Utilities Scramble to Meet Power Needs of Electric Cars

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A power input on Renault's electric car

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To complicate matters more, an influx of 220-volt chargers on one block, even just two or three per a typical circuit (10 to 12 homes), could overwhelm the system, according to Craver.

"Plug-in vehicles draw the equivalent of another house; the system can handle one per circuit, but two or three chargers on the same circuit could cause problems," he says. "Too much of a load could end up causing neighborhood outages."

But SoCal Edison and other utilities, like San Diego Gas & Electric, are hoping early-adopter enthusiasm and new infrastructure upgrades in hot e-car zip codes, like Santa Monica and Newport Beach, will overcome these early market glitches.

At current rates, the electric-fuel usage for e-cars is estimated to be 50% cheaper than gasoline, or about 4 cents a mile. This comes with the added benefit of low maintenance costs for EVs and, of course, zero emissions. In the U.S., 40% of greenhouse-gas emissions come from transportation. And never underestimate the force of status. Along with a $7,500 federal tax credit, being the first on the block with a road-worthy EV is expected to be the market's primary driver in the years ahead.

Last summer, when gasoline was above $4.50 a gallon, Kaufmann was laughing at his neighbors' wallet-withering $100 fuel bills for their SUVs, while he toddled about in his sporty Zenn, a low-speed neighborhood electric vehicle, or NEV, for next to nothing. Though NEVs can't legally go over 25 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone, newer high-speed sedans, like the ones Nissan and Tesla will be launching, are highway-approved, crash-tested and able to hit 80 m.p.h. in seconds flat.

"I was driving down the street doing nothing but saving money and laughing," he says. Of course, for his contracting work, Kaufmann has another vehicle, a Ford Explorer. He needs the SUV to pull trailers, he says.

But in his free time, Kaufmann spreads the EV word at Environmental Motors in nearby Glendale, one of a handful of EV dealers in the region. He doesn't worry about the cost of charging up at home either. The Zenn has an on-board charger and plugs into his standard 110-volt socket, which Kaufmann compares to plugging in a cell phone. Others claim it draws more like a dehumidifier. Still, says Kaufman, "I don't even notice it on my electric bill."

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