"Sort of a chicken-and-egg situation," says Tonia Buell, a manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). She's describing the challenge her office faces in installing charging stations for electric vehicles: People are reluctant to buy the vehicles absent any infrastructure to keep them charged conveniently, but installing the infrastructure makes little sense until more electric cars are out there.
Still, Buell and many like her are toiling to bring electric cars into the mainstream of national life. As project development manager for WSDOT's Office of Public-Private Partnerships, her immediate job is overseeing the installation of 12 to 14 charging stations along I-5 — from British Columbia to Oregon — by the end of 2011. The $1.32 million program will begin with two chargers that will welcome people arriving in Washington from Canada and Oregon: one at the rest area in Custer, north of Bellingham, and the other at the Gee Creek rest stop, just outside Vancouver, Wash.
Charging will cost nothing for consumers, and a sponsor will maintain the equipment. But these are so-called "level 2" chargers, and they will take four to eight hours to replenish a car's battery fully, with little for the driver to do in the meanwhile save take a nap or read a book. Otherwise expressed, each hour of charging time will give the car no more than 25 miles of driving range. Of course, the driver may only need 25 miles of power to complete the day's errands and get home, where the vehicle can be put on a household circuit to charge fully.
The other 10 to 12 devices to be installed along I-5 will be faster, "level 3" chargers, which use a higher voltage and promise much more convenience. Charging will take 15 to 30 minutes, and each device will be located on private property and owned by a profit-making business. The driver will pay whatever that business feels it can charge.
There are “very strict” federal laws, Buell said, that constrain retail business activity at freeway rest areas, so the high-speed, for-pay chargers are a natural fit for freeway-accessible malls and travel plazas, where eateries and shopping opportunities will beckon electric motorists to spend some money — or, probably, additional money — while their cars drink their juice.
“We want the travel centers and shopping centers to benefit from this equipment, in drawing customers,” she said.
She stressed that the program will “fill in the gaps” left by other charging-station initiatives already underway. Those included the EV (for “electric vehicle”) Project and the ChargePoint Network, both of which are managed by private companies with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and private sources. The EV Project covers six states, mostly in the West, while ChargePoint has stations operating in 22 states from coast to coast.
“We're trying for technical compatibility with their projects and others across the country,” Buell said. “Our electric highway will support the mass-produced electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf.” Tesla Motors, whose Roadster is the only highway-speed electric car now on the U.S. market, is planning to make an adapter that will let its cars use the I-5 chargers, which will adhere to a new, industry-wide technical standard established since the Tesla's debut in 2006.
Buell's project is being administered by WSDOT and the state's Department of Commerce energy program, under the terms of DOE funding. Gov. Chris Gregoire has trumpeted the effort as part of the West Coast Green Highway project, whose reach extends the full length of the I-5 corridor from Canada to Mexico.
But what are drivers heading east and west through Washington expected to do? According to the Idaho Transportation Department, that state's 83,557 square miles contain not one public charging station. Using DOE information, a July report in The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer put the nationwide count at “fewer than 1,000 stations, mostly in California.” While thousands more are planned, their total, for the near term, will be far less than the nation's 160,000 gas stations — which, moreover, provide fuel for a much longer drive. When will an electric vehicle become more than an I-5 corridor vehicle?
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