Federal Government, Private Sector Set to Deploy Electric Vehicle Chargers in Test Markets

Beginning in 2010, Seattle, Washington along with four other U.S. cities will become the testing labs for a massive federal and private sector experiment on electric vehicles.

Last month the federal government announced that it will make nearly $100 million available for the installation of approximately 2,500, 220 volt electric vehicle chargers each in Seattle, Phoenix, Nashville, Portland and San Diego.

Colin Read, vice president of corporate development for ECOtality based in Scottsdale, Arizona says, “No one has ever attempted something on this scale.” ECOtality’s subsidiary company, eTec, has been selected to install the chargers including 400 charges for use by the U.S. Postal Service and another 100 to be installed across New York State.

In addition to eTec, approximately 40 other private companies, including Japanese automaker, Nissan, will match the federal appropriations. Read says that local municipalities will not be required to invest financially in the initiative. In his hometown of Seattle, roughly $20 million is earmarked for the installation of approximately 2,550 chargers.

The ambitious project is timed to coincide with the launch of the much-anticipated Nissan LEAF all electric vehicle (AEV) and General Motors’ Chevy Volt in late 2010. Nissan is hoping to have 5,000 LEAFs on the roads of the five text cities by early 2011.

No one currently has a reliable estimate of how fast electric vehicles will be adopted by consumers, but automakers are banking on that eventuality. There are no less than 40 electric vehicles on the drawing boards of virtually every major auto maker, and start up ventures are cropping up all the time, each with its own unique take on the direction the industry will take in the near future.

The federal government hopes to have contracts for the installation of chargers finalized sometime in October. The project is scheduled to begin next summer in hopes of completing the process no later than summer of 2011.

There are myriad details to be figured out between now and next summer’s target launch date.

According to Read, 1,000 of the units will be installed, free of charge, at the homes of Seattle’s 1,000 LEAF buyers. The exact locations of the remaining 1,550 units have yet to be determined beyond the broad plan of distributing them between the remaining four test market cities.

One factor that will figure heavily into the placement strategy is the actual driving range of the autos the charging units are designed to support. Nissan claims a 100 mile range for the LEAF. The Chevy Volt’s electric battery is expected to achieve a 40 mile rage but includes a conventional internal combustion engine that extends its overall range. Read, like many others, believes that parking garages and other areas where the vehicles will sit idle for one to two hours are ideal locations for charges. It can take up to eight hours to fully charge a battery using conventional 220-volt outlet. So called “fast chargers” can accomplish the task in a fraction of that time.

It is expected that most drivers will fully charge their batteries overnight from their home charging units and will only need to “top off” the charge during their daily travels.

In addition to the placement of the chargers, there is the question of standardization. The goal is to design the chargers to work seamlessly with every model of electric vehicle. Once a standard is decided upon, the pressure will be on automakers to conform to it in their subsequent designs.

Another consideration is how to best enable the charging units to accept payment for the electricity used. Some AEV proponents claim that the amount of electricity required to charge a battery is so small and the cost so little, that businesses should provide the electric current free of charge to their patrons as a way to increase business. More likely scenarios include the existing “pay at the pump” model while some see future generations of AEVs having onboard bank transaction capabilities.

At this point, the only certainty is that the foreseeable future of the auto industry is being built around electric battery power.

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