As Electric Cars Arrive, Where Will They Plug In?

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David Silverman / Getty

A power input on Renault's electric car

There are probably fewer than 1,500 plug-in electric vehicles on the road today, most in carefully controlled experimental fleets. But over the next 18 months, the number will grow exponentially as automakers like General Motors, Nissan, Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota roll out models that use electricity for all or part of the car's energy. President Obama has suggested that the U.S. could have as many as 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015.

So where will they all juice up?

Already, utilities, retailers, hamburger joints and others are scrambling to prepare for the swarm of electric and hybrid vehicles, and several are market-testing on-site charging stations. The auto industry is doing its part, not only producing a burst of innovative vehicles, but also attacking some of the nitty-gritty issues, like the size of the plug.

Thankfully, the plug challenge is nearly resolved. While no two cell phones can use the same charger, carmakers have agreed on the basic design of a common five-prong plug for use across the industry. The plug will fit into a car's socket, with the other end fitting into a standard 110-volt or 220-volt outlet. It will become the industry standard by 2011. "There aren't going to be any Beta vs. VHS issues to confuse the introduction of electric cars," says Gery Kissel, a General Motors Corp. engineer who served as chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineers committee, which compiled the EV-charging standards to which all manufacturers have agreed.

Of course, when it comes to car-charging, plugs are only half the battle; the other half is sockets. Recharging a Tesla through a 110-volt socket — the type found throughout most houses — takes about 12 hours, while the 220-volt socket typically used to operate major household appliances such as washers and dryers takes about half that time.

Slowly — some would say too slowly — the U.S. is adapting to the anticipated need for high-voltage charging. Updated building codes in California require new homes to have outlets capable of recharging an electric vehicle at 220 volts, notes Richard Lowenthal, chief executive officer of Coulomb Technologies in Campbell, Calif. His company has developed a network of charging points for electric vehicles in and around cities across the U.S., including San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit and Nashville.

Utilities face a different challenge. While there is ample generating power to feed electricity to EVs, particularly if the owners recharge them at off hours, the real question is distribution, particularly in older cities like Boston. Transformers usually serve five or six houses, so one household would probably be able to have an electric vehicle. But if two wanted to use the same transformer, there could be a problem, says Phil Gott, director of Automotive Science and Technology at IHS Global Insight.

In response, utilities are forming coalitions: a group of four utility companies that provide electric service in New England have formed the Regional Electric Vehicle Initiative to encourage collaboration. Other regions have similar coalitions.

On Monday a new committee called the Electrification Coalition was announced. Its 12 members include a utility, PG&E, but also members of industry, including Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn as well as FedEx chairman Frederick Smith. The coalition's goal is to have electricity account for 75% of light-duty vehicle miles traveled by the year 2040. It also envisions a network of "fast-charging" stations, which would be capable of recharging a car in minutes. If that sounds expensive, it is. The coalition is calling for roughly $120 billion to be spent by the U.S. government over the next eight years on everything from public charging stations to better batteries. To date, the Obama Administration has released $3.4 billion in grants and loans for "smart grid" technology, which improves the efficiency of the electric distribution networks.

Some companies as well as entrepreneurs see an opportunity in the coming need. A McDonald's franchisee recently opened an electric-vehicle charging station in Cary, N.C. "The networked, grid-friendly charging stations are a perfect complement to the many innovative green features of the restaurant," says Ric Richards, president of Richard's Advantage Inc., the owner of the franchise. Also, Starwood Hotels is installing charging stations in some of its Element hotels, including those in Lexington, Mass.; Las Vegas; and Dallas.

While the trend is encouraging, automakers aren't counting on it. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has noted that the demand for electric-powered commercial vehicles could develop faster than a commuter demand because commercial vehicles can be collected at the end of the day and recharged at a central point.

For the retail car owner, it's likely to be an evolutionary change. Fred Standish, a spokesman for Nissan, which is preparing to launch the all-electric Leaf next year in the U.S., says the Japanese automaker expects the first EV drivers to be people who have garages where they can plug in at night. Owing to the lack of charging stations, he says they will also likely limit their EVs to short trips. "There is going to have to be a lot of education, because this a major change," he says.