Talks under way with Nissan for test; charging stations studied

[caption id="attachment_12916" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="One option being explored is Nissan Motor's electric version of its Cube subcompact car. (Nissan Motor photo)"][/caption]

SONOMA COUNTY – An ambitious plan to bring 1,000 electric-powered vehicles to the county starting next year could get rolling as early as this summer if the many moving components mesh.

Local governments in Sonoma County are still in talks with Nissan Motor Co. about receiving all-electric cars as early as 2010 as part of a two-year Bay Area market test of a longer-range vehicle. However, infrastructure needed to electrify businesses and the public into greater use of electric vehicles could start showing up around the county this year.

The county of Sonoma is expecting to know by May whether it has won up to $3 million in state and U.S. Energy Department grants to install charging stations and convert existing fuel-electric hybrid vehicles to plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs, to allow longer driving on all-electric power, according to a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Water Agency, one of the key players in the electric-car effort.

Automakers are planning to release PHEVs in coming years, and local governments are looking for ways to cover the $11,000 or so required per existing hybrid vehicle to convert them.

In monthly meetings on the market test between Nissan and local government officials, the Japanese automaker has been offering insight on where charging stations should be located to foster a “critical mass” of electric-car users, according to Amy Bolten of the water agency.

“The more people use the charging stations, the more businesses will be inclined to install charging stations to bring in business, and the more likely they all will be to invest in this car,” Ms. Bolten said. “If there are only a couple of charging stations around, people will consider owning an electric car risky or not convenient.”

All the governments in the county except Cloverdale have issued letters of support for the grant efforts and have expressed interest in acquiring a total of 150 electric cars from Nissan, according to Ms. Bolten. In addition to chargers potentially supplied with each vehicle, the goal is to obtain funding for each city to have at least one public station.

Santa Rosa would like to have at least 10 chargers dispersed around the city, according to Jon Merian, superintendent of Santa Rosa’s fleets.

[caption id="attachment_12918" align="alignright" width="198" caption="Sonoma County governments are exploring the ability to have "smartlet" charging points in public places, such as this one by ChargePoint on a San Jose light pole."][/caption]

County officials are reaching out to large organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, Agilent Technologies, Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University about integrating electric cars into their fleets, some of which already have hybrid vehicles, and installing charging stations.

“Large shopping centers and workplaces would be good places for charging stations,” said Cordel Stillman, capital project manager for the water agency.

Some grocery stores that cater to consumers interested in natural foods have expressed interest in having charging stations installed, according to Ms. Bolten. The idea is that shoppers could be able to top off their batteries while they shop.

That option could be even more attractive as charger and battery technology improves. For example, Nissan has indicated it may have a new generation of batteries ready for use soon that could be charged to 80 percent capacity in as few as 10 minutes, with roughly five hours potentially needed in trickle-charge mode to fill it completely.

As funding is secured, the location of the public chargers and payment systems for electricity usage still need to be worked out. A few companies are releasing public charging systems with pay-per-charge mechanisms, but the options have been limited because the Society of Automotive Engineers has been developing standards for safe charger and plug configurations as automakers prepare to release all-electric and PHEVs in the next few years, according to Mr. Stillman.

One public charger the county is considering is the Smartlet computer-networked stations made by Campbell-based Coulomb Technologies, a dozen of whose stations just came online in San Jose. The units cost $2,500 each, but the total cost can go up to $9,000, depending on how much work must go into extending wiring to the charger.

Local government officials are exploring ways to pay for the chargers, including grants, in-kind labor and leveraging the real estate value of the chargers, according to Ms. Bolten. The county is seeking $200,000 to $1 million in federal grants for charger installations countywide.

“It is clear that no cities are going to be laying out money for this,” she said.

That’s why Coulomb and other manufacturers are designing stations to be mounted to light poles, which can have electrical conduits with enough space for additional wires.

Concerns about the drain on the electrical grid from the charging stations also is being factored into the planning. Coulomb has an option for utilities to monitor power usage, and Pacific Gas & Electric is being consulted for a time when electric-powered cars start numbering a few thousand.

It is thought that Sonoma County would need to have interest in at least 1,000 electric vehicles to reach the “critical mass” sought for the countywide campaign to lower emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2025, according to Ms. Bolten.

The Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign reported that vehicle emissions accounted for 60 percent of the 4.5 million tons of greenhouse gases emitted in 2007.

Concurrent with the effort to install a network of charging stations is a water agency effort to work with governments in the county on greater use of in-home chargers for electric or plug-in hybrid cars, according to Ms. Bolten.

Half the grant money the county is seeking for electric vehicles would come from programs put in place by Assembly Bill 118 of 2007. However, the state’s current budget crisis has some alternative-energy industry analysts skeptical whether the $200 million supposed to be available for grants annually through 2015 will be available this year.