- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

Officials in the San Francisco Bay Area are gearing up to make their region “the electric-vehicle capital” of the United States, with hopes that federal economic stimulus money will soon come through and give their project a boost.

While some aspects of the ambitious plan have been slow to take hold, government and company officials say stimulus grants being approved and distributed to them are crucial to advancing the project.

“The city of Oakland is moving forward to help make Oakland and the Bay Area the electric-vehicle capital of the U.S.,” Mayor Ron Dellums said. “We have applied for funds for electric vehicles and charging spots through the Department of Energy. In challenging budget times like those we are currently facing, these funds will be critical.”

The comprehensive plan for the region, announced last year by the mayors of Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, includes a vow to be one of the first to turn away from fossil fuel. Several billion dollars in government and private-sector money were expected to be spent building green infrastructure in the area of about 7.3 million people spread over 101 cities and nine counties.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat who is a strong supporter of the project, included $1 million for the electric-vehicle initiative in the 2010 energy and water spending bill, which passed the chamber July 17.

Her support for the project, however, is not supposed to influence Department of Energy grant awards. The department bars lawmakers from intervening in the grant process beyond submitting letters of support.

“In these times, it is critical that we identify solutions to address both our economic and environmental challenges,” Mrs. Pelosi said when the plan was announced last year. “Promoting the use of electric vehicles will help forward our nation’s goals to achieve energy independence, to protect the environment by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and to boost the economy by providing jobs in an emerging manufacturing sector.”

Coulomb Technologies, which has installed charging stations in front of San Francisco City Hall, around the City Hall in San Jose and elsewhere, has proposed installing charging infrastructure in California by the end of this year, along U.S. Highways 99 and 101, and Interstate 5 for extended-range EVs, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) as well as all-electric vehicles.

Coulomb CEO Richard Lowenthal said the situation in the United States has been affected, somewhat adversely, by the stimulus bill, because a great number of potential customers have applied for stimulus money and are waiting for a response.

“Our company has also applied for a grant directly to install charging stations across California. We expect to see something really quick,” he said.

Robert Hayden, clean-transportation adviser for San Francisco city and county, said the city is currently seeking an economic stimulus grant through the Department of Energy. If the grant is awarded, electric-vehicle chargers will be installed in 12 city garages in downtown San Francisco and at the San Francisco International Airport by early next year.

Mr. Hayden said San Francisco has just started identifying departments that need to be involved with its comprehensive approach to make the city EV-ready. Departments that have been identified as having a role to play are those managing the municipal fleet, purchasing, public works, real estate divisions that manage buildings, municipal transportation authorities managing everything from buses and parking meters to city garages, the planning department and code inspection workers. All are working on identifying the key steps they need to be taking this year.

“The idea is to do everything possible to prepare the area for an easy transition to the new EV era,” Mr. Hayden said. “As soon as the vehicles are available - whether they are PHEVs or all-electric vehicles - there is nothing standing in the way of people in the Bay Area purchasing them.”

Even as this planning is under way, the city will develop a blueprint of the best places to have chargers installed.

Car manufacturers as well as EV infrastructure and service providers have responded to the groundbreaking proposals positively. They expect a “game-changing” entry of EVs in the mass market as early as 2012, but they are slow in gaining momentum.

Officials involved have different explanations.

“At last count, 118 clean-tech firms are headquartered in San Francisco with more coming every month. The Bay Area is a center of clean-tech investment and growth. There will be ups and downs for clean-tech companies, but we view our current growth as entirely sustainable,” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said.

“We are doing everything we can to encourage clean transportation options by highlighting the Bay Area’s reputation as the best market for new technologies in the world,” San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said.

However, compared with Internet startups, he said, green technologies may take longer to spread because of higher capital requirements.

Jim Helmer, director of transportation for the city of San Jose, said one has to be cautious of the investments because the technologies are constantly evolving and therefore unpredictable.

The 110-volt charging stations installed in the city of San Jose are a case in point.

“Companies are now upgrading their charging stations to 220 volts for quicker charging,” he said.

Mr. Helmer also said the whole issue of how to charge a car at night, during off-peak hours, can be very challenging because more than 50 percent of households in the United States do not have the electricity-equipped garages needed.

Then there is the task of getting all the overlapping agencies on the same page. John Grubb, vice president of communications for the Bay Area Council, said the council has brought all these regional agencies together as the Bay Area Council Economic Institute to come up with a single standard for developing green infrastructure.

Better Place is in the initial stage of planning an infrastructure investment model similar to the ones it has in Israel, Denmark and Australia, countries on the cutting edge of electric cars. Jason Wolf, head of California operations at Better Place, said the company expects deployment to begin in 2010 and to see mass-market electric cars appearing in the Bay Area in 2012, even with the current state of the economy.

Much will depend on the availability and affordability of the cars that come into the market, said Peter W. Skinner, director of transportation and land use for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, though he added that even in the current weak economy consumer appetite for green technologies such as these types of vehicles exists.

Most of the major automakers have a PHEV or a fully electric vehicle in the conception stage or in the making. One such car is the Chevy Volt, an extended-range PHEV, that is supposed to go into production in November 2010, said Britta Gross, director of vehicle infrastructure and commercialization for the car.

“I think the domestic automakers sort of missed the hybrid boat. And I see the current interest in clean transportation as a chance for them to leapfrog hybrids to EVs directly and catch up with international leaders in the industry,” said Veerender Kaul, research director for automotive and transportation at Frost & Sullivan.

“In the Chevy Volt, we are really comfortable and confident about the extended-range EV architecture. It could be charged with any household electric outlets. So we don’t have any infrastructure concerns here,” Ms. Gross said.

The Bay Area has also been an attractive market for Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley company producing all-electric cars, said Diarmuid O’Connell, Tesla’s vice president of business development.

“Most of the 500 cars we sold in the country are overwhelmingly in California, in particular in the Bay Area. They are already on the road,” he said.

He said Tesla aims to mass-market electric vehicles by making them affordable. Tesla’s Roadster and Model S can go 244 and 300 miles per charge, respectively, and can be fully recharged in as little as 3 1/2 hours from a conventional household outlet. The Model S will begin production in 2011.

Some automakers hope that with tax credits, these new vehicles could compete with mainstream gasoline vehicles. Various estimates by automakers for the cars range from $20,000 to $30,000.

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