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USA: EV Project: Slower than projected, but alive and well

The six-state effort to put charging stations for electric vehicles in public and private venues — and research what it’ll take to ramp up support for EVs — is slowly moving forward, looking to wrap in June 2013.

The EV Project, led by the San Francisco-based transportation and storage technology company ECOtality Inc., is valued at $230 million. Originally set to end in Oct. 2012, the project has moved slower than expected as a learning curve around production and installation of EV chargers has pitched sharply and new vehicles and regions have joined in. The project also encountered delays in vehicle delivery from tsunami-troubled Japan and from slow progress by the Society of Automotive Engineers in developing standards for vehicle and charging manufacturers.

Those involved, however, say they are culling valuable data from the effort, which is intended to gather information about what it will take to reach a federal goal of putting 1 million EVs on the road by 2015.

“I think that’s really the value of what we’re getting out of this research study,” said Charles Allcock, director of economic development at Portland General Electric, which has worked closely with ECOtality to site and install public charging stations. He points to new information about charging habits, retail partnerships, charger locations, installation techniques and vehicle adoption. All of those things place Oregon among states best prepared for EV adoption, as well a putting the state in a position to build infrastructure for EVs around real learning, not just abstracts, he said.

The EV Project kicked off in Oct. 2009 with a $99.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, followed by a second, $15 million grant the following year. Organizers say it is about half funded with public money. The remaining funds come from project partners, including cities, universities and corporate sponsors interested in the research.

Through the project, ECOtality is tasked with deploying approximately 14,000 of its Blink brand chargers in 18 cities in six states, including Oregon, where efforts are concentrated around Portland, Eugene, Salem and Corvallis. The company has 144 employees on the job.

In its target cities, the EV Project puts chargers both in public venues like shopping centers and on streets, as well as in people’s homes and businesses. Fast-charging DC chargers are installed in public venues. Slower AC chargers, along with $1,200 in installations costs, are given to qualifying Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF owners. The entire effort allows for data to be collected and analyzed from drivers, helping to evaluate next steps as more electric vehicles hits the road.

So far in Oregon, 234 public chargers have hit the streets, with another 24 planned by the end of March. Residential chargers total 435, about 20 percent of those at businesses or governments with EV fleets like Oregon’s Department of Transportation, which has five EVs, and Frito Lay and Staples, which use Smith electric trucks for deliveries.

In total, Oregon’s 669 chargers falls short of the 2,000 originally planned for the state. According to Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen, spokeswoman for ECOtality, those targets shifted when the project added San Francisco, Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C., and now remain fluid based on where electric vehicles are being sold and enrolled.

“A lot of it does depend on the number of people who sign up to purchase the Leaf,” she said.

And Oregon EV buyers are in roughly the middle of the consumer pack. The most enthusiastic consumers in the project live in San Francisco with 1,044 EVs purchased and enrolled in the project at the end of 2011. Washingtonians (607), primarily in the Seattle area, and San Diego (622) residents leapt ahead of Oregon in the number of EVs purchased and enrolled at the end of the fourth quarter. Oregon at that point was at 365.

Still, Oregon was roughly neck-and-neck with Los Angeles drivers (384) and zipped past Phoenix (210), Tuscan (64), Nashville (289) and other areas being studied for EV adoption, though some cities like Washington, D.C., (45) and Houston (43) are targeted for the Chevy Volt sales and added late. As discussions in Oregon focus on retail companies like Sears, Kohl’s and Walmart, which are being encouraged to follow Fred Meyer’s lead in installing chargers, the EV Project hit 1.3 million miles driven on Oregon roads.

“There are various ways of thinking about that, but if those were gasoline miles, that’s 43,000 gallons of gasoline not burned” at a rate of 30 miles per gallon, said Rich Feldman, Pacific NW regional manager for ECOtality North America in Seattle, who oversees the EV Project in Oregon and Washington following initial planning work in Oregon by Dave Mayfield, who is now a principal in Sustainable Transportation Strategies.

As the project probes exactly how to push mass adoption of EVs toward 1 million cars, Feldman said, “our real purpose is to understand what people need,” as the project collects copious data about where EV owners drive, where they charge and the best ways for installing and siting charging stations.

Feldman said the project has so far inspired developers to pre-wire and build electrical capacity for EV charging into parking garages; clarified how to set policy around EVs, such as Oregon’s statewide revamp of building codes to speed charging installations in homes; and how to work with businesses to install chargers, promoting advertising opportunities and a sustainability mission.

“Because there are so few EVs around, convincing a business owner to give up a parking spot and sign an agreement is a harder sell,” said Art James, a senior project executive in ODOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, which joined the EV Project at the request of former Gov. Ted Kulongski.

He said while 75 percent to 80 percent of EV charging has so far taken place at the home, “the next big area is workplace charging. Because cars tend to be at home or at work for most people, having employers install places where people can charge at work is really an issue for most people.”
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