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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Vicci drives green by example

Leandra Vicci poses with her Nissan LEAF at her sister’s house on Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.

Leandra Vicci likes to figure out how things work, electrical things in particular.

It’s a passion that began many years ago and has found expression at Carolina for the past three decades. As lecturer of computer science and director of the Applied Engineering Laboratory in the Department of Computer Science, Vicci spends her days turning concepts into reality.

Sometimes, though, getting to the reality stage requires a fair amount of patience. Take, for example, Vicci’s passion for electric cars that began in high school. “I always thought having an electric car would be a cool thing to do,” she said.

Decades later, she finally owns one. Last December, Vicci took possession of her new fully electric Nissan LEAF after placing her name on a waiting list about 18 months earlier.

With that purchase, she also earned a distinction as one of Carolina’s first fully electric vehicle commuters, said Kristin Blank-White, research and outreach manager for the Sustainability Office.

Vicci’s quest for an EV, as electric vehicles are known, was driven by her commitment to help reduce pollution.

The internal combustion engine, which has been the standard since cars were introduced early in the 20th century, turns fossil fuel into carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Through the years, public pressure has led to regulations designed to curb the extent of pollution, and cars have become equipped with features including oxygen sensors, catalytic converters and computers to manage the complex pollution controls.

All good things, Vicci said, but things that have the potential to develop problems of their own and that ultimately add to the cost of a vehicle. “With an electric car,” she said, “all the pollution control goes away because there is no pollution.”

While an EV might be functionally complicated, it has fewer components than gas-fueled vehicles, which means fewer things to break – and no worries about things like oil leaks since there is no oil, she said.

Vicci bought the LEAF for her commute from home, a few miles this side of Siler City, to campus: 52 miles round trip. And she loves it, although driving an EV that far does require some planning.

A full charge, which occurs after the car is plugged into a 240-volt outlet for about six hours, will last in the neighborhood of 100 miles on a warm day when the car is driven at moderate speeds, she said. During cold weather, that drops to 60 or 70 miles.

“In a regular car, when you run through a tank of gas, you simply pull into a gas station, fill the car in about five minutes and go another 300 miles,” she said. “But a battery-operated car isn’t there yet. And there just aren’t that many charging structures along the way.”

When she arrives on campus, Vicci parks in the Cobb Deck where it’s possible to find a power outlet if necessary. Finding a parking place near an outlet isn’t a problem since Vicci is typically in her office at 6:30 a.m. (which makes using the campus park-and-ride options problematic).

The challenge comes on Thursday afternoons, when Vicci does her grocery shopping on the way home.

The additional mileage on those days can really put the car’s battery capacity to the test, she said. But the ability to plug the car in at work for the “topping up” if necessary (at a cost of about $1) ensures that she won’t be stranded on the way home. Currently, the only solution for being stranded is to be towed to where the car can be charged.

“I love the car! If you drive conservatively, the mileage is terrific, and I really love the way it drives,” she said. “It’s so quiet, it’s closer to driving a Cadillac than a Honda in terms of road noise.”

And her driving cost has been reduced drastically. Think miles per dollar rather than miles per gallon: $8 per commuting week for the EV versus $40 per commuting week to fill the gas tank in her previous car that got 25 miles per gallon.

“I got on the list when I heard that the LEAF would be available in this market,” she said. “I’m not a habitual early adopter, but for an electric vehicle, it’s been a lifelong interest.”

Editor’s Note: Through financial incentives, seven other Carolina employees have joined Leandra Vicci as drivers of fully electric vehicles. See the related story below.


Financial incentives help seven drive electric vehicles

Leandra Vicci might have been one of the first Carolina commuters to drive a fully electric car, but she isn’t the only one.

At the end of last month, seven other University employees became Nissan LEAF drivers through incentives provided by Advanced Energy, a North Carolina-based nonprofit focusing on energy efficiency initiatives, and funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act offered through the N.C. State Energy Office.

Last fall, Laura Corin, who is responsible for the University’s vehicle database, first heard about Advanced Energy’s initiative to deliver 40 Nissan LEAF plug-in EVs to people in the Triangle area. She quickly spread the word through several campus listservs.

Based on a behavioral study it conducted, Advanced Energy wanted to create clusters of EV owners rather than 40 individuals scattered throughout the Triangle. The idea was to entice other people to follow suit.

People who were interested in taking advantage of the financial incentives (up to $7,500 in tax breaks and another $7,500 from Advanced Energy) had to fill out a survey about their daily commute and transportation patterns. Across the Triangle area, 340 people completed surveys, Corin said.

From those, 24 who qualified for the program were Carolina employees. Advanced Energy drew names at random, and those people were invited to contact a local dealer for a test drive.

Seven Carolina employees ultimately purchased or leased Nissan LEAFs through the program and agreed to use them to commute to work at least three days a week for two years.

Of those seven, two work in Corin’s area, Facilities Services: B.J. Tipton, program manager for the Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling, and Mark Obenshain, assistant director for HVAC operations.

When Obenshain traded in his much older car for the LEAF, his 10-year-old commented, “There’s no smoke hole,” referring to the lack of a tailpipe releasing exhaust.

Tipton said she felt fortunate being chosen for the study. She’s still getting used to the “range anxiety” of driving an EV, but the more she uses the Eco mode, the more comfortable she becomes in driving longer distances.

“It’s a bit like driving on a one-eighth tank of gas all the time,” she said. “But it’s a great car and so fun to drive past the gas stations!”

Corin said she was proud of the campus’ response to the incentive program. “As a leader in the state, Carolina does want to promote a clean-energy alternative,” she said.

To make it easier for people who drive EVs, a University committee is examining the best options for placing charging stations on campus. The committee, led by Mary Beth Koza, director of the Department of Environment, Health and Safety, will develop a proposed University policy and recommendations for installing the stations.

Their goal, she said, is to have five to seven charging stations installed by the summer.

People who want to know more about EVs and commuting issues can join the campus electric vehicle commuters’ listserv,