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Couple Pioneers Green Lifestyle

Richard and Pauline Mather were the first residential customers with Salem Electric to install a solar system at their West Salem home, and just recently they were among the first in the Willamette Valley to purchase a Nissan LEAF.

Couple Pioneers Green Lifestyle

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By CapiLynn

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In renewable energy lingo, Richard and Pauline Mather are early adopters. Most of us would probably just call them trendsetters. Some might even call them pioneers.

The Mathers were the first residential customers with Salem Electric to install a solar system at their West Salem home, and just recently they were among the first in the Willamette Valley to purchase a Nissan LEAF.

The couple have had the all-electric vehicle a little more than a month, and they absolutely love it.

"We smile going by gas stations," Pauline said.

The Nissan LEAF is a five-door hatchback with zero tailpipe emissions. It doesn't even have a tailpipe. Its official Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy rating is 99 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent.

The vehicle has been available in limited quantities and so far only in select markets. Nissan launched the 2011 LEAF in seven states, including Oregon. The car also has been available only to customers who make online reservations, such as the Mathers.

They placed their order in April 2010 and then waited more than a year to drive their car home.

As thrilled as they are about the money they are saving at the gas pump, the LEAF has been somewhat of a point of contention.

"We fight about who's going to take our other car (a 1999 Saturn) or this one," Pauline said, smiling.

The LEAF, with a 100-mile range on a full charge, is such a contrast to the custom hot rod I wrote about earlier this week. Not nearly as sexy, but much more practical, tons better for the environment, and still pretty darned cute.

"That's what everyone says, that it's a really cute car," Pauline said. "Most people are not that impressed that it's all electric, to tell you the truth."

Not that the Mathers are out to impress anyone.

They are proud to be among a growing number of environmentally conscious people who are adding solar panels to their homes and businesses and purchasing hybrid or all-electric vehicles.

"It's all part of the larger net-zero lifestyle," said Claire Carlson, executive director of Solar Oregon. "If you do renewable energy at home, the obvious next step is transportation."

 The Mathers are "Solar Ambassadors" for the organization, eager to share their enthusiasm for solar power, their reasons for going solar and their experiences living with solar.

They hosted a solar party last weekend at their home, and in attendance were representatives from National Solar Inc., the company through which they purchased their system, and Chuck Colvin Auto Center in McMinnville, where they bought their Nissan LEAF.

The Mathers went solar at their home in December 2009, the first Salem Electric customers to do so.

"They were definitely pioneers," said Kim Berhorst of National Solar.

"We were the guinea pigs," Richard added, chuckling.

The Mathers, both 75, might not be what you would consider typical renewable energy customers.

"They are typical in that they are walking the talk to use reusable energy in their everyday living," Berhorst said.

Their property is landscaped completely with rock and drought-resistant plants. There is no lawn to mow or water.

They owned four different hybrid vehicles, dating back to 1999, before getting the LEAF. Their first hybrid was a Honda Insight and their last a Toyota Camry.

"It's kind of how we were raised," Pauline said. "His parents were conservative, and being of Dutch descent, my parents were conservative. They just learned to do with what they had, and they improvised."

Mounted on the roof of the Mathers' 1,600-square-foot home are 14 solar panels, which save them $20 to $40 a month on their electric bill. The system cost $23,800, according to Berhorst of National Solar.

"I wasn't looking at the return on investment, the age we're at," Richard said.

However, Pauline said they feel good knowing that the house will be producing its own energy long after they are gone, and she doesn't mind knowing they are setting an example by being early adopters or early customers of a particular product or technology.

"It keeps us young," she said.

On the other hand, details in the two hefty operating manuals that came with their Nissan LEAF have sometimes been overwhelming.

 "It's a stretch for two old people," Pauline said, grinning.

The LEAF — which stands for Leading, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable, Family Car — has a digital dashboard system that looks very high tech.

A meter in the lower left-hand corner gauges how economically you drive, in little trees. As you begin to drive, a tree graphic begins to grow and adds more branches. After completing one tree, another starts to grow.

The center console has a gear shift that looks more like a computer mouse. The touch screen navigation system, among other things, keeps track of the locations where you charge up.

The price for the fully loaded model the Mathers bought was about $34,000. However, with federal tax credits of up to $7,500 and an Oregon tax credit of $1,500, the cost can be reduced to around $25,000.

The battery packs can be charged through a standard 120-volt outlet, a 240-volt outlet, or a 480-volt direct-current charger like the ones recently installed at stations around downtown and West Salem. The higher the voltage, the less time it takes to charge.

The car comes with a portable trickle charging cable, tucked neatly in a bag under the hatchback, that can be plugged into any household outlet. From a dead battery, Richard said it would take 16 to 18 hours to get a full charge. The Mathers also have a charging dock system, with 18-foot-long cord and six- to eight-hour charging time, installed on the wall of their garage.

"The really important thing about this car is it's for people driving under 100 miles a day," said Jacob Halsey of Chuck Colvin Auto Center. "If you go 101 or 120, this car is not going to be any fun."

Halsey said the dealership has sold 12 LEAFs to date and delivered eight, including a glacier-pearl-colored one to the Mathers.

The Mathers did their homework and decided the LEAF was the perfect electric car for them.

"Our trips, 98.9 percent of them, are under 100 miles," Richard said.

They really haven't pushed it to see how far they can go on a single charge. They shouldn't have to worry with 14 new electric vehicle charging stations in downtown and West Salem.

The Mathers took me for a drive through their neighborhood, and I was surprised by how spacious the interior is. The LEAF is more like a standard car than some of the other electric cars on the road.

"Everyone comments on how big it is," Pauline said. "It sits high and is extremely comfortable."

 It also has power, which Richard was quick to demonstrate. He punched it and whipped my head back against the seat.

"It's got pick-up," Pauline said, "more than we'll ever need."

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