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Electric Vehicles Charge Ahead in US

  • Tom Banse

The Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle goes on sale in late 2010.

The Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle goes on sale in late 2010.

Construction to begin on thousands of charging stations for 'clean' cars

What's billed as the biggest rollout of electric vehicle infrastructure in the world is about to begin in the United States.

Urban planners are deciding where to locate more than 11,000 charging stations in 11 major cities. They want those stations up and running when the first mass-market electric cars from Nissan and General Motors go on sale at the end of this year.

Last year, the Department of Energy awarded $100 million to eTec, an electric transportation research and development firm, to build electric vehicle charging networks in five states. Now is when the rubber meets the road, or more precisely, construction begins. Rendering of fast-charging station for electric cars

Rendering of fast-charging station for electric cars

"You know, there's a lot of excitement over this," says Rich Feldman, a regional manager for eTec. "This is going to result in oil savings. There's going to be jobs that come out of this project in terms of people installing the equipment. We're obviously launching a whole new industry here. There's going to be other spinoffs and economic opportunity."

Park, plug in and power up

Feldman is supervising the installation of more than 2,000 electric car chargers in the greater Seattle area in western Washington, and another 2,000 at homes and public places in four Oregon cities. They'll be near shopping centers, fast food restaurants and movie theaters, "the variety of places that people think about when they're able to park and leave the vehicle for an hour or two."

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Feldman's infrastructure company has partnered with Nissan. The car maker bought lots of ads during the Winter Olympics to promote its forthcoming all-electric model named the Leaf. Nissan is inviting drivers to sign up on its website to be among the first to buy one.

Feldman says eTec hopes to convince a subset of Nissan Leaf buyers to participate in a study. It wants 900 drivers in each state to let researchers from the Idaho National Lab monitor their driving and charging behaviors. "In exchange, they get a free, home-based charging station," he explains. Lessons learned about consumer preferences on placement, features and payment options could guide the eventual national rollout of charging infrastructure.

The Nissan Leaf and the plug-in Chevy Volt are supposed to hit U.S. dealerships late this year. They're the first wave of mass production electric cars. Mark Perry, who directs product planning for Nissan North America, says new owners will have no trouble finding a power station. "So the concern, 'If I use this vehicle or purchase this vehicle, can I get charging?' that's going to be a very easy answer here."

The price of the fully electric Nissan is being announced at the end of March. Then the company will start taking deposits from consumers, who likely will pay a substantial premium over a comparable gasoline powered compact. The four-door, five-passenger Leaf has a range of about 160 kilometers.

Perry says that Nissan will sell and lease the car and battery as a package. "There had been a lot of conversation about separation of car shell and battery and different approaches," he said. "Nissan is still going to explore different business models in other parts of the world. But here in the U.S., definitely an entire transaction ─ car and battery ─ purchase or lease."

A world of business models for electrics

Other companies and countries are trying different business models to lure consumers into electric cars. Denmark is one nation on the cutting edge. A California-based company called Better Place is working with Denmark's biggest utility to build the charging network there. It will offer battery swap-out stations, a feature not included initially in the United States. In Copenhagen, hotel owner Kirsten Brøchner gets behind the wheel of her leased Norwegian-made electric car.

In Copenhagen, hotel owner Kirsten Brøchner gets behind the wheel of her leased Norwegian-made electric car.

"We are building these switch stations here in Denmark ─ a number of them ─ so that when people want to cross the country, then they can very easily," Utility CEO Anders Eldrup says. "If it works according to the plans ─ we hope it will ─ then you can, within three to four minutes, faster than you can put gasoline in your car, you can switch the battery for a brand new one, which is fully charged, and off you go."

When the system starts up next year, Danish electric vehicle drivers will pay a monthly subscription to access the battery charging network. They could also pay by the mile.

But will consumers go for any of this? Vehicle researcher Valerie Karplus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the car market is big enough to support numerous niches. But she adds, "It's going to take consumers some time to sort out how they feel about going to a swap station, versus a gas station, versus charging at home. At the same time, today's internal combustion engine cars are going to get more and more efficient. You may not have to go the gas station all that often with one of those cars." She is looking forward to what she calls 'an interesting technology race'.

In Denmark, electric cars are exempt from the world's highest car registration tax. That's a big incentive, along with free parking on Copenhagen streets.

Washington State already exempts fully electric cars from its sales tax, and Nissan executives recently paid a call on legislators to talk up additional incentives. Free parking came up, along with access to carpool lanes. In Oregon, electric car enthusiasts want that state to increase the tax credit it offers to buyers of alternative fuel vehicles.

Similar conversations are happening in government offices in Europe, East Asia and U.S. state capitals. Many policymakers, as well as drivers, find the prospect of a zero-emissions ride electrifying.

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