Electric cars get their fill

We've all seen them: the blue signs announcing a nearby electric-car charging station. Follow the arrows, and most of them lead to old technology. Many don't even work.

But that's about to change, and change quickly, as the first mass-market electric cars from Nissan, General Motors, SmartCar, Ford, Fiat and other manufacturers hit U.S. roads this winter.

South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa recently became one of the first businesses in the region with a publicly accessible charging station for electric cars.

And more are on the way.

Millions of dollars are being channeled into thousands of public and private electric charging stations, funded with monies from the U.S. Department of Energy, automobile manufacturers, states, cities, utilities and other public and private entities.

About 20,000 electric charging stations will be clustered in 23 U.S. cities over the next 16 months.

"Charging infrastructure is very critical to the adoption of electric vehicles" said Colin Read, vice president of corporate development for Ecotality, an electric vehicle charging station company in San Francisco.

Ecotality received a $114.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in June to install 15,000 charging stations that will serve as a scalable infrastructure model for the 1 million electric cars the U.S. government predicts will be on the road by 2020. The installations begin in October.

"We don't want people to not purchase an electric vehicle or not want to even think about purchasing a vehicle because they don't believe they have places to charge a car," he said. "If we can remove the fear of range anxiety and supply them with ample charging opportunities, it's a real door opener for the industry."

Unlike gas-powered cars, plug-in electrics, such as the Nissan Leaf, can travel about 100 miles on a single charge and can take hours to recharge. Gas-electric hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt, can travel 40 miles on an electric charge before switching over to a gas-powered engine.

While 70% to 80% of electric-car owners are likely to do most of their charging at home, according to Nissan North America director of product development Mark Perry, a public charging infrastructure is critical to provide "peace of mind" to drivers who are used to finding gas stations on almost every corner.

Where the stations will be located hasn't, for the most part, been determined, but it's likely they will be located in shopping centers, grocery store parking lots and other areas where people are parked at least an hour.

Some charging stations can also be had for free. A program called ChargePoint America, developed by the Campbell, Calif., company Coulomb Technologies, is currently accepting applications for private and public charging station installations. Enabled with a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, $8 million from the California Energy Commission and other funds, ChargePoint recently began installing 2,600 public and 2,000 private stations in nine cities, including Costa Mesa.

Only five have so far been installed, including the one at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. By the end of 2010, 600 of the ChargePoint stations will be operational, according to Coulomb Technologies President Praveen Mandal.

That's just in time for the newest generation of electric cars. The Chevrolet Volt hits the road in November, the Nissan Leaf in December.

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