Energy & Environment

Investing in Electric Cars

Will the needed investment in new infrastructure for electric cars pay off?
by | July 2010

In the current move away from cars that run on petroleum, David Rolf found the perfect alternative fuel: Kona coffee.

Two years ago, as the executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association, Rolf shipped a box of Hawaii's indigenous coffee to senior executives of Detroit's embattled Big Three automakers, along with a white paper on the future of electric vehicles and a letter: "Please accept some 100 percent Kona coffee from Hawaii … we know everyone will be turning in long hours to deal with the issues surrounding $4-a-gallon gas."

It was a plea for support as gas prices skyrocketed in the Aloha State, which gets about 90 percent of its energy from petroleum. Since then, in the face of a rickety budget, Hawaii government officials launched an initiative to have 70 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2030. With that, Hawaii, the nation's crash test dummy for crude oil spikes, zoomed to the front of the pack in the push for electric vehicles.

The electric car movement connects countries and spans decades, but in recent years, Hawaii and other state and local governments have started exploring the green car concept to cut energy costs, curb pollution and jump-start a stalling economy. Charging stations for electric vehicles already have been deployed in Michigan and sold in Boston and Chicago. Later this year, Nissan and General Motors will unveil new electric cars marketed to middle-class families--and state and local officials want to be ready for that first surge.

"For us to create a future where we're powering ourselves, we can't be half-hearted about it," says Ted Peck, energy program administrator for the Hawaii State Energy Office, "so we've been working across our community to get people to buy into it."

But public policy is not plug-and-play. Departments must determine price and tax incentives. Cities may need to build infrastructure and find locations for charging stations. Electric grids may need to reinforce their capacity. Officials must create regulations, and utility companies may need to establish rates. At the same time, the technology in many ways still needs to be tested. So it's hard to gauge whether such a massive overhaul will pay off, or if the public will even pay up.

Nevertheless, Hawaii and California are leading the charge and placing big bets on electric vehicles. Hawaii has $4 million in federal stimulus funds in the pipeline for transportation energy transformation, including $3 million for larger, complex projects and $1 million in rebates for whoever wants to purchase an electric vehicle or a charger.

California's first transportation Investment Plan, adopted in 2009 by the California Energy Commission, provides about $120 million over the next seven years to stimulate green transportation projects. The commission plans to use $46 million for electric vehicles, public charging stations and manufacturing plants, and $40 million to increase the number of hydrogen fueling stations.

As these governments gear up for a major shift in the auto industry, officials admit that the conversion will not happen overnight. "Gasoline is the major drug that we're addicted to," Peck says. "It will still take 20 years to swap out the existing cars. The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones."

With the arrival of electric vehicles, it won't be a matter of what you drive as much as it is how far you can go before your battery runs out of juice.

An efficient gas-powered car can run 350 miles or more with 12 gallons topped off, but a battery-powered electric vehicle can only go 100 to 200 miles with a full charge. And unlike gas stations, charging stations don't yet dot city blocks or interstate rest stops. Nobody wants to get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

As a state made up of many small islands, Hawaii negates this so-called "range anxiety." The geographic advantages, along with the state's high energy costs, solar-power potential and citizens with green on their minds, make Hawaii an ideal test bed for electric vehicles.

At the beginning of the year, the first public electric car charging station in Hawaii went online. Charging station companies have full-scale networks in the works. In May, Korean electric vehicle manufacturer CT&T announced plans to establish an assembly plant in Hawaii that would make 10,000 two-seater electric vehicles per year. Around the same time, Nissan picked Hawaii as an early launch market for its forthcoming Leaf, a five-passenger, all-electric car with a 100-mile battery range.

"You don't have people driving hundreds of miles between cities here the way you do on the mainland," says Darren Pai, spokesman for the Hawaiian Electric Co. "It's a good test lab for the adoption of electric vehicles."

The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative calls for at least 3,000 electric vehicles in 2010 and 50,400 in 2015. By that time, officials plan to have a web of some 100,000 charging stations up and running that will be powered by renewable energy sources. Charging stations may sprout up in parking garages, lots or shopping centers where drivers can pull up and plug in for a quick boost. Or there may be battery-swapping stations, such as the one in Yokohama, Japan.

