or plug-in hybrid. A federal tax credit knocks off an additional $7,500 for certain EVs.

"So once you add all those up, you can be getting an upfront cost which is very similar to what a regular car would be," he says.

And Stoddard says operating costs for EVs are lower. They require less maintenance, and you don't have to buy gas. Still, a car purchase is a big financial decision, and a recent report on Maine's clean transportation goals found that more financial incentives are needed to get consumers to invest in electric vehicles.

For now, Stoddard says there is one other option that can be more affordable: "We encourage people to lease. That's maybe a good way to test the waters if you're not so sure."

That's exactly what Maine Public's news team opted to do, to learn more about electric vehicles and to reduce our carbon footprint while reporting this statewide series.

Pearl 1.PNG
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
Maine Public has obtained an electric vehicle -- a Nissan Leaf nicknamed "Pearl" -- that reporters will drive to places across Maine for our Climate Driven series.

Maine Public Deputy News Director Susan Sharon and I recently went to Lee Nissan in Topsham to pick up our 2022 Nissan Leaf SV Plus, which is a mid-grade model with many features.

We decided to name the pearl-white four-door compact hatchback — what else? — Pearl.

"That's beautiful! Geez, this is a beautiful car," Sharon says.

"Yeah, it really is," says Rebecca Ruth, a salesperson who meets us at the dealership.

It's also in short supply, says Ruth. Higher customer demand and pandemic-related supply chain issues are causing a shortage of inventory across the industry.

"I literally have zero. This is the only one I have in the floor," Ruth says.

Pearl doesn't look much different than a gas-powered car. But she sounds different, which we discover when Ruth backs her out of the showroom.

That sci-fi sound is to alert people nearby that the car is backing up — because otherwise, EVs are virtually silent when they're running.

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Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
An electric vehicle charger operates at Lee Nissan Topsham.

That's the major difference Sharon notices as she slides into the driver's seat and takes Pearl out for a test drive.

"It doesn't feel too different. It just feels quieter," she says.

Up ahead, Ruth points to a 50-mile-per-hour speed limit sign. It's time, she says, to bust the common myth that EVs are sluggish.

"I'm going to ask you, put your pedal to the metal and just go, so you can feel that energy behind you. You know, see how quickly it responds," she says.

"Whoa....I’m going 55," Sharon says.

"See? You could get a speeding ticket in this car if you're not careful!"

The big question, of course, is how far can this electric vehicle go on a single charge? According to Nissan, Pearl's range is about 215 miles.

In ideal conditions we might be able to drive her from Topsham all the way to Houlton, in northern Maine. But range depends on a lot of factors, including cold weather, which drains the battery more quickly. We'd probably need to stop at a public charger along the way.

There are more than 500 across the state, but not all of them are the same. Fast chargers can bring a battery up to 80% in about a half hour.

susan EV 1.jpg
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Rebecca Ruth, a senior sales person at Lee Nissan in Topsham, shows Maine Public's Susan Sharon how to charge a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

But most public chargers are Level 2 — which would take 11 hours to fully charge Pearl. EVs can also be plugged into regular 120 volt wall outlets at home, though that takes even longer.

Back from our test drive of Pearl, we ask Ruth to give us a tutorial on how to plug in to a Level 2 charger at the dealership, after noticing the charging port is not on the side — like a gas cap would be.

Turns out, it's on the hood. Just press a button to open a small lid, grab the cable from the charger, and plug it in.

"Make sure it clicks in," Ruth says. "You're going to want to hear that click. And give it a minute... And, she's charging. Really not that complicated!"

So far, nothing about this electric vehicle seems that complicated.

But it's only our first drive with Pearl. We'll find out more in the coming months about what it's like to travel with an EV: in the cold, on long trips, and on the back roads of rural Maine.

Disclosure: Adam Lee, board chairman of Lee Auto Malls, is a member of Maine Public's Board of Trustees.