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Tech Companies Deploy Stations Needed to Power Cars

By Brian Donahue

As the first mass-produced electric cars hit the road in select markets in late 2010, thousands of charging
stations were being deployed across those same regions. Owners will do the bulk of their charging at home over­night, but they’ll want to know that they can juice up their car while they grab a bite, shop or even while they work.


Carbon Day Automotive

Supported by federal stimulus funds, a number of firms have

begun installing charging stations across the U.S., such as

this one in Elk Horn, Iowa.

That’s where companies such as ECOtality Inc. and Coulomb Technologies come in. The California-based tech firms have begun installing charging station networks across the U.S. with the assistance of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds.

ECOtality is tasked with supervising construction of the EV Project, the largest electric vehicle infrastructure rollout in the world, installing over 15,000 charging stations in 16 states. Its $230 million initiative is funded in part with a $114.8 million ARRA grant. Coulomb’s $37 million ChargePoint America program, using a $15 million grant, will provide 4,600 public and home stations in nine metropolitan areas by next October.

Most of the stations, including those installed in owners’ homes, use Blink Level 2 chargers, which take three to six hours to give a full charge. ECOtality is deploying 14,600 of these for the EV Project. The quickest charge will come via the Blink DC Fast Charger, capable of fully juicing a battery in under a half hour. Initial plans are to place a few hundred of these along major transportation corridors and select other sites. Most of the public charging stations are being located in parking garages, town halls, restaurants, shopping centers, workplaces, college campuses, train stations—anywhere a car owner might park for a few hours.

“People ask us, ‘What is the ideal place to put a public charging station?’ And the answer is always, ‘One where people are planning on staying for more than an hour or so,” said Scott Miller, East Coast director of Coulomb’s ChargePoint program. “If people are going in for 15 minutes, it really doesn’t make sense for them to charge. But if they’re going in for more than an hour, they’ll get a pretty good charge.”

“We’re targeting the places that drivers already visit frequently—shopping malls, pharmacies, coffee stores, movie theaters—so that owning an electric vehicle doesn’t mean changing your lifestyle,” said Kevin Morrow, executive vice president and co-founder of ECOtality North America.

ECOtality has also been pursuing partnerships with national retail chains, and recently announced Best Buy as its first multi-use host. It also has an agreement with BP to host DC Fast Chargers at 45 sites.

“There are a variety of reasons as to why businesses elect to host the charging stations. For Best Buy and BP, it was a chance to participate in the EV Project, not only making a statement to their customer base that they are progressive, but to better understand what role commercial public infrastructure will play in the future of electric vehicle deployment,” Morrow said.

Interest from businesses and consumers has been strong, he added, noting that the primary goal of the program is to produce data on driver behavior. The company will analyze where people are charging their cars, when, and for how long, and use that data for future infrastructure plans.

Likewise, utilities are interested in charging. While the power grid is capable of handling the coming load from plug-ins—a 2007 study by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council determined that if a third of all miles traveled in the U.S. were powered with grid elec­tricity, the added load would be far less than 10 percent—electric companies want to know where and when to expect the increased demand. Utilities have plenty of experience planning for these types of demand increases, having done so to adjust to new technologies like computers and plasma TVs.

“The greater worry for utilities is what are deemed ‘Prius clusters,’ or the tendency of early adopters to live amongst each other,” said John Voelcker of GreenCarReports.com. “If one home on a cul-de-sac of 14 houses adds an electric car, that’s a manageable load, equivalent to about four plasma TVs. But if four homes do, and they all set their cars to start recharging at 11 p.m. exactly, the neighborhood transformer may not be able to handle the load.”

As for public charging, one lingering question is whether there will be enough stations on the road for the tens of thousands of cars suddenly cruising the streets in 2011.

“You look at how many gas stations there are out there today and you say, ‘Are there going to be that many charging stations?’ No,” Miller said. “In the New York metropolitan area we’re putting in 250 to 300 public charging stations. That’s not enough. But from an investment standpoint that the government wanted to make, I think it’s a really good initial deployment. ... The whole purpose of them is that people see them and think, ‘Do I want to buy electric vehicles, do I feel that I can charge?’ And if they see them out there, they’ll say yes.”

“We see electric vehicles really emerging as a popular choice for drivers,” Morrow said, “and we will keep growing the infrastructure needed to support the additional waves of EVs on the road.”

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