Range anxiety? Not on this highway
Range anxiety -- the fear that no recharging station will be available when an electric vehicle's battery runs low — is the boogeyman of the EV industry.
With the West Coast Green Highway project, the state of Washington hopes to alleviate that anxiety and make itself the investment destination of choice for automakers and suppliers.
"Our ambition is to be a magnet for testing and early release" of electric vehicles, said Jeff Doyle, director of public/private partnerships at Washington's Department of Transportation.
He already has had some success. BMW AG and SGL Group will manufacture the carbon-fiber panels for BMW's Megacity electric vehicle, due in 2013, at a $100 million plant in Moses Lake, Wash.
The West Coast Green Highway actually is a three-state initiative involving Washington, Oregon and California. The aim is to build a seamless recharging network along the 1,350 miles of Interstate 5 running from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. If everything goes as planned, an EV owner will be able to drive at least the length of Washington without range anxiety by spring 2011, said Doyle.
The Green Highway is a crucial step in expanding the appeal of electric vehicles from early adopters to the mass market, said Mark Perry, director of product planning at Nissan North America, maker of the Leaf electric vehicle.
"You can talk about it until you are blue in the face," said Perry. "Until the mass market sees cars on the road and publicly available chargers in use, this is all in the future."Doyle's office is in charge of recruiting companies to help build a network of fast-charging stations along the Washington portion of I-5. Fast-charging stations, also called Level 3 (480-volt) stations, can recharge a battery in as little as 15 minutes. A Level 2 (240-volt) station takes more than four hours.
Washington aims to find retail businesses that will help foot some of the bill to install a fast-recharging station on the retailer's property. Doyle hopes demand is sufficient to make having a station a competitive advantage. But he admitted that many stations will be in remote areas, and that the state probably will have to foot the bill.
The Green Highway project will help Washington better understand the business model for charging stations, Doyle said. The stations eventually will need to generate income, he said: "We can try to be incubators, but we are not service station operators."
Washington has $1.32 million in funding from the federal government's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus program.
Of that, $120,000 will be used to install two Level 2 chargers, one at each of the rest areas on I-5 at the northern and southern points of entry into Washington.
The remaining $1.2 million is for installing fast-chargers. Ideally it will be enough for at least seven fast-chargers on I-5. If any money remains, Doyle would like to cover some other highways, as well.
His office is requesting proposals from the handful of companies now producing fast-chargers.
"We know we need more than we have money for," Doyle said. "We are asking, ‘How many can you deliver for this amount of money?' "
ECOtality North America is bidding for the fast-charger contract. The company already is installing 22 fastcharging stations and thousands of Level 2 chargers in Washington state as part of another electrification plan, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and ECOtality. The EV Project, as that plan is known, aims to install 15,000 charging stations nationwide by June 11.
The Green Highway is "picking up the gaps in our network," said Rich Feldman, Pacific Northwest regional manager for planning and business development at ECOtality.
Greg Smith, dealer principal at Stadium Nissan in Seattle, said he will "absolutely" use the Green Highway as a marketing tool at an educational kiosk Stadium Nissan plans for downtown Seattle's popular Pike Place Market.
The fast-charging stations will be a "psychological comfort" to those worried about running out of battery power, said Smith. But, he added, customers are eager to get a Leaf now with or without the Green Highway. In that camp is Peter Mullen, a 54year-old software developer in Seattle. He already owns a Toyota Prius that he converted into a plugin. He planned to use the Leaf for trips around town, and is getting a home recharger through The EV Project. But, said Mullen, "The Green Highway will make me take it on vacation."
Washington is one of the five launch states for the Leaf because of the high number of early adopters, such as Mullen, and its commitment to building infrastructure, said Nissan spokesman Tim Gallagher.
ECOtality conservatively estimates 100,000 cumulative EV sales in western Washington by 2020. Completing the charging network could make that number much larger, said Feldman.
Doyle of the Washington Transportation Department hopes so.
"That's why we are pushing so hard to have this infrastructure," he said. "So we can be the first choice for automakers."