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Plugging into City Hall

The EV revolution requires charging stations and political buy-in

In case you need convincing that electric vehicles are going mainstream, the New York Times declared “EV” one of its "Words That Made the Year" on Sunday. Still, most of us know little-to-nothing about lithium-ion phosphate batteries or battery management software. But if EV advocates expect electric vehicles to gain any traction in mainstream America, there's one group of people who really need a primer on these new wheels: the folks at city hall.

That's because without the support of municipalities and departments of traffic and parking all around this country, drivers aren't going to have the car charging infrastructure they'll need to feel confident enough to sink many thousands of dollars into a fully electric car, such as the Nissan Leaf. In many cases, municipalities hold the keys to deciding where, when, and by whom public charging stations will be erected.

This salient point was made by a very invested stakeholder, Mark Perry, the director of product planning and advanced technology strategy for Nissan North America, at the Future of Electric Vehicles conference in San Jose, Calif., on December 7. He stressed the importance of working with municipalities to get early buy-in for installing charging stations, and to seek grants and incentives to sweeten those deals.

 A $15 million DOE grant is part of a $37 million effort called ChargePoint America, wherein the charging station maker Coulomb will provide 4,600 public and home ChargePoint Networked Charging Stations by October 2011. But perhaps the most important part of that program is its reach. The stations are being installed everywhere from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C, to Orlando, Flor., and cities along the West Coast.

Of course, 4,600 stations spread out across the country does not a transportation revolution make. There are other, similar program, such as the EV Project, which is looking to install 14,650 level 2 (220-volt,quick-chargers) charging stations across 16 major cities.

The greatest concentration of EVs will likely roll into cities that have made the greatest efforts to accommodate them. San Francisco is making an aggressive push toward installing charging stations in the city and is working to amend its green building code to include requirements for EV charging stations in new buildings. Portland, Ore., and Seattle are rolling out the electric carpets, too. And at the state level, Hawaii is making a push for EVs.

But there are still plenty of cities and towns across the country where EV drivers will battle "range anxiety" unless they see more charging stations as they venture away from their homes.

The Obama Administration wants to see 1 million EVs on the road by 2015, and Nissan expects 10% of global sales to be EVs by 2020. That sounds doable, even at the current speed of infrastructure roll-outs. But if EVs are going to make a real dent in our transportation make-up, then carmakers, charging station manufacturers, and even drivers are going to need to call on city halls across the country. (Oh, and their utility companies.)

Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mary Catherine O’Connor writes about the environment, adventure sports, and technology.

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