One of our key goals at the Plugin Center is to help local fleets, businesses and governments explore the benefits of integrating all-electric vehicles and associated charging equipment into their operations. To this end, on October 14, 2010, the Plugin Center invited Cascadia International of Tacoma, WA, to bring the all-electric Navistar eStar medium-duty commercial truck to Wenatchee for a day of demonstrations and driving experience for potential fleet owners. The event was well-attended and included participation by Link TransitChelan PUD, the City of Wenatchee, and Stemilt Growers. In addition to the demonstration event, the eStar was also featured as a guest of honor the next day at the annual Alternative Fuels and Vehicles Odyssey day held at Wenatchee Valley College.

Cascadia International is the country’s first dealer of the eStar—one of the first all-electric, medium duty (2-ton), commercial vehicles for sale in the Pacific Northwest. It has a range of 100 miles using an 80 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, can carry up to 4,400 pounds and has a gross vehicle weight rating of 12,100 pounds. Navistar began production of the eStar at a former RV manufacturing facility in Indiana in May 2010 after receiving $39 million in federal grants to retool the plant at the end of 2009. Both FedEx and UPS are already using the eStar in daily delivery operations in the U.S. and around the world.

Link Transit graciously offered up space for the October 14th event in their fleet depot near the Confluence Technology Center—also providing us with access to one of their heavy duty lifts. Using the lift, attendees were able to get a detailed look at the underside of the vehicle and see where the electric motor is mounted as well as how the vehicle’s gargantuan battery pack is shielded by a thick plate metal and sandwiched between the substantial frame for safety.

Cascadia International representative, Michael Dockery, was on hand all day and turned the keys over to the various groups for test drives. The vehicle is electronically limited to 50 mph, and test drivers were able to take it to the top speed on a loop that went from the Link depot to Rocky Reach Dam and back. Although it wasn’t planned, the dam provided a not-so-subtle reminder of several reasons why electric vehicles make so much sense for North Central Washington—incredibly inexpensive electricity with no emissions. Even with the all-day test driving, the eStar still showed more than a half full battery pack when the last attendee left for the day.

At the end of the day most attendees had experienced the eStar in ways that changed their minds about what EVs are capable of and many ideas for potential uses had been floated. In particular the PUD imagined the vehicle working well for field maintenance, the city could envision it being used for service vehicles, and Link Transit looked forward to a time when a passenger body is fitted on the frame. Given that Link is already planning on unveiling the country’s first all-electric, battery powered, fast charge buses early in 2011—called the “Current”—it only makes sense for them to further electrify other routes as they can. Todd Daniel, Link’s Operations Manager, said that by using electricity their per-mile operation costs are a fraction of what they are with either diesel or gasoline.

According to Dockery, the eStar will eventually be built with both platform and passenger configurations—likely sometime within the next two years—so Link’s dreams may not be that far off. Port representatives Ron Johnston-Rodriguez and Aimee Pope were incredibly satisfied with the local response to the event and have already started making plans for similar events with both the eStar and other electric vehicles and associated EV equipment throughout 2011.

“Hosting such demos for local interested parties is a key activity of the Advanced Vehicle Innovations consortium and the Plugin Center,” said Johnston-Rodriguez. “If any of them end up adopting electric vehicles and charging equipment, we certainly hope they become part of the the demonstration projects we feature in our growing number of plug-in focused events.”