Drivers of all-electric cars could soon zip across the U.S. Northeast without having to worry about running out of battery power mid-trip.
At least that's the idea behind the Northeast Electric Vehicle Network, a regional effort that launched last week to add hundreds of public chargers in 11 northeastern states and the District of Columbia—and thereby lure more East Coast Americans to the electric car.
About 15,000 all-electric vehicles are cruising U.S. roads today, according to Plug In America, a San Francisco advocacy group, and only around a thousand of those are in the East. States in the new network say that one main way to increase that number is to allay people's fears of getting stranded on the side of the road, a phenomenon known as "range anxiety."
"The ultimate goal is for electric vehicle drivers to never have to worry about having access to charging stations as they drive from Maine down to D.C.," said Brett Taylor, director of policy and communications for the Delaware Department of Transportation.
Taylor is among the state transportation, energy and environmental officials taking part in the network, the first collaboration of its kind in the country. The effort developed over the past year out of the Georgetown Climate Center's Transportation and Climate Initiative, which aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and spur "clean" economic growth.
The Northeast imports nearly 25 billion gallons of petroleum per year, according to figures compiled by the network. If battery-powered cars replaced jut 5 percent of conventional ones, it could save the region $4.6 billion each year.
The participating states are Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. Maine will take part through cities, not at the state level.
Over the next year agencies in each state will team up with automakers, big retailers, local shops and charging service providers to create a plan for getting the charging stations in prime spots. The partners will work to install them over the next couple of years. The effort will use a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. DOE's Clean Cities program.
The network leaders believe they can tap into the region's particular interest in green economy initiatives, including its heavy emphasis on public transportation and participation in the nation's first mandatory emissions trading plan, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
"We think that there's going to be a lot of enthusiasm [for electric vehicles] in this part of the country," said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.
She noted that based on population size some 200,000 electric vehicles—or 20 percent of President Obama's call for 1 million plug-in cars—could hit the region by 2015, at least. "It might be that we see even more electric vehicles adopted in this region than the population alone would indicate," she said.
Gina Coplon-Newfield, the senior representative for Sierra Club's electric vehicle campaign, said her group is "thrilled" that eastern communities are finally catching up to efforts on the West Coast and in Texas to make recharging E.V. batteries more convenient.
Leading those western initiatives is the two-year-old, $230 million EV Project managed by San Francisco cleantech firm Ecotality and funded in half by federal stimulus. The project has helped install 14,000 fast chargers in homes and businesses across 18 cities in California, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.
Coplon-Newfield said that building public charging stations, the centerpiece of the Northeast's efforts under the DOE grant, will be "one of the most important factors in incentivizing this new market."
The region had nearly 500 of the stations in place as of Sept. 30, according to DOE figures—about 13 percent of the nation's roughly 3,800 public charging points. Participants have not yet determined how many public chargers will be added under the initiative, but it's likely to be "in the hundreds," said Adam Ruder, a program manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a public agency. Ruder also co-chairs Georgetown's clean vehicles working group.
Charging Stations Key—But Are They Enough?
Some electric car proponents have started warning that providing plenty of places to recharge won't necessarily lure Americans to make the switch.
Marc Geller, who directs Plug In America, said the push to build recharging infrastructure in potential markets has created a situation where some U.S. communities have charging stations and no electric cars, and vice versa. He blamed a lack of coordination between local governments and E.V. buyers. With improvements, for example, consumers could tell officials in charge of electric car infrastructure where they are likely to need a fill-up, he said.
"It is important that groups like this Northeast consortium make sure that the stations get put in the ground as cars are appearing," Geller added. "Coordination at the multi-state level can help that."
Lois New, acting director of the New York State Office of Climate Change, who also co-chairs the Georgetown center's staff working group with Taylor, said the network is aware of this difficulty and is planning other ways to stimulate demand for electric vehicles, such as offering tax incentives for individual drivers and fleet operators for purchases.
State agencies will also coordinate with utilities to set attractive pricing that makes charging a battery cheaper than filling up a gas tank, she said, especially when charging is done at night and puts less burden on the electrical grid.
"We want to look at the whole picture," she said.
Priority: Cutting Bureaucratic Red Tape
Still, the early initiatives backed by DOE will focus on making it easier to install chargers at local businesses, parking garages, park-and-ride lots at train and bus terminals and in people's homes.
As a first step, regional network leaders will partner with their counterparts in the local Clean Cities coalitions to streamline the bureaucratic process. Currently, a hodgepodge of local ordinances and permitting rules is delaying charging infrastructure, said Ruder.
Consistent permitting requirements across towns, cities and states is important in the Northeast due to its geography, he said. Many states are so small and cities so close together that regulations in one place might not apply a short drive down the road.
"When Walmart says, 'We'd really like to invest in electric vehicle charging in our stores in the Northeast,' but they have to get 50 different permits, it is really a barrier to investment," Ruder said.
He added that the same obstacle has stymied Nissan and General Motors, the two big manufacturers of electric cars. To date, they've released their vehicles primarily in areas where state and local officials have made paperwork lighter and permitting fees lower for charging stations, and where utilities are prepped to handle the stress that thousands of E.V.'s could put on the grid.
"They've been trying to release their first sets of vehicles in markets that are primed and ready for electric vehicles," Ruder said.
So far, Nissan has sold nearly 7,200 all-electric Leafs in the United States, while GM has sold around 3,900 of its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volts.
For the Leaf, only Maryland and D.C. were included in the second group of launch markets after Nissan initially offered the cars in Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. The automaker has since opened orders for its 2012 Leaf in seven other northeastern states.
The first Volts were sold in D.C. and the New York City metro region, as well as in California and Austin, Texas. Drivers in Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey can now order the cars, and deliveries of the 2012 model are expected for all 50 states at the end of this year.
Mainstream Adoption To Bring Benefits
Many of today's E.V. owners are early adopters—those who buy cutting-edge gadgets and products right away. Arroyo said that getting more everyday drivers to go electric is critical in making significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and tailpipe pollution. About 30 percent of all the region's CO2 emissions come from the transportation sector, according to the network.
"To be successful at meeting our energy and our environmental goals, we really have to move beyond that [niche] population ... and reach out to the general public," Arroyo said.
Getting more Americans to buy E.V.s will also help ramp up demand so automakers can sell their cars for less, said Taylor of Delaware's transportation department. Their high price tag is right up there with range anxiety as a major hurdle to electric cars merging into the mainstream, experts say.
The 2012 models of the passenger E.V. Leaf and the plug-in Volt start around $36,000 and $39,000. Even with federal tax credits of up to $7,500 for the first 200,000 cars sold by each automaker, they're a tough sell in a downtrodden economy. The suggested retail price for a fuel-efficient, gas-powered Chevy Cruze Eco, by comparison, is around $16,700.
More demand for the cars could also mean more jobs in the clean economy, said Taylor.
He noted that the rise in electric car manufacturing is spurring green economic growth in parts of the Northeast. In his home state of Delaware, Anaheim, Calif.-based Fisker Automotive recently bought a shuttered GM plant for $18 million and is set to spend $175 million to produce its own plug-in hybrid vehicles there.
In Maryland, GM reopened its partially shuttered plant and is investing $244 million to manufacture electric motors for its Chevy Volt and other plug-in vehicles. Both projects are expected to create nearly 2,000 jobs either at the plants or in related businesses.
"We think that this is really the beginning of a new industry" in the region, Taylor said. "It is going to be a job creator for us."