Saturday, July 3, 2010

Just Plug In And Drive Out: Recharge Stations Coming


Just plug in and drive out: Recharge stations coming
Charlotte could see dozens of sites for charging electric cars by next summer.
By John Murawski and Bruce Henderson

Posted: Saturday, Jul. 03, 2010

Dozens of electric-vehicle charging stations will spring up around Charlotte by this time next year, shortly after the first plug-in consumer electric vehicles hit the streets.

Duke Energy is advising local governments and employers that want to install charging stations. Duke expects about 100 to be ready in its N.C. service territory, most in the Charlotte area, by next summer. Sixty to 80 public stations will go up in its S.C. territory.

The research hub of Raleigh expects about 200 public charging stations. The charging network, to be built over the next two years, will turn the Triangle into a Southeastern testing ground for electric cars. Now, there are fewer than a dozen public recharge outlets in North Carolina.

The stations - expected in parking decks and shopping centers and at curbsides - are the first of about 350 planned throughout the state, financed largely by the federal stimulus. The pods will be concentrated in urban areas, the preferred habitat of electric cars, which are mostly used for short commutes and quick errands.

The first recharging stations will be activated toward the end of this year, coinciding with the planned commercial release of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric car and the Nissan Leaf all-electric auto. Expected price estimates on the vehicles range from $32,000 to $40,000, and buyers would get a $7,500 federal tax credit.

By the time the statewide network of charging stations is complete in late 2012, most of the nation's automakers are expected to be selling electric models.

About $1 per 40 miles

In Charlotte, Duke is still working out the details of providing service to charging stations, said spokesman Greg Efthimiou. At least initially, the facility owners or managers are expected to pay for charging costs. Duke estimates those costs at about $1 for a 40-mile charge.

Electric vehicle drivers will also want to charge up at home. As interest grows after the release of the Volt and Leaf, Efthimiou said, "we will have to determine how to accommodate that demand."

The city of Charlotte will also put in up to 10 public charging stations uptown, along transit lines and in job centers. The $240,000 it expects to spend on the stations - and for up to five electric cars for use by city staff - will come from a $6.8 million federal energy-efficiency grant.

Precise locations are still being worked out. But at least two charging stations will be placed along uptown streets, said Allison Billings, a transportation consultant for Charlotte Center City Partners. Stations will also be installed at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center and at CATS park-and-ride locations, she said.

Installing charging stations soon after the release of the Volt and Leaf is intended to reassure potential buyers that they can readily recharge the vehicles, Billings said.

Bank of America plans to install four stations by September - two at 111 E. Seventh St. and two at 950 W. Trade St. The bank will put up six more stations throughout the city in 2011. Wells Fargo also plans to install stations at yet-undetermined locations.

Centralina Council of Governments, meanwhile, is working with local officials in the nine-county Charlotte region to prepare for a growing network of charging stations, said COG official Jason Wager.

Although drivers are expected to charge their batteries at home overnight, advocates say public charging stations will be necessary to help potential consumers overcome "range anxiety" - the fear of losing battery power and being stranded. Electric cars typically go about 40 miles on one charge, but new models coming soon can go twice that far between re-juicing.

Relieving 'range anxiety'

Advocates say that once the basic network of charging stations is in place, further expansion will be driven by public demand for charging stations in company parking lots and other public areas. Enthusiasts hope that in some distant future, public recharging pods will be as ubiquitous as gasoline stations or ATMs.

"What we're doing now is laying the groundwork for future increase in demand," said Kathy Boyer, the energy and environment manager at the Triangle J Council of Governments, a regional coordinating agency. "It's important to alleviate some of the concern people have about range anxiety."

The local expansion is part of a $440 million push by the federal government to promote the electric automobile.

Feds promote electrics

Recipients of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus grants are expected to install roughly 16,000 recharging stations around the country, vastly expanding the nation's current network - now fewer than 1,000 stations, mostly in California. By comparison, America has about 160,000 gas stations, according to the Association for Convenience and Petroleum Retailing.

"It's a competition among regions and among big metro markets," said Matt Rogers, senior adviser on the Recovery Act to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. "The value of electric charging stations is much higher if you can create a network."

The cost of a public charging station runs between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on features and other factors, said Jeffrey Barghout, Advanced Energy's director of transportation initiatives.

The allure of the electric car has prompted businesses to install recharging stations at their own cost. Cisco Systems, for example, has installed two at its Research Triangle Park campus that can accommodate a total of four cars. Electric cars still experiment

The electric car is still a social experiment with an uncertain outcome. Electric charging stations are definitely no panacea for people in a hurry. Charging a car can take several hours on a 220-volt outlet and up to eight hours on a 120-volt outlet.

Even juicing up in an emergency for the few extra miles needed to get home will likely require a half-hour or more. Don Crohan, a Raleigh resident who drives a retrofitted all-electric 1986 Pontiac Fiero with no air conditioning, said electric cars have failed to gain wide acceptance because they're widely considered impractical.

If they flop again, the charging stations will become symbols of that failure.

"As an emergency depot they might be helpful," said Crohan, who is also director of operations for the 100-member Triangle Electric Auto Association. "But what could happen is those stations will sit there and people will point at them and laugh."

One obvious benefit of electric cars is that they're cheaper to operate. A 40-mile commute costs about $1 in electrons, compared to about $4 for the amount of gasoline many cars need for the same distance.

Recent advances in battery technology, coupled with hybrid technologies, are creating cars that can get 100 miles per gallon and are reported to drive 100 miles on a single charge.

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