Washington state project could charge up electric car corridors

WASHINGTON -- A year from now, roughly 1,000 all-electric vehicles will be whispering around Washington state's Puget Sound as part of a federally funded project that eventually may lead to an electronic corridor stretching from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., where drivers could swipe a credit card and receive a 15-minute charge to speed them on their way.

Washington is one of five states with metro markets selected to participate in the 36-month study, funded by a $100 million grant from the Department of Energy under the economic recovery program.

The first corridor that will be developed runs between Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., a distance of just over 100 miles. Others corridors could be developed between San Diego and Los Angeles, and Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee. Colin Reed, a spokesman for the EV, or Electric Vehicle, Project, said a corridor running along Interstate 5 between San Diego and Vancouver, B.C., may not be possible because there are no major population centers in far northern California and southern Oregon.

In Washington state, about 1,000 of the nearly 5,000 Nissan zero-emission electric vehicles, dubbed the LEAF, will be deployed to cities around central Puget Sound. More than 2,000 charging stations will be installed mostly in homes, but also in public and commercial areas.

"This is the largest deployment of electric cars and charging stations ever," Reed said. "No one has ever tried a project like this."

Electric cars aren't just some green fantasy, Reed said. "This is real."

An estimated 1 million to 1.5 million plug-in electric cars could be on the road within five years. According to other estimates, by 2030, a third of all new cars in the Northwest may be plug-in electric cars.

The problem isn't developing the cars, Reed said. Though Nissan's LEAF is further along than most and will be in full production by 2011, Reed said nearly every major car manufacturer plans an electric vehicle either powered entirely by its batteries or coupled with a small gasoline-powered engine.

Reed said the success of the electric car will depend on how accessible and easy it will be to recharge a car's batteries.

"Will cars drive the market, or will infrastructure?" Reed said. "We need to figure out how to deploy the infrastructure."

It's called "range anxiety." It's akin to how empty a gas tank you're willing to drive on before filling up.

One study in Japan found that when the charge in a battery in an electric vehicle dropped to 50 percent, half of the owners would stop driving it because they feared not being able to find a place to plug in. When a fast recharge station was available, the same owners of electric cars felt comfortable to run their batteries down to 15 percent or 20 percent.

The Nissan LEAF, which is expected to cost about the same as a Toyota Prius, will be able to travel about 100 miles before it needs its batteries charged. The five-passenger hatchback uses a lithium-ion battery and can reach speeds up to 90 mph. The cars will be available on a lease-to-own basis through the project and will include a free home recharger. In exchange, the owners of the cars have to provide detailed information on how they use them.

The idea is to make the rechargers for electric vehicles readily available at places such as coffee shops, post offices, grocery stores and where people work. A regular charge could take four to eight hours, while a rapid charge could take 10 to 15 minutes. Reed said large retailers might provide recharging free to attract customers.

A charge could cost 50 cents to $1.50 at home, but a rapid charge would be more expensive. No decisions have been made on whether the utilities or someone else will own and operate the recharge stations. Customers could pay by swiping a credit or debit card, or maybe by putting cash in the recharging machine.

Decisions about where to locate the other rechargers in the Puget Sound area haven't been made and, in part, will be determined by where the people who purchase the cars live.

Reed said that eventually the battery technology will evolve enough so that an all-electric car can travel farther.

When that happens, he said, the project is "very seriously considering" an electric corridor along I-5 between Eugene and Seattle, with an eventual extension to Vancouver, B.C. Recharging stations would be available along the corridor.

For now, the project is concentrating on urban areas.

"We believe we need to build a rich infrastructure in the cities and then start connecting them," Reed said. "We are still in the early generations."


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