Saturday, August 28, 2010
The all-electric Ford Focus won't hit the market until 2011 but I got a chance to drive a prototype Thursday in South Lake Union.
The ride is smooth and quiet, and it feels strange to push down the pedal without the rumble of an engine.
But the bigger story is how Seattle's preparing for a wave of electric vehicles that soon will hit the streets. Ford, on a 14-city tour to promote five new electric and hybrid models due out between now and 2012, stopped in Seattle to announce a partnership with the city in preparing the electric grid and infrastructure. There was a forum and a chance to test drive the Focus.
Already, Seattle is one of the markets selected for early release of Nissan's all-electric Leaf. In conjunction with that, the federally-funded "EV Project," a massive study of EV driving habits and demands, will provide about 1,500 public-use charging stations around the Seattle area. Officials are concentrating on the fine details, including where to put them and how utilities will deal with the expected surge in demand for electricity.
Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin said Thursday the city would streamline permitting to build charging stations, add signs, and help to provide "access for all users."
"We are committed to doing everything we can to make sure Seattle is plug-in ready," Conlin said.
Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco said the utility expects to have plenty of power to accommodate the expected increase in demand. The more uncertain question is whether distribution lines have enough capacity, which depends on where plug-in owners live and how many are concentrated in one area.
"Depending on how many of these vehicles are located on different meters, that could have an impact on whether we need to upgrade the feeder to handle the load. If everyone decides to buy electric vehicles in one neighborhood, we might have an issue to deal with," he said.
City Light's engineers will monitor the permitting for electric charging stations and are studying how to respond if there is a problem. He said he's hopeful that public-private partnerships would help pay for providing access to charging stations. "None of the issues we're looking at today are insurmountable," he said.
Consumer data already indicates that once someone purchases a hybrid, surrounding neighbors tend to follow suit, leading to a clustering effect, said Mike Tinskey, Ford's manager of Vehicle Electrification and Infrastructure.
There's also the potential strain on the system if everyone recharges at once. Microsoft has teamed with Ford to apply its energy-costs monitoring program Hohm to electric vehicles. It will help plug-in owners determine when are the most efficient and affordable times to recharge.
Conlin and others celebrated the potential that electric vehicles offer in weaning society from fossil fuels and helping stimulate the economy. Mayor Mike McGinn said transportation accounts for 50 percent of carbon emissions in the Northwest. And City Light produces mostly hydropower, and is a carbon-neutral utility.
McGinn said it's going to take a wide range of approaches to reducing fossil fuel use. That includes conserving how much we drive, developing mixed-use neighborhoods so we don't have to go so far, using cleaner fuels and alternate modes of transportation such as electric cars, bikes, walking and transit.
"I think we're starting to look at the transportation sector the way we used to look at our electricity sector in looking at how can we conserve and how can we use less," he said.
Experts think home-charging stations will provide enough spark to get the average commuter to and from work without running out of fuel (1,000 free home-charging stations will be provided at no-cost to Nissan Leaf owners selected to participate in the EV Project). The five-seat Leaf reportedly gets a top range of 100 miles on its 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. Same with the Ford Focus (although Thursday's prototype ran out of spark after a few hours of test drives). To help ease "range anxiety," city and state leaders are trying to build out a network of fast-charging public stations where drivers can top off if needed. In addition to the EV project, Seattle received a $500,000 federal grant to install 50 charging stations on city properties. Twenty-six will be installed next year, with the first one at the Seattle Municipal Tower. King County also plans to install 200 charging stations at transit park-and-rides, vanpool sites, and motor pool lots.
With help from a $1.32 million federal grant, the state Transportation Department plans to turn Interstate 5 into the nation's first "electric highway" with enough charging stations so electric vehicles can make the entire 276-mile trip from the Canadian border to the Oregon state line.
Ford has included Redmond in its Blue Oval "ChargePoint" Program, which will provide 5,000 free home-charging stations to some of the first buyers of Ford's all-electric vehicles. Ford teamed with Coulomb Technologies, which received a $15 million stimulus grant to help pay for the program.