Regardless, most experts recommend that electric vehicle owners charge their cars at home after 7 p.m. when the grid is less stressed. That would provide an outlet for energy produced by the state's proposed wind farms, and other ocean and geothermal energy-conversion projects.

"We don't have any oil wells here obviously, but we have this abundant source of wind, wave and thermal energy and sunshine," Rolf says. "If you could convert those assets into electric energy efficiently and use that to plug your vehicles into your garage, we could keep the $2 billion that was going off shore."

But utility officials must determine how to add that infrastructure to the electric grid without compromising reliability, Pai says. Otherwise overloaded local power grids could be in trouble.

Too much power consumption could trip off a transformer and cause a local blackout. "In the worst case, you can have the transformer blow up because it's used too intensely," according to Andy Campbell, energy adviser to Commissioner Nancy Ryan at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), based in San Francisco.

Potential grid overload is one of the key challenges for policymakers, Campbell says, especially given the expectation that electric vehicles will be adopted in concentrated clusters. In collaboration with automakers, utilities and charging station companies, the CPUC is drawing up the rules for these electric cars for the future.

One policy under examination would offer electricity at lower rates to electric vehicle owners who charge their cars at night. Charging rates in California have been in place since the 1990s, but with the projected influx of electric vehicles, the rates may change to help curtail daytime demand. Pacific Gas and Electric Company, San Francisco's main supplier, has reportedly started plotting "heat maps" of neighborhoods at risk of power overloads.

Charging rates, policymakers say, will vary depending on when and where the charging occurs. The commission is also looking into technologies that would allow the utility to control the times owners can plug in their cars, Campbell says, so the charging doesn't damage the grid.

"We have to carefully think about whether those proposals make sense," he says. "Consumers are not going to want to give up control in how they charge their vehicle, but maybe the utility can offer a financial incentive."

President Barack Obama wants 1 million electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on American roadways by 2015. To help prepare the public, the U.S. Department of Energy announced last fall a $99.8 million grant to launch a comprehensive electric vehicle and charging station infrastructure trial.

In the Electric Vehicle Project, which launched in October 2009, participating drivers will test up to 4,700 zero-emission electric vehicles. And starting this summer, 11,210 charging systems will be deployed in strategic markets in five states: Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. From the 36-month-long project, government officials and energy companies hope to learn how to successfully deploy a network of charging stations down the road.

But local officials, some experts say, can't afford to wait for test results. With the first mass-market electric cars cresting over the horizon, some governments already are moving forward with charging station infrastructure. In 2008, the mayors from San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose pledged to make the metropolitan area America's electric car capital. Since then, San Francisco has installed charging stations for plug-in hybrids outside of City Hall. This year, the city adopted building codes requiring that all new structures be wired for electric car chargers.

However, Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, believes this rapid acceleration is steering the electric car movement in the wrong direction.

Tamminen, who advises California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on energy and environment matters, doesn't think average consumers are ready for battery-powered electric cars. His reasons include: the high costs of new batteries, disposal issues and the long hours it takes to charge a car with a standard 110-volt outlet. Not to mention the big money cities will need to fork over to build all the charging stations.

He would rather see battery-powered electric cars as a network of local fleets first. That would allow for central charging, he says, and officials could estimate the amount of driving for vehicles such as delivery vans.

"Imagine if several cities did that, you'd have the exact same vehicle in several cities," Tamminen says. "They could mass produce it and bring the cost down and get real-world experience. The next thing you know, it's something that could be rolled out more cost-effectively for consumers."

Other critics question whether government should stimulate demand for electric cars by building charging stations. The greater the need for electricity to fuel the cars, the greater the need for power generation plants, the most common of which run on carbon-emitting coal.

But perhaps his biggest red flag comes from recent history. A few years ago, the same momentum built around corn-based ethanol as a green alternative to gasoline, he said, but ethanol production drove corn prices through the roof and strangled the food supply. "People literally couldn't get tortillas in Mexico City," Tamminen says. "That's a cautionary tale about rushing into one technology over another."

And in the end, processing ethanol from corn had no environmental benefits, he adds, and was actually "just as bad as refining a gallon of gasoline."

"We have chased after phantoms in the past because we really didn't think things through upfront," he says. "Battery electric cars are in that same category. No question, they will meet some needs, but they're just not ready for prime time for the average consumer."

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