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USA: Seattle area gears up for new mass market electric cars


The Seattle area is starting to lay the groundwork for a new crop of electric and plug-in hybrid cars expected to hit the market later this year.

The King County Council this week approved a measure to build a network of up to 200 public charging stations at county park-and-ride, vanpool and van-share sites. At the same time, an electric vehicle program called the EV Project, supported by a $100 million Department of Energy stimulus grant, is moving ahead with plans to install 2,000 charging outlets in homes, parking lots and public libraries in the Puget Sound region starting this fall.

The surge of planning reflects the growing excitement over electric vehicles, which produce few or no emissions linked to global warming. Most of the major automakers plan to roll out new mass-market electric or plug-in hybrid cars over the next several years.

The Nissan all-electric Leaf and Chevrolet’s plug-in hybrid Volt are due to hit the market in late 2010. Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford also are planning new electric cars.

The charging station push is considered critical to creating a market for electric cars. While owners are expected to do most charging at home, they will need a network of publicly accessible charging stations to reduce “range anxiety,” the fear of driving too far without a way to recharge the battery.

Like many parts of the country, the Seattle area has only a rudimentary system to support electric cars. The handful of public charging stations, including sites at the Issaquah Highlands and Eastgate park-and-ride garages, have slow-charging 110-volt outlets. Such chargers will take up to 21 hours to fully charge a Nissan Leaf, for example.

For that reason, the electric car infrastructure projects ramping up today are focusing on faster-charging options. The EV Project, run by the Electric Transportation Engineering Company (eTec), a subsidiary of Tempe, Ariz.-based ECOtality, will install free 220-volt home chargers for 900 Seattle-area Nissan Leaf buyers. These can charge a Leaf in four to eight hours. The catch: Buyers must agree to participate in a study of their driving habits that will help planning for future charging infrastructure.

“The study is going to produce a ‘lessons learned’ about how it (the Leaf) is used, how frequently, and the best sites for publicly available charging stations,” said Rich Feldman, the project’s Pacific Northwest regional manager.

The EV Project will install an additional 1,150 of the 220-volt chargers in public spots. It’s also planning to install 45 higher-speed 440-volt chargers in the area, including five along Interstate 5. The 440-volt stations can charge a Leaf in less than half an hour, Feldman said.

Electric car enthusiasts welcome the new infrastructure.

Stephen Johnsen plugs in at the Eastgate Park and Ride charging station. (PSBJ Photo/Dan Schlatter)
“There’s almost nothing right now,” said Stephen Johnsen, vice president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association. He said the existing public charging locations aren’t adequate.

“It takes so many hours at that low of a power level that it isn’t very practical,” said Johnsen, who owns two electric cars, a 1997 S-10 pickup and an ’88 Pontiac Fiero.

The EV Project has chosen the Seattle area as one of five target markets and plans to invest $18 million to $20 million here in charging infrastructure. (The other target cities are in Arizona, California, Oregon and Tennessee.)

Other sources of federal funding for electric cars are flowing into the greater Seattle area. The Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition, which received a $15 million petroleum reduction grant from the U.S. Energy Department in December, is doling out $1.2 million in local cities and counties to expand charging infrastructure. It’s also funding a $500,000 pilot at Shoreline Community College to test a solar-energy parking canopy for charging electric vehicles.

King County and the cities of Mercer Island and Auburn have also received some funding from the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program to support electric vehicles. The King County Council is planning to tap $1 million in federal grants for its charging-station project, which will run for three years.

The Puget Sound region, with its environmentally minded populace, is seen as a key potential market for electric cars. The region’s power mix is another draw. The Pacific Northwest relies heavily on hydropower, which does not generate carbon emissions. (Seattle City Light draws 90 percent of its power from hydro.) That means the overall carbon footprint of electric vehicles in the region — from smokestack to tailpipe — is better than in other parts of the country.
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Source: techflash.com

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