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Plug In Your Ride

It is finally happening. Electric charging station networks–one of the key components to the acceptance and use of electric vehicles–are starting to appear around the world.
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Electric charging station, photo by Pam & Frank

Charging stations, like this one in Portland, Oregon, are key to the viability of an electric vehicle industry.

In London, for example, Mayor Boris Johnson recently pledged that no resident will be farther than one mile from an electric car charge point by 2015. "A golden era of clean, green electric motoring is upon us and London is well ahead of cities around the globe in preparing the right conditions for this," said Johnson.

The network of charging stations are key to the adoption of electric vehicles, since most are still limited to ranges of less than 150 miles per charge.

The e-vehicle charging network in London will be supported by a web site to be launched next year, which will provide owners of electric vehicles with a single point of information on locations and payment options for recharging.

London is not the only city to commit to electric vehicle chargers. A number of other cities are also stepping forward, including several within the U.S. This is in part due to a $100 million federal grant to the Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. (eTec), which will fund the installation of 2,500 charging stations in each of five markets: Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington. The grant calls for several hundred of these stations to be fast-charging systems that can charge a vehicle 80 percent in a mere 15 minutes. Regular charging systems require about 30 minutes to six hours, depending on the discharge level and battery type and size.

In California, a company called Solar City recently announced a plan to provide free charging to drivers of Tesla Motors electric vehicles—and others that use the same charging technology—traveling along Highway 101 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some workplaces and multi-unit living spaces—especially within the larger cities in California—are already providing special parking bays for charging electric vehicles. Some are powered by solar panels. 

However, the rapid adoption of electric vehicles does not come without its challenges. 

Several key questions are being asked: How do we build up the electric grid so we don't overload at 6 p.m. each day when commuters return home to charge up? Can the existing grid supply enough electrical energy to feed the electric vehicles? 

No-Impact-Man-TransportationGetting There, Carbon Free
In a post-carbon world, transportation means feet, bikes, buses, and an all-electric fleet. 

"If we're successful and could move immediately to electric vehicles, we would have a huge problem, because there is not enough electricity," said Dave Hill, deputy director of the Idaho National Laboratory.

Many of the challenges related to electrical supply can be addressed with the installation of a “smart grid,” such as the one recently installed in Boulder, Colorado as part of a pilot program. However, most cities are considered to be years away from developing smart grids.

And how do we ensure that the electricity we produce to meet the increased demand is produced cleanly? "Half of the electricity being generated in the U.S. is in the form of coal," Hill said. "Any expansion on the demand on electricity will lead to an expansion on the demand for coal. Unless we can find out how to deal with that... what we're doing is moving emissions from the tailpipe to the smoke stack."

Experts agree that preparing for the future will take a systems-wide approach, involving government, utilities, researchers, and the private sector.

Another challenge is the resource limitations of the battery technology. U.S. Representative Jay Inslee—who is on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and is the key author of the New Apollo Energy Act—has pushed to add $2 billion to the federal stimulus package to get a domestic industry rooted in production of lithium ion batteries, which are the newest generation power source for electric vehicles.

"Think about how pathetic it would be to trade our current addiction to Middle Eastern oil for an addiction to Chinese lithium ion batteries. To replace one addiction for another is not a good investment strategy for growth in the United States," he said.

On the opportunity side, electric vehicles could be a way to boost shrinking market share for the beleaguered U.S. auto makers like General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co.

"Detroit needs something to be exciting and new," said William Hederman, a senior vice president at Concept Capital's Washington Research Group.

General Motors' highly-anticipated battery-powered Chevy Volt is expected to hit showrooms in November of this year, about the same time that Nissan begins U.S. sales of the LEAF.  Other manufacturers are anticipated to release electric vehicles in 2011 and 2012.

Rik Langendoen bio pic Rik Langendoen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rik is an environmental consultant with an emphasis on sustainability.


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