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Petalumans take to emission-free driving

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Labcon Automation Technician Dan Cuenca said he was interested in the latest wave of electric vehicles, but wanted to wait and see how those cars held up in the real world before considering a purchase.

That curiosity put him behind the wheel of a Nissan Leaf hatchback last week, where Cuenca, who typically drives a gasoline-powered Lexus, pressed on the accelerator.

“Smooth,” he said, overtaking another car in a fluid maneuver before making the turn back to his company’s Lakeville Highway facility.

More than 400 people got into the driver’s seat last month to try out a fleet of electric vehicles at Labcon’s Petaluma headquarters, where the manufacturer of environmentally friendly lab equipment hosted a public event showcasing the battery-based autos.

The festival-like gathering was also a venue for Sonoma Clean Power, the Sonoma County-based provider of renewable energy-focused electricity, to promote a program offering thousands of dollars in discounts and free charging equipment for customers buying electric vehicles.

While several large employers in Sonoma County have held similar events for their workers, Labcon President Jim Happ said he wanted to use the venue to attract broader public interest in electric vehicles.

“There’s just a lot of companies around here who care, so why not have them over to our place?” he said.

Organized by Marin County-based Reach Strategies, the event gave participants access to a range of electric vehicles from several manufacturers.

The cars are generating interest with consumers in Sonoma County – as much as 40 percent of vehicles currently sold through Manly Automotive Group are either hybrids, which have both electric and gasoline drivetrains, or all-electric, said Internet and Upgrade Manager Erik Epting.

“We get a lot of curious clients,” said Epting, whose company operates several dealerships in Sonoma County and was among those participating in the event.

Sonoma Clean Power has issued 290 certificates toward the purchase of electric vehicles in Sonoma County through its Drive EverGreen program, which can knock up to $5,000 off the price of certain vehicles, said Kate Kelly, director of public affairs and marketing. The vehicle program applies to the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3, purchased through Jim Bone Nissan and Hansel BMW in Santa Rosa.

Those certificates are on top of state and federal rebates available for electric vehicle purchases, she noted. The program runs through Jan. 5, 2016, and has paid out a total of $297,500.

The electricity provider is seeking to support the presence of 10,000 electric vehicles in Sonoma County over the next five years, up from around 3,500 now, Kelly said.

“If people are driving clean vehicles and charging them on local, clean energy — that way, we can have the most impact,” she said.

The charger program has shipped 125 units, and runs through June 2017, she said. Sonoma Clean Power set aside $1.5 million for the electric vehicle incentive program, and $1 million for the free vehicle charger program.

At Labcon, Happ said his company has sought to differentiate itself from its competitors through environmentally friendly practices. Through rooftop solar and electricity purchased through Sonoma Clean Power, 51 percent of the company’s electricity is now provided through renewable sources.

The company also offers free electric vehicle charging stations, though Happ, who drives a plug-in Chevrolet Volt, said the demand was limited. Out of 250 people working at the site, four drive plug-in vehicles.

Happ said he hoped the incentive programs from Sonoma Clean Power would attract more electric vehicle drivers.

“They have incredible incentives right now,” he said.

Participants at the Labcon event were asked to fill out a survey describing their views on electric vehicles prior to a test drive, and to fill out a similar survey afterwards. Many of the pre-drive answers fell in the realm of “not sure,” said Amanda Scarborough, lead program strategist at Reach Strategies.

The after-the-fact responses were pretty predictable, she said.

“I’ve never seen anybody get out of the car without a big smile on their face,” Scarborough said.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Report.)