That long, electric highway

The first stretch of the "electric highway" between Canada and Mexico was plugged in Friday.

The inaugural event began at the Fairgrounds Chevron station in Central Point, one of eight fast-charging stations for electric vehicles along some 160 miles of Interstate 5 from Ashland to Cottage Grove.

"It is one step in electrifying the entire West Coast, one step in electrifying all of Oregon," keynote speaker Jeff Allen, executive director of nonprofit Drive Oregon, told the roughly 100 people gathered for the event.

"It sends a powerful message that Oregon is the premier launch market for electric vehicles, and it is THE place to be if you are in the electric-vehicle industry," Allen added.

The network of charging stations, spaced at roughly 25-mile intervals along the interstate in Southern Oregon, was paid for with $915,000 in federal stimulus funds. The Oregon Department of Transportation contracted the work out to AeroVironment, Inc. of Monrovia, Calif., which built the charging stations.

The event drew drivers of electric cars from as far away as Portland. In addition to the Central Point exit, the recharge sites are at the south exit in Ashland, the north exit in Grants Pass, Exit 76 in Wolf Creek, Exit 99 in Canyonville, Exit 125 in Roseburg, Exit 148 in Rice Hill and Exit 174 in Cottage Grove.

Each location has two charging stations, including one DC "fast" charger that can recharge an electric car battery in less than a half hour. For a limited time, there is no charge for using the AeroVironment recharging stations. Using the stations is expected to cost about $2 to $3 per vehicle when drivers are eventually charged.

For Medford resident Justin Denlevy, 30, who has a Nissan Leaf, seeing the other vehicles was inspiring.

"Sometimes when you are on the fringe of something, you wonder if there is anybody else out there with a similar mindset," he said, noting he and his wife plan to drive their Leaf to Portland this year.

In fact, Ashland-area resident Bruce Sargent was planning to do just that Friday night after leaving the opening event of the electric highway in Central Point. He was driving his family's Nissan Leaf.

"I won't be the first to do it, but maybe the first with a level-2 recharge," he said in a telephone interview from Wolf Creek, referring to a recharge process that takes four to five hours.

"It'll be an adventure — I've got my sleeping bag," he said, adding that he hopes to get to Portland in time to watch his son play in a soccer game beginning at 1 p.m. today.

During the event in Central Point, Ashland resident James Stephens, 64, drove in with a Toyota Prius and plugged into an extension cord used for the microphone.

"I've always been interested in electric vehicles and how far you can push the technology," Stephens said later. "I feel like I am a pioneer."

He plans to upgrade to fast-charge batteries, which take only about 20 minutes to recharge. His current batteries take at least eight hours, he explained.

"When gasoline was $3.50 a gallon, I calculated I was paying the equivalent of about 12 cents a gallon for gasoline," he said, noting the price has since climbed.

"The idea is energy independence, getting off our reliance on foreign oil for transportation," said Sue Kupillas, coordinator for the Rogue Valley Clean Cities Coalition, one of about 100 such coalitions across the nation.

"For the United States, it means energy security," she added. "This is the first opening like this in the state."

Art James, project director for ODOT's Innovative Partnerships Program, said the electric highway was built in 18 months.

"We've got funding for 35 more of these around the state," James said. "We will be making installations from Coos Bay to Astoria along the Oregon Coast. We will be going out the Columbia Gorge to The Dalles. We will have several routes over the Cascades into Central Oregon. This is really just the beginning."

The electric highway is the latest step forward in a process that began in 1883 when the rail route was first surveyed in the Rogue Valley, noted Wahib Nawabi, senior vice president and general manager of AeroVironment.

"We are witnessing yet another milestone for Medford and the Pacific Coast as we light up the first phase of what we believe will be the nation's first electric highway," he told the roughly 100 people in attendance.

"Very soon you will be able to drive from Canada to the Mexico border in a vehicle that gives off no carbon emissions, using energy generated right here in the United States," he predicted. "It's a monumental step. I firmly believe we sit on the cusp of widespread electric-vehicle adoption, one that may very well transform the entire automotive industry."

Representatives of Mitsubishi, Nissan and Chevrolet, all makers of electric vehicles, were on hand.

Automotive firms are gravitating toward electric vehicles because of their low environmental impact and the independence they provide from Middle East oil, observed Thomas Miller, commercial fleet sales manager on the West Coast for Mitsubishi Motors North America.

One speaker indicated that Oregon's electric highway is the longest in the nation, but the Associated Press said that honor goes to Tennessee, where Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurants installed a network of charging stations last year, including a dozen fast-chargers, along the interstates connecting Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, a total of 425 miles.

Several car businesses in the Rogue Valley also offer free recharges to electric car owners.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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