March 15, 2010 By Merrill Douglas
President Barack Obama has called on the U.S. to put 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. But the country won't get anywhere close to that number until drivers are confident they can find places to recharging stations.
How best to deploy a network of charging stations and jump-start the market for EVs are questions at the heart of the EV Project, a two-year study in five states that will put drivers in thousands of all-electric cars starting late this year. The U.S. Department of Energy announced a $99.8 million grant to the project in August 2009.
While an efficient gas-powered car can run 350 miles or more on a 12-gallon fill up, a battery charge will take an all-electric vehicle only 100 to 200 miles. Most electric car drivers will recharge them at home or at work, but if they want to use their vehicles for more than just local trips, they will need to plug them in while out and about.
Fear of getting stranded if they drive too far makes many people leery of electric cars. "People already have 'range anxiety,'" said Colleen Crowninshield, manager of the Clean Cities Program at the Pima Association of Governments (PAG), in Tucson, Ariz., one of more than 40 partners in the EV Project.
Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. (eTec), a Phoenix-based developer of vehicle charging stations that heads the project consortium, will install 4,700 chargers in the homes and businesses of drivers who participate in the study, as well as 6,510 chargers in commercial and public locations.
For the study, Nissan North America will provide 4,700 of its new Nissan Leaf electric cars to consumers and fleet owners. Other partners include state and local governments, energy companies and other corporations and nonprofits, plus the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory. Participating regions are: Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; San Diego; Portland, Eugene, Salem and Corvallis, Ore.; Seattle; and Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn.
The market for EVs barely exists right now, but that's due to change in the next few years. According to Electric Vehicles: 10 Predictions for 2010, from Pike Research in Boulder, Colo., world sales of hybrid EVs, plug-in hybrids and pure EVs will total about 1.3 million by 2012. Forty-eight percent of those vehicles will be sold in the Asia-Pacific region, 38 percent in North America and 10 percent in Western Europe.
As Nissan and other automakers gear up to mass-produce electric cars, governments and companies worldwide are focusing on how to roll out a charging infrastructure to support those vehicles, said Donald Karner, CEO of eTec.
"With this project, we took the opportunity to develop a method to study the use of infrastructure," Karner said. Researchers will use the EV Project to try to learn, for example, how many public-access chargers a region needs to make drivers feel comfortable and how local utility rates affect the use of chargers.
The project also will explore which business models make it attractive for business owners and governments to install charging stations. Might a big box retailer offer charging for a fee, or give it away with a minimum purchase? Will business owners let concessionaires install chargers on their properties? Will drivers pay on the spot with cash or credit cards, or will they purchase subscriptions?
"We've never really had enough vehicles to test this," Karner said. "Until you have a field demonstration, you never know for sure what's going to work and what's not."
For Nissan, the project offers a chance to fine-tune its go-to-market strategy for the Leaf. "Are we going to get everything right? We hope so," said Tracy Woodard, director of government affairs at Nissan North America. "But we know that there are probably some kinks to be worked out."