Monday, November 8, 2010

Electric highway soon to be a reality on the I-5 Corridor, but will we like it?

Electric cars are certain to remain a green novelty/luxury item if there isn't a readily accessible network of charging stations to refuel them. On the other hand, no government will be willing to make the massive infrastructure investments needed to make charging stations as ubiquitous as the corner store if they believe no one will buy electric cars. Is it the chicken or the egg?

This is the dilemma that planners are facing as they develop an electric highway of 15 charging stations along I-5 in Washington State. Two charging stations will be located at either end of the Washington State border, including the highly-trafficked US-Canada crossing at Blaine.

The chargers will take 15-30 minutes for a complete charge and will be located on the private property of a for-profit business, replicating the experience of driving into any gas station - food, drinks, shopping, and car servicing could be part of the package.

The project is administered by WSDOT and a $1.3 million US Dept of Energy grant, and is part of the West Coast Green Highway program that one day hopes to extend from Canada to Mexico along I-5. Washington could become a springboard for other, more advanced EV infrastructure if this initial spur - the first of the WCGH - is a success. Not slow to follow suit, the State of Oregon has recently secured a $2 million federal TIGER II grant to do a project of the same scale within its borders. 

Unfortunately, the program is far from a complete solution to the problem of lack of EV infrastructure. 

There are currently no plans to create any EV options for East-West highway traffic. So any EV drivers attempting to Seattle from Spokane or Idaho (which has exactly zero charging stations in the entire state) would be shit outta luck. 

Hawaii was originally conceived as the poster child for EV infrastructural success, as it is an island where no single car trips could possibly exceed the battery range of the vehicle. However, news coming out of Hawaii after four EV charging stations were installed there is hardly encouraging:

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.”
San Francisco-based Better Place's revolutionary battery-swapping technology was briefly considered as a solution to the impediment of having to wait 15-30 minutes for a full battery charge. However, WSDOT turned this option down, allegedly due to problems with the standardization of battery models in the more popular EVs on the market today: the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and electric Ford Focus.

According to the project manager,
“In theory, 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. "
Until these technical issues are resolved, it may be that the I-5 electric highway will end up being about as useful as the Seattle Center monorail or the South Lake Union Trolley (SLUT) - expensive, privately-financed toys that are flashy, high-tech, and contribute about zero to getting us out of our gas-guzzlers.

For more info, be sure to check out updates from the West Coast Green Highway project.

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