Electric cars will be rolling down Ireland's highways by year's end

Have you heard of the Nissan Leaf? I hadn't until a day or two ago, but I'm not what you'd call 'an environmentalist', so maybe those of you who are 'environmentalists' are already familiar with the Leaf.

The Leaf is Nissan's electric car, which is powered by a large battery. Nissan expects to have them on the road in America and Europe sometime around the end of this year.

The Irish government is very keen that people here buy and use electric cars. So keen, in fact, that they are going to give buyers a grant of €5,000 ($6,800) to purchase one AND they will waive the Vehicle Registration Tax (up to 30% extra) on a new car.

Ireland is - according to the enthusiasts anyway - ideally suited to lead the way on electric cars. Obviously the country's pretty small, so there are no 1,000 mile journeys. In fact, while people spend a lot of time in their cars, they don't cover the distances Americans do. By the end of 2011 Ireland will be leading the world in the electric car use and infrastructure. That's the plan, anyway.

The cars themselves are pretty small by American standards and even towards the smaller end of the scale by Irish norms. They can get up to a decent speed - over 80 MPH according to Nissan - so that's not an issue and according to Green Party member and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan {photo} these cars will be much cheaper to run than those that run on gasoline.

I'm willing to believe the Minister on this score because the price of gas around here is now around $6.90 per gallon. Even if your car gets 40 mpg, that means the cost in gas alone is about 17¢ per mile. The Minister says the cost of running the Leaf {photo} will be about 2-3¢ per mile.

All of that sounds pretty good. Will it take off? Will Irish people buy electric cars instead of the usual gasoline-powered cars?

Well, maybe. There are still some serious issues with the electric cars. First of all, the cost of the car - even with the incentives noted above - will be comparable to the costs of a bigger, more comfortable car. Also, you don't buy the battery, but – for reasons that escape me – you rent it at an annual rate of €1,200 ($1,640) per year. {Not sure if that's all electric cars or only Renault, who hope to have their electric car on Ireland's roads by the end of 2011.}

The biggest issue however, is the battery's charge. It lasts for about 100 miles. Then you have to recharge. The government-owned Electricity Supply Board is going to roll out a series of charge stations - gas stations for electric cars - around the country to meet the, as yet non-existent, demand for charge. I think there are a few already around, but I haven't seen one yet.

When the Minister was asked about the 100 miles maximum the other day he indicated that if someone was going on a long journey - to Kerry was the question - he said that it was his experience that people generally stopped on long journeys for a cup of coffee or a sandwich or whatever. He said that while the driver was having his coffee the car could be recharging and ready to go again in half-an-hour. Half-an-hour to 'fill up'? Hmm.

ESB is going to set up 30 'fast charge' points around the country that will charge a battery to 80% in 30 minutes, which means you can't go another 100 miles before you have to stop again. A full charge at one of their normal stations will take 90 minutes.

First of all, I don't need either a sandwich or coffee every 100 miles. I can sometimes go three whole hours without food. I'd definitely like my car to do the same. I just can't see using such a car for journeys of any length at all.

But, it might be good for most of the short journeys I make. I would guess that around 90% of the trips I make are less than 50 miles. I could charge the car at home, which will take 8 hours. The Irish Independent says that the government will even pay to have a home charging point installed, although they seem unsure if that's true. Also, I assume that rules out cars that park on the street, unless that on-street space is very near the house.

It's easy to be skeptical, but there's a part of me that says, well, maybe. We have two cars, but we only need one for trips of any length. If the other car can be used for short journeys, can save me money and can be charged up safely - I don't want to be electrocuted hooking up the car in the rain - I could see it. Kind of shocking to me that I even think that.

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