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USA: California is nation’s key player in electric vehicle sales and development


FILE- In this Friday, June 22, 2012, file photo, robots assemble a Tesla Model S at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. U.S. industrial production rose in June as factories made more cars, machines and business equipment. Factory output recovered to levels reached earlier this spring but appears to be leveling off. The Federal Reserve says factory output rose 0.7 percent last month, after falling by the same amount in May.

California is the nation’s electric vehicle capital, hands down.

We buy them: 4,645 electric car purchases in 2011, representing nearly 57 percent of the national total, according to Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com.

We build them: Tesla’s electric sedan, the Model S, is assembled in Fremont.

We’re preparing for them: Electric charging stations are being built up and down the state, as are hydrogen fueling stations for fuel cell vehicles.

Despite that, electric vehicles – EVs for short – have not yet created a multibillion-dollar, job-filling juggernaut statewide.

By most estimates, the industry has created a few thousand jobs statewide over the past decade, a drop in the bucket in a state that employs millions. And 4,645 EV sales in California last year represent a tiny percentage of nearly 1.3 million new vehicle sales in California in 2011.

Those immersed in the industry have a simple response: Just wait.

They point to an expected tripling in the number of EV models over the next decade, a built-out infrastructure of assembly plants and charging stations, a gradual reduction in prices for electric vehicles and, yes, a massive public education process.

Industry proponents compare its current state to that of the mobile phone industry in the 1980s, when large, clunky phones first came on the market, looking like ultra-exotic devices to many consumers, and priced through the roof.

The proliferation of cellular towers, better phones and public acceptance changed all that: Worldwide mobile subscriptions went from about 12.5 million in 1990 to nearly 5.6 billion in 2011.

“I would say it’s very much like what we went through with portable cellphones … with the public not quite sure of what to make of things,” said dealer John Driebe, who sells multiple auto brands in the Elk Grove Automall.

Driebe’s Nissan dealership sells the Leaf, the all-electric, four-door, five-passenger vehicle that can go 70 to 80 miles when the lithium-ion battery is fully charged.

Driebe touts the Leaf’s generous lease terms, cheap cost of operation and a $2,500 tax credit, but he’s not making a fortune on the vehicle.

“I would say interest has been good. We continue to sell about four to five Leafs a month,” he said.

Driebe said many customers don’t know what to think about the Leaf on first inspection, but “we’ve found that once they get in and understand what they’re all about, they’re very enthusiastic.”

Consumers are far more familiar with traditional gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius, where an electric motor assists a gas-fueled engine. Californians bought 56,310 hybrids last year, nearly a quarter of all those sold in the United States, according to Edmunds.com.

But Driebe and others believe the Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt plug-in sedan and other all-electric cars will become more popular “as the price of the batteries come down.”

Lithium-ion technology continues to evolve, but right now batteries can add about $10,000 to the price of an electric vehicle. A Leaf starts around $35,000 to $37,000.

Mike Tinskey, director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure for Ford Motor Co., also believes lower battery prices will be a game-changer.

“We look at electrification as a marathon, not a sprint,” Tinskey said. “A lot will depend on the cost of the battery. There will be more and more customers as we’re able to reduce the price … From generation to generation, we’ll see how much expense we can take out.”

California is key to Ford’s electric car plans.

The Golden State is one of the rollout markets for the 2013 Ford Focus Electric, a five-passenger hatchback that is the automaker’s first full-production, all-electric passenger vehicle. It has range of around 75 to 80 miles and starts around $39,000.

Ford also has partnered with San Jose-based solar power company SunPower Corp. to offer Focus Electric customers a rooftop solar system that generates enough energy to offset the electricity required to charge the vehicle at night.

SunPower said the 2.5-kilowatt rooftop system produces an average of 3,000 kilowatt-hours annually and is geared to customers who drive about 1,000 miles a month.

Ford’s deal with SunPower is indicative of numerous EV developments – not necessarily earth-shaking but gradually adding to California’s electric car infrastructure.

Just this month, for example:

• China BAK Battery Inc., China’s leading lithium-based battery cells producer, announced a new contract to supply 540,000 cylindrical battery cells to San Dimas-based AC Propulsion, which will use them to power electric cars.

• Honda’s all-new 2013 Honda Fit EV was made available for lease in key California markets on Friday. For a three-year lease price of $389 a month, motorists get a compact with an estimated driving range of 82 miles.

• Flux Power of Escondido announced that its lithium battery technology is powering GreenTech Automotive’s MyCar, an electric two-seater touted by former President Bill Clinton.
Also in the mix is the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the West Sacramento-based public-private collaboration that was riding high when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was promoting the “hydrogen highway.” Fuel cells convert hydrogen into energy to run electric motors.

“We are still here; we’re still moving along,” said partnership spokeswoman Chris White. “We’re not the new kid on the block anymore, but progress continues to move forward.”

White acknowledged that other groundbreaking technologies have stolen some of the Fuel Cell Partnership’s thunder, but she added that, in California, nine hydrogen fueling stations are open to the public, another 20 are in use for fleets and nearly a dozen more “are in some form of development.”

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