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Building Up Power : Mandate for Electric Vehicles Gives Infrastructure a Charge

May 21, 1994|MICHAEL PARRISH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Preparations for the arrival of electric cars are speeding up now that the technology has passed a crucial review by the California Air Resources Board.

And Mickey Oros is right in the thick of things.

The former design engineer for commercial buildings now heads Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Inc. in Fair Oaks, a Sacramento suburb. His small company has spent most of the past three years building infrastructure equipment to support electric cars. The 150 or so charging stations it has installed around Sacramento are in routine use.

"It was just kind of amazing," Oros said of one recent encounter. "We saw the driver, a local doctor, pull up. And he just jumped out, plugged in and did his shopping."

In building the chargers and their control equipment, Oros has met head-on many of the practical problems that are the next big hurdles in introducing electric vehicles--from determining true unit costs of the equipment to settling liability and municipal zoning issues for the chargers installed in shopping center parking lots.

By summer's end, the state Public Utilities Commission is expected to rule on utility requests to use nearly $600 million in ratepayer funds to encourage electric cars, including construction of charging stations in parking lots, at minimarkets, on AAA-type roadside service vehicles and in residential garages throughout California.

The utilities also want ratepayers to finance incentives for potential customers that would help offset the expected higher cost of first-generation electric cars. Federal law provides buyers a tax credit of up to $4,000. The utilities want state credits of $1,000 or more added.

Not all electric car backers agree, however.

"I would be reluctant to support broad-based vehicle sales incentives so long as the (auto) industry continues to oppose us at every turn," said California Energy Commission Chairman Charles R. Imbrecht. He said the proposed incentives could, in effect, send $70 million from utility ratepayers to the auto makers.

Air Resources Board Chairwoman Jacqueline Schafer, announcing a week ago that the board would stick to its 1998 deadline for introducing zero-emission cars, said the ARB's attention would now turn to "implementation issues, including market development, incentives and infrastructure."

For instance, the board will weigh giving free parking or car pool lane access to buyers of electric vehicles. It may also extend its air pollution credit benefits to makers of hydrogen-powered vehicles or so-called hybrid electrics, which use small, low-polluting auxiliary engines to extend the range of electric cars.

Meanwhile, the utilities, auto makers and regulators are already arm-wrestling over technical standards for charging electric cars, ways to keep them from interfering with neighborhood TV reception, and the changes that will be needed in fire and electrical codes.

"We're planning a large-scale meeting that has all the players--auto makers, state agencies, the utilities," said Diane O. Wittenberg, Southern California Edison Co.'s manager of electric transportation.

The utilities also plan to directly stimulate a market for electric cars, even before the 1998 deadline, aiming to push prices lower in the process. EV America, a national coalition sponsored by the electric utilities, will place orders in the next few months for 5,000 electric vehicles, primarily for utility fleets.

Ordinary drivers will get to try out General Motors Corp.'s sporty Impact electric car beginning in June, in the first public exposure of a high-performance electric car. Eighty volunteers selected by Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will test the cars for two to four weeks each. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. expects to receive Impacts for testing in August, 1995.

"The Air Resources Board has sent a wonderful green flag, and the race is on," said Mike Gage, president of Calstart, the public-private consortium promoting an advanced transportation industry in California.

By the end of the year, Calstart members will have rolled out almost 80 electric cars or trucks, eight buses and support equipment such as multiple charging kiosks that can serve up to a dozen cars at once.

Beyond that, the World Resources Institute and other environmental groups have launched their next campaign: to make a large-scale switch to electric and hydrogen cars--both zero-emission vehicles--the long-term goal of transportation planners.

While natural gas, ethanol, methanol and other alternative fuels burn cleaner than conventional gasoline, they don't make the big inroads that zero-emission cars do against air pollution, the greenhouse effect and U.S. reliance on foreign oil, according to a new institute report titled "The Keys to the Car."

The "national push to introduce any and all forms of alternative fuels . . . will ultimately be seen as misguided," said the report's author, James J. MacKenzie.

Care and Feeding of the Electric Car

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