Electric motoring: What’s down NW roads?

No one has used the Lopez Island electric-vehicle charger since it was installed in June. Credit: Rebecca Andera

“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? 

“Down the road we’ll probably expand more on the east-west corridors,” Buell said, but plans appear inchoate. 

Which returns the discussion to the chicken and egg — the analogy also used by Michael Leone of Green Global Communities, a Hawaiian energy resource company participating in that state’s charging-station initiative. In 2009, the Aloha State became the nation’s first to mandate a statewide charger network, but results have been meager. “The law requires at least one public charger to be installed by the end of 2011 at every large parking lot throughout the state — including the state’s own lots,” Leone said. “They don’t have any money for it.”  

To date, four public charging stations have opened in Hawaii. “It’s pretty sad,” Leone said. “Nobody wants to install them because the cars aren’t here, and people are reluctant to buy the cars because the infrastructure isn’t there yet.” 

Because Hawaii is a state where one can’t drive far without going into the ocean, it is in a position to move directly from gasoline to all-electric cars, he said. “The plug-in hybrids will be more popular on the mainland. You can be green, use solar energy in theory, but never be stranded out on the highway.” 

One alternative to slow charging and limited driving ranges is a network of battery-swapping services — which gas stations could provide and which could get a motorist in and out in a matter of minutes with a fully charged battery. Buell said her agency considered the option, and that a California-based company, Better Place, applied to DOE to fund development of battery-swap stations in the United States. DOE, according to her information, turned down the request. Better Place did not respond to calls seeking comment. 

Buell pointed to a lack of standardization of batteries and battery-replacement technology as an impediment. “Until car manufacturers come up with those standards, electric-vehicle charging stations are going to be more compatible with the vehicles. 

“In theory,” she said, “it seems like a good idea, and it might work” in countries smaller than the United States, such Israel and Denmark, where swapping programs are in fact underway and technologies are more homogeneous. 

None of the questions surrounding electric cars have easy answers, and the campaign for electrifying America’s roads will be long — as, indeed, it already has been. Neither the Ford, Chevy, nor Nissan entries into the EV market take travelers more than about 100 miles on a charge. According to one story quoting a public utility, the nation as of August had exactly one fast-charging station, the closest electric analogue to a gas station, and it was in Portland.  

As with slower chargers, efforts to install many more fast chargers are moving quickly. Plans for the EV project, for example, call for 310 fast chargers to be online by next summer in its six states, which include Washington, according to a spokeswoman. She would not speculate on the likelihood of reaching that goal, however.

So will the pace of development suffice to push electric motoring over the practicality threshold? 

“Even if gas goes to $5 a gallon,” wrote economist Michael Smitka in a recent New York Times commentary, “only those fully committed to a lower-impact lifestyle will be willing to adopt all-electric cars” in the next 10 years. 

OPALCO, the electric company that serves Washington’s San Juan County, installed a set of EV charging stations in the 1980s, but the unavailability of parts ultimately rendered the stations useless, and electric cars remained a rarity in the island county. The recent excitement over electric motoring has led the utility to install three new charging stations. They include a slow, level 1 charger — basically a household-type outlet plus certain security mechanisms — at Lopez Island’s supermarket. Checked on Oct. 14, the string of zeroes on the electric meter for the $5,000 device indicated how much it has been used since it went online in June.  

Asked about the lack of use, OPALCO spokeswoman Bev Madden said, “It’s hard to know why. We didn’t do a big advertising campaign, since we’ve been waiting for level 2 chargers.” Those will reduce the wait for a fill to as little as four hours — a level 1 charger takes six to 12 — but the upgrade’s delivery has been held up by the lack of a required testing procedure, which perhaps indicates the confusion that attends deploying new technologies on a massive scale. 

Madden concedes the intrinsic complexities of public chargers. “You have to call a telephone number and they ask you a series of security questions before they unlock the door.” She also acknowledges that local electric motorists are likely charging their cars in their own household outlets, which bypass the issue of waiting a long time for the battery to drink its fill. In practice, how much juice Lopez Island’s public charger ever delivers will depend on how long a driver’s supermarket errand lasts. For the foreseeable future, locals waiting for the charger to “fill it up” are likely to have plenty of time to contemplate chickens and eggs.

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