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Charging network a goal as electric vehicles come on line

Visitors to the Los Angeles Auto Show are wooed by the vehicles' futuristic designs and the promise of fuel savings, but many tire-kickers raise worries about how they would keep the cars powered up.

November 25, 2010|Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times

Electric vehicles, many of which will hit dealership showrooms starting next month, took center stage at this week's Los Angeles Auto Show.

But while wooed by the futuristic designs and promises of huge fuel savings, many tire-kickers at the show raised worries about how they would keep the cars powered up and running.

So amid a flurry of announcements about ever more clean-fuel models coming to market, industry officials kept busy touting how there was a growing network of public and private charging stations available for electric vehicle operators.

"Southern California is really quite close to completing this electric web," said Mike Sullivan, who sells clean-fuel cars at his chain of LACarGuy dealerships in the Southland.

Sullivan's company has begun getting permits for and installing chargers at branches in Santa Monica and Hollywood — a process that takes about three months per unit. Visitors will be able to charge at the stations, made by Auburn, Calif.-based ClipperCreek Inc., for free.

"The psychological aspect of it is really the first threshold," said Sullivan, who is eagerly awaiting two plug-in hybrids — a Toyota Prius and a Fisker Karma — for his personal use. "Buyers need to see the chargers and know they're there before they'll really be comfortable shopping for the cars."

More than 2 million California families hit the road for the Thanksgiving holiday, spending about $54 million to fuel up for the trip. Those drivers could have saved $30 million total if they drove clean-fuel cars, according to a new report from Environment California.

Some of those vehicles, including the hybrid-electric Chevrolet Volt and the all-electric Nissan Leaf, will go on sale next month, with the electric Ford Focus following next year. Electrics such as the Toyota RAV4, the Honda Fit EV and the Tesla Model S will roll out in 2012.

California automakers are also gearing up. Salinas-based Green Vehicles, which produces the electric Triac car, will partner with Fremont-based battery company Leyden Energy. Santa Monica-based Coda Automotive will begin offering its electric sedan at Hertz Corp.'s Southern California car rental locations beginning in 2011.

The influx of vehicles will require a sprawling network of charging stations and government support, experts said. Last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pledged that drivers installing chargers in their Los Angeles homes will be able to get their permits in less than a week,

And local electric vehicle owners can look up government incentives and charging tips on GoElectricDrive.com, a new website from Southern California Edison and the Electric Drive Transportation Assn. The utility also launched a function on its SCE.com/PEV website that helps drivers estimate their monthly power and gasoline bills.

In Houston, a Monrovia-based firm is working with a power company to create a web of charging stations. AeroVironment Inc. and Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Energy Inc. are installing charging units in about 1,000 homes as well as setting them up along freeways and in shopping and business districts. Other cities, including some in the Southland, are expected to eventually follow the Houston model.

"The advantage is the ability to move quickly to implement the entire solution, and as public companies, get it done in a way that makes economic sense," said AeroVironment Chief Executive Tim Conver.

San Francisco-based ECOtality Inc. will install its own fast chargers at 45 BP and Arco fueling stations and 12 Best Buy locations, including several in the Southland, as early as March.

And by the time batteries in electric vehicles start wearing down, research partnerships such as the one between Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy and Tokyo-based ITOCHU Corp. may be able to repurpose them as power storage units.

To assuage fears that electric vehicles could sputter to a stop, Cleveland-based power management company Eaton Corp. is developing a mobile charging station using technology from Indianapolis-based generator company Real Power.

The motor of an idling truck would run an attached generator, which would power charging units loaded onto the flatbed. A full charge would require the truck to use less than a gallon of fuel, said Tim Old, electric vehicle infrastructure manager for Eaton.

Service providers such as AAA could send trucks to juice up or tow stalled electric vehicles, Old said. Shopping mall companies or university campuses could also have roving fleets of trucks.

"Electric vehicle drivers are going to be worried about whether they'll be stuck away from home base," Old said. "With innovations like this, they'll have improved peace of mind to drive in a more standard way. And that will continue to develop the marketplace."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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