Once the purview of the eccentric — or the very rich — electric vehicles have proven their worth and are becoming accessible, in both price and practicality, to the average driver.

In fact, electric vehicles (EVs for short) are one of the fastest-growing trends in the automotive industry.

“This is where this world’s going,” said Tim Hutchinson, a salesman for Joe Hall Ford in Lewiston.

Besides Ford’s F-150 hybrid pickup truck that is already available, the company plans to have a fully electric F-150 in stock next year. And for sports car lovers, Ford’s Mustang Mach-E, which starts at around $43,000 and has a 300-mile range (meaning the distance it can be driven before needing to be recharged), is something even the Beach Boys might swoon over.

“People are excited about it,” Hutchinson said.

Larry and Sheryl Nims, of Kamiah, have owned a Tesla Model S for a few years, and the growing popularity of electric vehicles is no surprise to them.

Despite the initial purchasing cost, which, for the moment, outstrips the average car buyer’s budget, Larry Nims said there are a range of social and environmental factors driving the market. And, over time, EVs more than pay for themselves.

“I guess the obvious issue is that, in addition to saving on fuel cost, most hybrid owners tend to be socially conscious, concerned by pollution and its effects,” he said. “Electrics extend the benefits of hybrids by boasting zero emissions.”

Nims has installed a solar-powered charging station at his home and said the independence that setup gives him is a big reward of owning an electric vehicle.

“The idea that we can charge a vehicle off-grid and drive it as far as Ellensburg, to me, is nothing short of magic,” he said.

Even if an electric car owner plugs the car into a socket, “to charge an EV at home costs a fifth as much as it costs to go to a pump once a month and put gas into a vehicle,” Nims said.

Maintenance costs are basically zip because there’s no water system, no oil pump, radiator or exhaust “and the only lubrication necessary is in the suspension in the undercarriage. There’s just no maintenance, so there’s very little to go wrong with it. For all EVs, it’s basically like a computer on wheels.”

Charlotte Omoto, of Moscow, is another Tesla driver who is enthusiastic about seeing more people become interested in electric vehicles.

“People see me driving around, and I think there’s kind of a ‘cool’ factor with Tesla,” Omoto said. “But I think there are progressive people around here, and more and more people are finding it makes financial sense. The initial cost (of an EV) is higher than a comparable gas or diesel car. But if you take it over the life of ownership (the fuel-driven car) has more maintenance, more fuel cost and around here the electric rate is cheaper … than gas.”

Omoto said EVs are also well-suited to winter driving in this area because they’re heavier on average than gas-powered vehicles. The battery is situated between all four wheels so the center of gravity is evenly balanced, giving it plenty of traction on snowy roads.

A short history of the EV

Electric vehicles have been around since the mid-1800s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The first successful electric car in the U.S. debuted around 1890 and was capable of a top speed of 14 mph.

Over the next few years, electric vehicles from different automakers began popping up around the country, and by 1900 about a third of all vehicles on the road were electric. Steam and gas-powered vehicles made up the other two-thirds of motor vehicles.

Electric vehicles were quiet, easy to drive and didn’t emit a smelly pollutant like other cars of the time, which made them popular with urban residents, especially women.

And as more people gained access to electricity in the 1910s, it became easier to charge electric cars, making them more sought-after.

According to the energy department, Thomas Edison thought electric vehicles were the superior technology and worked to build a better electric vehicle battery. Henry Ford partnered with Edison to explore options for a low-cost electric car in 1914.

But it was Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, gasoline cars cost about $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750.

When Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter in 1912, eliminating the need for the hand crank, gasoline-powered vehicle sales burgeoned. And with the discovery of Texas crude oil, gas became cheap and readily available for rural Americans. At the time, few Americans outside of cities had electricity, so by 1935 electric vehicles had all but disappeared.

It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that interest in electric vehicles reemerged. When concerns grew over rising oil and gas prices and environmental impacts, people began searching for alternatives.

In 1997, Japan introduced the Toyota Prius, which many attribute to raising the profile of hybrid and electric vehicles. In 2006, Tesla Motors started producing a luxury electric sports car that could go more than 200 miles on a single charge. In 2010, Tesla received a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy to establish a manufacturing plant in Southern California. Tesla’s success led other automakers to begin work on their own electric vehicles, and within the next year several new models from various manufacturers are expected to be introduced.

Getting a charge

One of the biggest challenges for EV drivers is finding conveniently located charging stations.

Omoto said she has encouraged local motel owners to invest in charging stations because, even though most local people do not yet own EVs, travelers from urban areas where EVs are more common pass through the area and need a place to plug in their vehicles. There are a few charging stations in Moscow, she said, but, unlike gas stations, they’re not always in a prominent place that’s easy to find.

The Nez Perce Tribe, however, is out ahead of the game. There is a fast-charging station at the Clearwater River Casino and Lodge along U.S. Highway 12, and Shelby Layton, who works with the tribe, said there are plans in the works to put fast-charging stations at the It’se Ye-Ye Casino in Kamiah and possibly Zims Hot Springs near New Meadows, off U.S. Highway 95.

“We see this as a great perk at a business site,” Layton said. The charging station at the Clearwater River Casino “is a good location to help create a better network for vehicles. If you have an EV right now, the biggest anxiety is mileage during longer trips, and being able to remedy that and create solutions is what we’re doing, what we’ve been going after.”

Layton said the electric vehicle industry “is really an interest to the tribe to try to push toward that direction. It’s a benefit to the community, the planet and people. We’re really glad to be able to get the (EV charging) stations going.”

According to Nims, figuring out how to charge an EV on a long-distance trip takes a little forethought.

“The process of charging is on a sliding scale,” he said. “When you first plug in, the range gain shoots up pretty fast and then tapers off to a crawl, if you’re determined to achieve a full charge. This phenomenon requires a little strategizing if you’re on a trip and trying to anticipate the need to charge for an extra 10 or 15 minutes to alleviate ‘range anxiety.’ More charging locations will allow the driver more stops, if necessary, with a quicker process.”

“Fast charging” is referred to as Level 3 and can take less than an hour to fully recharge. Level 2 is achieved at home in a 220-volt outlet or at a charging location like those in many public places, universities, motels, etc. This level takes many hours or overnight to achieve a full charge for a depleted battery. Level 1 is plugging in at home on a standard outlet and can take days.

“Ultra fast” charging, or Level 4, is beginning to appear worldwide and is available for cars that can accept that level. It cuts the time of fast charging by more than half.

Liz Clark, a member of the Grangeville Chamber of Commerce, also saw an economic opportunity in the placement of EV charging stations in Grangeville — pretty much a halfway point between Spokane and Boise.

About a year ago, Clark took the initiative to investigate grants that would help the local group establish a fast-charging station. A major source of grant money comes from a legal settlement with Volkswagen, which had been assessed more than $33 billion in fines for a 2015 legal settlement in connection with the company’s falsification of emissions control standards.

Idaho has received about $17 million from that settlement, Clark said, and the state is allocating about $7,500 per charging station — which the Grangeville Chamber hopes to clinch in the near future.

Clark said the chamber is working with ChargePoint, a company that manufactures EV charging stations. At the moment no definite plans have been made, nor locations settled upon. One possibility the group is considering is the parking lot of Cloninger’s Harvest Foods on Main Street in Grangeville — an easy-to-find spot for travelers.

There are still details to be worked out, Clark said. But it’s likely a fast-charging station will be available in Grangeville by this fall.

“There’s so many pieces that need to be put together, but there’s money to be made at some point,” she said. “It’s going to happen. We’re all pretty committed to making it go.”

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.