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Originally published December 19, 2010 at 6:47 PM | Page modified December 20, 2010 at 6:24 AM

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Seattle's first Leaf owners see green in going electric

Jon Hoekstra and his wife, Jennifer Steele, are the first people in Seattle, and among a handful of people on the West Coast, to get a Nissan Leaf — the first mass-produced, all-electric sedan that's capable of cruising at highway speeds.

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Jon Hoekstra and his wife, Jennifer Steele, brought home their new, cherry-red hatchback this weekend, they got to do something they'd never done before with a car: plug it into a wall charger for the night.

The two are the first people in Seattle, and among a handful of people on the West Coast, to get a Nissan Leaf — the first mass-produced, all-electric sedan that's capable of cruising at highway speeds.

"This is a quantum leap in efficiency," Hoekstra said. "Our hope is this will really mark the start of real options on this front."

Hoekstra, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, said he and his wife had thought about buying a hybrid Prius, but there always seemed to be a new model on the horizon that promised to perform a little bit better than the current year's model.

Then they heard about the Leaf and signed up to reserve one in April. Not long afterward, British Petroleum's Macondo well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history. When Hoekstra was sent down to the gulf to help with The Nature Conservancy's restoration efforts, it cemented his resolve to find a way to cut back on his carbon footprint.

Nissan has said it will build 50,000 of the cars for global distribution in its first year of production, and Seattle "is one of the leading markets" in terms of sales, said Nissan spokeswoman Katherine Zachary. She said she did not know how many people in Seattle have ordered one, but about 20,000 are on order throughout the country.

"There's a tremendous interest at our dealership," said Sally Struzyna, electric-vehicle specialist at Stadium Nissan in Seattle.

For Hoekstra, the most surprising thing about the Leaf is how quiet it is. The engine makes no noise when it's started — at the push of a button — and the only sound it makes is that of its tires rolling on the pavement.

The car costs $32,780, minus a federal tax credit of $7,500. The Environmental Protection Agency has rated the Leaf's range at 73 miles per charge and its fuel efficiency as the equivalent of getting 99 miles to the gallon.

"We really feel we're taking a humongous chunk out of our carbon footprint," Hoekstra said.

The Leaf isn't the only electric car on the market. Small electric cars that go about 30 miles an hour have been on the market for several years, and Tesla Motors sells the supercharged, two-seat Tesla sports car at a dealership in Seattle's South Lake Union. The recently released Chevy Volt runs on both electricity and gas, although it's not being sold in the Seattle market.

The Leaf appealed to Hoekstra because "it's not a go-cart, and it's not an exotic sports car," he said.

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It's as roomy as most sedans, and Hoekstra will use it for the daily carpool into downtown with his wife and a neighbor. They'll also use it for daily errands and to take their dog, Sierra, to the park. If they go out of town, they'll either take their other car or rent a car.

State and federal officials expect electric cars to be an important part of the coming fleet of new automobiles. Federal-stimulus money is being tapped to pay for a network of slow- and fast-charging stations around the area and along the Interstate 5 corridor.

The fast stations will fully charge an electric car in about 30 minutes, many times faster than the typical eight-hour charge that's needed when using a 220-volt outlet. The fast-charging network would make it practical to drive from Seattle to Portland, or even down to California, in an electric car.

Hoekstra and Steele had to get a special charging station installed in their garage for a 220-volt charger, and it's set to charge the car late at night — when there aren't as many demands on the power grid. So far, the car gets about 3 miles for every kilowatt hour. Hoekstra estimates it's costing about 3-1/3 cents per mile.

It has a few gee-whiz features, too; for example, it will send him an e-mail if he forgets to plug it in at night, and its GPS navigation system can show him the closest public plug-in station.

Hoekstra said he's especially pleased that the car will always be juiced up each morning — no more of those awful moments when he realizes the car is nearly empty and he is running late to a meeting.

"It feels good to drive past the gas station," he said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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