fast charge

2 ways to learn all about electric cars

Electric cars remain commercially unproven.

The market is largely untested as it awaits the debut later this year of the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF and the expected introduction of the Coda next year.

But Southern California Edison, PG&E and other utilities have offered a major indicator that big changes are in store on American highways. The two California utilities have created a series of web pages for owners of plug-in electric vehicles.

The move stems from a declaration about a year ago by the Edison Electric Institute to prepare for the potential power drain.

“At a time of mounting concern about climate change, U.S. energy security and unemployment, plug-in electric vehicles will help tame carbon emissions while reducing oil imports and creating jobs," said Tom Kuhn, institute president, in a statement. "We also are mindful of President Obama’s very ambitious challenge to put one million PEVs on the road by 2015.”

Other utilities in the industry association include Dominion, DTE Energy, Connecticut Light & Power, CenterPoint Energy and Hawaiian Electric Co. But for purposes of this post, I'll keep the emphasis on two: PG&E and SCE.

1. The SCE site addresses many of the potential issues consumers face when considering a completely new technology, that many say costs just 2 cents a mile. The utility advises consumers to fill out its "Plug-In Ready Checklist" to help prepare them for electrical needs, potential home electrical upgrades and introduce potential deals on off-peak electricity consumption.

On the site, utility officials discuss potential effects to electricity rates from increasing demand by consumers to recharge cars ("rates will be determined in large part by the California Public Utilities Commission") and to the electrical grid ("how customers charge their vehicles ... will become a significant factor in determining the impact.")

2. PG&E likewise offers consumers a plethora of information on its EV web page. It explained details like how 110-volt, 20-amp outlets take about eight hours to recharge a car or how a consumer could cut that to a "few hours or less" with a 240-volt, 40-amp system.

But officials also offered this nugget, answering a a major concern over recharging I've had with electric vehicles. "Ultimately, advances in battery and charger technology could enable charging in the time it takes to fill a gas tank. Because of the high voltage involved -- 480 volts or more, which can be expensive to install -- such rapid charging would likely be available only at sites serving multiple BEVs, such as fleet garages or retail charging stations."

That's a potential game changer. Power it up Captain. Launch photon torpedoes and shift all available energy to phasers.

Devolved into an original Star Trek episode briefly. But the concept is sound, and this electric car concept could catch on.

Photo: SCE's plug-in hybrid at AgTAC.

Nissan reveals more about LEAF rollout, Hawaii sales

Nissan on Tuesday unveiled more of its strategy for selling the all-electric LEAF.

The automaker announced an agreement with the state of Hawaii to build a charging network throughout in the state. Nissan also revealed its plan for sending out the first of its vehicles later this year.

Consumers who reserved the cars -- about 18,600 -- received more information about available options, color and trim packages. The price tag for the SV package was listed as $32,780, while the SL package was $33,720. The SV includes a photovoltaic spoiler, rearview monitor and universal transceiver.

A quick-charge option on the SL costs an additional $700, enabling the driver to charge the LEAF to 80 percent in 30 minutes at high-voltage public charging stations.

Those who signed up first get preference, the company says.

The deal with Hawaii was announced at the week-long Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit and Expo in Honolulu. The cars will be available in Hawaii in January 2011.

Nissan said last month it will debut its all-electric LEAF in California and four other states in December. General Motors is expected to allow consumers to drive off in its Chevy Volt this fall.

Hawaii created a $4,500 state tax credit toward the purchase of an electric vehicle and a $500 state tax credit toward the purchase and installation of a home charging station. That paired with an available $7,500 federal tax credit, could bring the price of a Nissan LEAF to as low as $20,780 for Hawaii consumers, company officials said.

"Nissan is a global leader in electric vehicles, and the state of Hawaii has shown similar leadership through its progressive policies and focus on clean energy," said Brian Carolin, senior vice president of sales and Marketing for Nissan North America, in a statement.

The Nissan and Hawaii charging infrastructure deal should ease concerns about cars going dead on an extended trip. For many, the lack of range is a big concern that may push some to opt for Chevy's Volt.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle was pleased with the plan. "Nissan is playing an important role in helping us achieve the goal of reducing our dependence on imported oil," she said.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye said more than 90 percent of the fuel and energy consumed in the state is from imported oil. "Hawaii should serve as a model of what is possible when government and business collaborate to plan a path forward into an energy efficient future," he said.

The Nissan LEAF is a five-passenger compact that has a top speed of 90 mph. Its lithium-ion batteries provide the car with a range of 100 miles, which Nissan officials estimate will be enough to satisfy the daily driving needs of more than 90 percent of Americans and to circle Oahu.

Electric vehicle anxiety: How will Joe Consumer spell relief?

The scarcity of electric cars on U.S. roadways is expected to change in coming months as two major automakers begin selling models geared to Joe Consumer.

But recharging remains an issue. Very few fast-recharge stations have been installed along Interstate 5, although a number are planned. That lack of recharge availability could result in something I'll call electric-charge anxiety:

"Will I make it, or will I run out of juice?"

Tow truck operators are ready. Believe me, I know. Owning a 74 Super Beetle as a daily driver meant I required wrecker services frequently.

Pike Research, a clean energy research consultant based in Boulder, Colo., has forecast that 4.7 million charging stations will be built in the next five years. However, there's a caveat in the wording of the Pike report summary.

The phrase, "This evolution will require the ongoing buildout," denotes that demand dictates the growth of "residential equipment to public, private and workplace charging stations" capable of charging a spent electric vehicle battery.

Should sales of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf prove lackluster, how will executives of Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment, a manufacturer of a fast charger, react? Will the company and others like it commit millions to develop road-side charging stations?

Or will charging stations be limited to clusters like those proposed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which plans to build 50 fast chargers and 2,000 public chargers around San Francisco? Jake Richardson of called it a big step.

Hard to tell.

“The success of hybrid vehicles in the 2000s gave drivers a taste for propulsion by electric power,” said Pike senior analyst John Gartner in a statement. "And governments around the world are now highly focused on creating the charging infrastructure to support the arrival of EVs in significant numbers.”

Yet, Pike also said “the economics of selling a few kilowatt hours per charge are very challenging" and that development of charging stations largely will be done by government money. And that's a tough call in this economic climate.

Gartner said he expects that by 2015, more than 3.1 million electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles, will be sold worldwide.

Pike did offer clarity to the private-sector charger free-for-all.

The company said the market for electric charging equipment is likely to become crowded by the end of next year. "While the initial wave of vendors was led by niche vendors such as AeroVironment, Better Place, Coulomb Technologies, and ECOtality, heavyweight technology players such as GE, Panasonic, Samsung, and Siemens are now making bold moves into the space."

Whether that's enough to put a recharger where you need one on a freeway or remote highway will be what commuters of electric vehicles will be asking.

Photo: Nissan Leaf due out this year.