Wednesday, March 3, 2010

SF Bay Area to Build the Nation's First Electric Vehicle Charging Network

Electric vehicles have been identified as a crucial technology for reducing the carbon footprint of our nation's fleets, above all because they produce no greenhouse gas emissions.

Evergreen Fleets has defined electric vehicles as the preferred option for "neighborhood vehicles" (NEVs) designed for short trips in their Best Practices section, due to the current market shortage of vehicles capable of traveling on freeways. This market shortage is poised to dramatically change in the coming months, as the Nissan Leaf (fully electric) and the Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid-electric) are introduced as affordable, freeway-capable models.

However, even when new plug-in hybrid and fully electric models are introduced to the market, the question of the availability of an adequate charging infrastructure remains.

According to a recent EPA study, the Chevy Volt would only achieve a fuel efficiency of 48 miles per gallon, assuming its electric battery has been fully charged. The fully-electric battery has a range of 40 miles, after which a gas-electric generator kicks in for the remaining 300 miles until the vehicle needs to be refueled. While the vehicle is in its fully electric mode, its fuel efficiency approaches 100 miles per gallon.  After the initial 40 mile range of fully electric power, the vehicle's efficiency drops dramatically, bringing its aggregate fuel efficiency to the figure of 48 m.p.g. cited above. While the 40-mile range of fully-electric power covers the average commuting distance for over 75% of Americans, to be truly practical, an inter-metropolitan network of electric charging stations outside of the home must be created to facilitate this vehicle's optimal fuel efficiency range.

This is even more  true of the Nissan Leaf, whose fully electric range is only 100 miles and lacks a gas-electric powertrain - when the Leaf runs out of electric charge, the driver has no choice but to pull over and search for the nearest charging station. An 8 hour charge is needed for the Leaf, suggesting that to be truly effective and convenient for drivers it must be charged periodically throughout the day.

A Bay Area venture capital firm, Better Place, in November 2008 committed to a $1 billion investment for the first electric vehicle charging network in the United States. The Mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose each threw their support behind the network partnership. The network is anticipated to become operational in 2012.

In response to the regional plans for this electric vehicle charging network, the City of San Francisco recently announced a change to its building code that would require new buildings to have an outlet for charging electric vehicles. As a New York Times article pointed out, there is serious concern among public utilities that the rapidly expanding demand for electricity due to the charging of electric vehicles could overwhelm local electric grids if vehicles like the Nissan Leaf become widely popular. City officials anticipate having 60 charging stations operational within San Francisco by the end of 2010 and more than 1,000 throughout the Bay Area by 2011. In addition to venture capital funding, large portions of this network will be funded by a $200 million subsidy from Obama's stimulus package.

Two key concerns over the introduction of this electric vehicle charging grid are 1) the true reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, which depend on the electricity's source and 2) the popularity of electric vehicles in regions outside of the relatively wealthy Bay Area (a 240watt home charging kit for an electric vehicle can run up to $1,500).

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