America’s Electric Car Capitals

America’s Electric Car Capitals
Joann Muller, Forbes.com 06.21.10

DETROIT — Virtually every major automaker is preparing to introduce some sort of plug-in electric vehicle in the next few years, but how and where will they be recharged? Without a network of convenient charging stations, many consumers are reluctant to embrace battery-powered cars. (Forget how much the technology will set you back.)

Eager to be at the forefront of the electric car era, some cities are preparing faster than others. Places like Portland, San Diego and Seattle, for example, are collaborating with carmakers and local utilities to map their strategies. But it’s not just the usual West Coast cities leading the way. Indianapolis is positioning itself as the Midwest’s electric car capital, and cities like Nashville, Raleigh and Tampa are busy getting plug-in ready, too.

In Raleigh, the city and surrounding Research Triangle area are working to streamline the permitting process for residential charging stations, and they are studying an electrification plan for freight trucks.

Tampa’s metropolitan area, with more than 2 million people, is debunking the myth that EVs will be ushered in only by West Coast cities. Tampa has joined Project Get Ready, a national nonprofit initiative by the Rocky Mountain Institute to help cities prepare for plug-in electric vehicles.

Indianapolis is home to advanced battery maker EnerDel, and a nearby factory that will produce Think City electric cars. The city is emerging as the Midwest’s leading plug-in hub.

Nashville, meanwhile, is the North American headquarters for Nissan ( NSANY – news – people ), maker of the battery-powered Leaf. So it’s a natural hub for electric vehicles.

But there are risks in getting too far ahead of the EV movement. Even some of the most ardent supporters of electric vehicles are scratching their heads at London’s audacious plan to install 25,000 charging points throughout the city–essentially a charging station within a mile of every citizen.

“The worst advertisement for an electric vehicle is a charging station that isn’t being used,” says Michael Rowand, director of advanced customer technology for Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy ( DUK – news – people ), which supplies electric power to 4 million U.S. consumers. Communities need enough public chargers to reassure those suffering from “range anxiety” that they won’t be stranded with a depleted battery, he said, but not so many that people conclude EVs are useless.

It’s not just a case of installing a few public charging stations in front of City Hall. To be plug-in ready, cities have to make sure utilities can handle the extra load, right down to individual neighborhoods, and that car owners can upgrade their home electrical system, if needed, without a lot of red tape.

“Permitting can be a bit of a nightmare,” said Mathew Mattila, manager of Project Get Ready, an initiative founded by the Rocky Mountain Institute. Just ask consumers in New York and California who bought BMW’s Mini-E electric cars last year. “People had an EV sitting dead in their garage for months because they couldn’t get a permit for a charging station,” he said. “It was a great flop, but it was also a good learning experience.”

To accelerate development of electric vehicles, the U.S. Department of Energy is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support programs in select cities. The EV Project, for instance, is a $100 million effort to deploy 4,700 Nissan Leaf electric vehicles and 11,210 chargers in five states: Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Tennessee. It is headed up by Ecotality, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based maker of charging systems. Coulomb Technologies, another charger company, received a $15 million DOE grant to provide nearly 5,000 charging stations in nine cities: Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Sacramento, the San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area, Redmond, Wash., and Washington. Ford Motor ( F – news – people ), General Motors and Smart USA are partners in that program.

Installing public charging sites is expensive. General Electric ( GE – news – people ), which also makes chargers, estimates that for every dollar spent on charging equipment, another 50 cents could be spent on electrical system infrastructure. That doesn’t even include the cost of digging up sidewalks and parking garages to install the units.

Right now, public chargers are mostly for show, anyway. Most EV owners will charge their cars at home, overnight. But even this is not as simple as it sounds.

Most electric cars can plug into a regular, 120-volt household outlet–fine for short-range EVs or plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt. (It’ll take about eight hours to charge a Volt to its full 40-mile range. A backup gasoline motor will provide extra miles, if necessary). But for pure EVs, which have bigger batteries, charging on a 120-volt outlet will take too long. Most EV owners will want a 240-volt outlet (used for appliances like electric stoves or clothes dryers) instead. If your home isn’t equipped, you’ll need to have an electrician rewire your garage–and install the charger, which could cost anywhere from $300 to $1,500. (The government will reimburse 50% of the costs, up to $2,000.)

Super-fast chargers–480-volt plugs capable of having your car juiced up in 20 minutes or so–will be available in select cities, but until U.S. standards for those quick-charge connectors are set, availability will be spotty.

Utilities at the forefront of EV readiness efforts, including Southern California Edison ( SCE.PR.B – news – people ) and Duke Energy, say there is plenty of juice available on the grid to power electric cars. But if all the early adopters are concentrated in a handful of cities, that could strain transformers and switching equipment at the local level. The trick, utilities say, will be encouraging people to charge their vehicles at off-peak times so that there’s enough electricity to meet peak demand on hot summer afternoons.

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