Firm to deploy 15,000 electric-car chargers in 13 cities, including District

By Danielle Douglas
Capital Business Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

Dave and Barbara Goldstein are in the market for a new car. Like a growing number of drivers, the Gaithersburg pair are considering the crop of electric vehicles, particularly the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt.

But Barbara Goldstein is a bit apprehensive. Back in 1981, she wound up in the middle of an intersection with a stalled electric vehicle during a snowstorm. Somewhere between pushing the car to the side of the road and trudging through the snow in open-toe shoes, she lost faith, her husband said.

"The technology behind electric cars has vastly improved," said Dave Goldstein, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington, D.C.

With all the advancements in alternative-fuel vehicle design, some still lack a basic requirement: recharging infrastructure -- the kind that might have saved Barbara Goldstein the trek through the snow.

Many of the nearly 200,000 electric hybrids on U.S. roads use internal generators to create power, but a fraction of these cars are plug-in hybrids, the market's fastest growing segment. Yet, there are only 465 public electric refueling stations across the country.

Enter Ecotality, a Tempe, Ariz.-based electric-transportation company deploying 15,000 free electric-car chargers this fall in 13 cities, including the District. The initiative, called the EV Project, launched in October with $99.8 million in stimulus funds. The grant covered the installation of home charging stations -- which cost about $2,200 each -- for 4,700 buyers of the Leaf and a handful of public stations.

Ecotality was awarded another grant of $15 million a few weeks ago to add new locations, 1,000 more chargers for Leaf owners and 2,600 refueling units for Volt buyers. The rollout of the chargers will coincide with the fourth-quarter debut of Nissan and Chevy's new models.

"Our project is designed to really look at what we need to do to make electric-vehicle infrastructure sustaining as a business," said Don Karner, president and chief executive of Ecotality North America. Each charger, he said, contains technology to track energy consumption for analysis. Ecotality will also test various revenue models at commercial stations to determine what works best for consumers.

The research will be published on the Idaho National Engineering Lab's Web site for access by charger manufacturers and suppliers. "We believe there is going to be a lot of interest and a lot of competition in providing charging services," Karner said.

The potential growth opportunities generated by the EV Project is certainly not lost on Ecotality, which plans to ramp up its offerings. Brian Kremer, senior research analyst at Roth Capital Partners, said that the firm is already one of the top providers of chargers, closely followed by Coulomb Technologies, which also received a $15 million stimulus grant to deploy chargers.

"No one is really making any money on charge infrastructure right now," Karner said. "We just all want to be on the field when the game starts."

The District has 13,900 registered electric hybrids. In 2008, the city had the fourth highest sales for such vehicles, according to a report by Travelers and the Polk Center for Automotive Sales. "People are very excited about the new cars," Goldstein said. "The availability of chargers would be an added plus."

Some say the lack of infrastructure has placed limitations on the rise of alternative fuel vehicles, as has general skepticism about the technology. Recent polls, however, found a turning tide in consumer sentiment. Indeed, Nissan has logged 15,416 customer reservations to purchase the Leaf.

But not everyone is keen on the potential of electric vehicles or the idea of the government shelling out millions to drive the market. "Why aren't we [using this money to] upgrade crumbling bridges and crumbling roads?" asked Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research "Only a small subset of potential [Toyota] Prius buyers would buy these new cars."

Perhaps, but Kremer says it will work to the industry's benefit to have consumers purchase the coming wave of cars. "You will need a year or two of those folks out there with no major issues, before [electric vehicles] become much more mainstream," he said.

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