San Diego Takes Center Stage as Ecotality Works Ahead of Electric Vehicle Rollouts

San Diego utility executives and transportation planners, together with Ecotality CEO Jonathan Read, yesterday unveiled a blueprint for deploying electric vehicle charging stations throughout the region—making San Diego the beginning point for a new era of rechargeable transportation.

“It’s a milestone on the road to the mass-marketing of electric cars,” decreed Ron Roberts, a San Diego County Supervisor.

San Francisco-based Ecotality is leading the charge, so to speak, after securing $115 million in two grants over the past 10 months from the U.S. Department of Energy for what has been described as “the largest transportation electrification project in history.”

With matching funds from utilities, automakers, and other companies bringing total funding to $230 million, Ecotality is responsible for deploying nearly 15,000 charging stations in 16 cities throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Tennessee, Texas, and the District of Columbia by fall, 2012. At the same time, Nissan North America is delivering the zero-emission Nissan Leaf, a 100-percent electric car, and General Motors is bringing the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid to market.

Ecotality's Blink Charger

Ecotality's Blink Charger

“The EV Project” is intended to serve as a gigantic market research study of consumer behavior—and to identify the key factors that will encourage consumer adoption of electric vehicles. The pilot program is intended to evaluate how climate and topography affect EV use, to explore ways to alleviate motorists’ “range anxiety” (the fear that they’ll be deplete their EV battery and be stranded), and to assess different revenue systems for private, commercial, and public charging stations.

As Ecotality says on its EV Project website, “The ultimate goal of The EV Project is to take the lessons learned from the deployment of these first 8,300 EVs, and the charging infrastructure supporting them, to enable the streamlined deployment of the next 5,000,000 EVs.”

And the grand experiment is beginning in San Diego.

Blink Commercial Charger - outsideEcotality says it expects to begin installing the first charging stations this fall, and Nissan says it anticipates delivering its first Leaf EVs by December, with the hybrid Chevy Volt arriving at roughly the same time. Ecotality says it will eventually install about 1,500 charging stations in commercial and public places, with another 1,000 subsidized installations to be done at the homes of qualifying EV motorists. Nissan said last month it plans to deliver 1,000 Leafs to San Diego under the EV program.

Chevrolet said earlier this week that demand for the Volt is strong enough that the company increased its 2012 production capacity by 50 percent, from 30,000 vehicles to 45,000.

So why is San Diego at the front of a line that includes Seattle; Portland, OR; Phoenix, AZ, Washington D.C.; Nashville, TN; and Houston, TX?

“For some reason, the consumers in San Diego just snap up innovation,” Ecotality’s Read told me. “And No. 2, this is a perfect location for an EV pilot program like this.” Among other things, San Diego’s moderate climate is easier on lithium-ion batteries.

Niggli noted that San Diego ranks high in the adoption of hybrid-electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius—with an adoption rate that he says is about 160 percent higher that the hybrid adoption rate nationwide. “We’re a test market,” Niggli said, “and we just have a lot of tech-savvy, early adopters.” Another factor could be the spirit of cooperation among regional transportation planners, local governments, Ecotality, and San Diego Gas & Electric, according to Mike Niggli, SDG&E’s president and chief operating officer.

Jonathan Read

Jonathan Read

And as Ecotality’s Read put it, “What we’ve learned is that Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure is important to the success of the electric car.”

Even after the $115 million in federal stimulus funding expires in 27 months, Read said Ecotality expects to generate revenue by selling and installing chargers in EV owners’ homes, from monthly subscriptions to unlimited charging at its public charging stations, and by selling advertising for the charging stations themselves.

“While this is a major U.S. DOE program initially,” Read said, “it is our intention and belief that EV charging infrastructure will be a private sector industry, with no [adverse] impact on state or local government—and it will create jobs.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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