Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cities scramble to woo first wave of electric vehicles

By Julie Wernau / Chicago Tribune  |   Friday, August 27, 2010  |  |  Automotive
CHICAGO — It’s not enough to be charged up about electric vehicles coming later this year; cities have to prove they’re plug-worthy.

The makers of electric cars are conducting a nationwide dating game of sorts to determine which cities get the vehicles first. Hoping for widespread electric vehicle adoption, the carmakers are rolling out first in cities where motorists will encounter the fewest headaches.

In unprepared cities, too many vehicles charging at once can cause power outages. Owners who seek permits for home charging stations, which can charge vehicles in far less time, can run into paperwork nightmares. And cities that lack charging infrastructure risk the possibility of stranded motorists.

"Since Henry Ford introduced the motor vehicle, it’s been, ’Where can I find a gas station?’ And those were pretty prevalent. This is completely different," said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of the city of Chicago’s Department of Environment.

Nissan, Ford and other electric vehicle makers said they look at three factors in picking cities for rollouts: large numbers of hybrid owners — a sign electric cars will be embraced — friendly public policy and supportive utilities.
"We need to get the right policies in place, moving forward, soon. And when I say soon, I mean get them in place over the next six months to a year," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, which is participating in the consortium.

The Department of Energy forecasts that 100 million hybrid or electric cars will be on U.S. roads by 2020. In particular, policymakers are preparing for the expected popularity of Nissan’s Leaf. With its low price point of $25,280 (after a $7,500 federal tax credit) and Nissan’s promises of nationwide availability, the Leaf is compared to the Toyota Prius in terms of its potential for widescale adoption.

Illinois utility Commonwealth Edison is investigating the potential impact — positive and negative — that electric vehicles could have on the grid. Hybrid ownerships tend to cluster in particular neighborhoods, and early EV reservations are showing a similar trend. That portends a lot of charging in particular areas, and potential breakdowns.

"That vehicle is going to be the largest discretionary load on the home," said Mike Tinskey, manager of sustainability activities at Ford Motor Co. "What if you had a neighborhood with 10 electric vehicles and they’re all on the same transformer? That’s a real problem for utilities, and they want to be able to manage that."

In neighborhoods, transformers step down high-voltage electricity for residential use. A single pole-top transformer serves three to six homes. If there is overuse, it can lead to power outages or decrease the transformer’s lifespan. In some neighborhoods, transformers are already strained, as they were not designed for the demands of large-screen TVs, hot tubs and air conditioners.

And although utilities can track for clustering of electric-vehicle owners by pulling permits for home charging stations, there are also consumers such as Chris VanKula, a 39-year-old account executive in Chicago, who plans to forgo paying an additional $2,200 or so for a home charging station.

"I don’t think we even need it. I’d just go without it," said VanKula, who described his wife and himself as the type of people who only drive if they "wimp out" in the winter. That may work for some people who drive infrequently and don’t mind the 20 hours it takes to charge a Leaf on a regular 120-volt current. With an upgrade to a 240-volt home charging station, the charge takes just seven or eight hours.

Commonwealth Edison may consider transformer upgrades in certain neighborhoods, said Anne Pramaggiore, the utility’s president and chief operating officer.  Still, it’s not yet clear who would pay for any needed upgrades.

"In the way we structure our rates, there are certain upgrades that customers pay for individually because they are beyond the standard. I suspect there will be debate about whether this fits in that category," Pramaggiore said.
To encourage charging at night when overall power demand is lower, Commonwealth Edison is considering offering better rates to those who charge at night to "smart" devices that choose the best time to charge a vehicle.

Commonwealth Edison also is testing devices that allow electric cars and transformers to automatically adjust the rate and timing of charges in the event too many vehicles are charging at the same time, said Dan Gabel, manager of electric vehicles. Commonwealth Edison sees a point at which car owners could even choose to "sell back" electricity in their car batteries when there is high demand on the grid.  "We really see this as just another part of a smart home," Gabel said.

Gabel said mid-level charging stations would likely be placed where vehicles are likely to be parked for longer periods — like transportation centers and stadiums or at businesses such as Whole Foods Market or Starbucks.

"For any electric vehicle maker to be successful, there has to a charging infrastructure," said Rick Bourgoise, director of communications for Smart USA. "Your car does you no good unless you have somewhere to plug it in and charge it up."

About 100 charging stations are expected to be deployed through a U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities grant. The consortium will review proposals in September and begin installation as early as November. To meet grant requirements, the charging infrastructure must be operational by 2012.

Public charging stations are important because they eliminate what automakers commonly refer to as "range anxiety." Without enough stations, drivers tend to worry they will be stranded and are less likely to rely on electric vehicles as their primary means of transportation.

The range of electric vehicles varies according to temperature and climate. Although vehicles such as the Leaf and Smart Fortwo have the ability to cool down or heat up while still plugged in, to maintain that temperature while on the road, the vehicle draws from the battery. A spokeswoman for AAA said that although it is reviewing several options, it does not yet have a way to charge a stranded electric vehicle, other than to tow it to the nearest charging station.

Chevrolet Volt:
—Price: $41,000 ($33,500 after federal tax credit)
—Range: 340 miles (40 miles battery, 300 miles gas)
—Expected U.S. launch date: November
—Initial launch locations: California, New York, Michigan, Texas, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.
—Number of launch vehicles: 4,400 vehicles in 2010; 10,000 in 2011; and 45,000 in 2012

Nissan Leaf:
—Price: $32,780 ($25,280 after federal tax credit)
—Range: 100 miles
—Expected U.S. launch date: December
—Initial launch locations: Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Tennessee; Texas and Hawaii in January; North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Alabama and Washington, D.C., in April; nationwide in 2012.
—Number of launch vehicles: 8,500 pre-orders. Production to begin in 2010 of 50,000 vehicles per year.

Smart Fortwo electric drive:
—Price: Initially, $599 per month for four-year lease
—Range: 84 miles
—Expected U.S. launch date: October
—Initial launch locations: Portland, Ore.; California’s Bay Area; Indianapolis; Orlando, Fla.; the Interstate Highway 95 corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.
—Number of launch vehicles: 250 test vehicles as part of the second of three phases of vehicle testing, followed by phase three production starting in 2012 using improved technology and a lower price point.

Ford Transit Connect Electric:
—Type: Electric commercial vehicle
—Price: Not yet released.
—Range: 80 miles
—Expected U.S. launch date: Late 2010
—Initial launch locations: Not yet released.
—Number of launch vehicles: Not yet released.

Ford Focus Electric:
—Type: Electric vehicle
—Price: Not yet released.
—Range: 100 miles
—Expected U.S. launch date: Early 2011
—Initial launch locations: Not yet released.
—Number of launch vehicles: Not yet released.

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