Electric Car Startup Gains Urban Foothold with 30-Minute Charges

350Green aims to help America's "garage-less" city dwellers confidently buy electric cars, by installing fast-charging stations at their local retailers

Electric car getting charged
Image: Simon Aughton

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Three years ago, Mariana Gerzanych, founder of the eco-friendly sedan service EnviroRide, began looking to add plug-in electric vehicles to her Washington, D.C. fleet, but the plan quickly hit a snag: drivers had nowhere to charge the cars.

It was the hitch that became the impetus for 350Green, LLC, the startup Gerzanych launched with business partner Tim Mason in 2008. The company aims to offer “garage-less” drivers — about 40 percent of Americans — the means to “fill up” their empty electric vehicles (EVs) in parking lots of grocery stores or coffee shops in less than 30 minutes, about 16 times faster than home chargers.

“We are seeing the biggest adoption of EVs in larger cities… [where] there is no space for home garages. How do you provide solutions to those people?” Gerzanych, CEO of 350Green, asked. “It’s fast charging in places where people go on a regular basis.”

According to 350Green, only one in six city cars in America is stored in a garage.

This month, the San Diego-based company announced plans for a national rollout of its public charging stations, with Chicago and San Francisco getting the first installations. The firm joins a market expected to reach more than $3 billion by 2017, according to figures by Texas consultancy Verify Markets.

Meanwhile, cities and retailers countrywide are clamoring to set up the public “pumps” ahead of the coming electric car boom, and federal stimulus funds are bolstering the young industry by spurring research and creating consumer incentives.

One Million EVs in Four Years

President Obama has called for 1 million EVs to hit the roads by 2015, and he recently pushed for legislation to turn a current $7,500 tax credit on electric cars into an instant consumer rebate — a timely consideration as automotive giants like General Motors, Nissan and Ford gear up to launch their all-electric models in North America in the next two years.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is largely paving the way for projects with its $230 million EV Project, a public-private partnership funded half by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and half by private financing. The program expects to create 1,200 new jobs by 2012 and 5,500 new positions by 2017 from development, manufacturing and installation initiatives.

San Francisco-based ECOtality, Inc. is managing $130 million of the project to develop and install 15,000 charging systems in Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas, plus the District of Columbia.

The EV Project also aims to deploy up to 5,700 Nissan LEAF vehicles and up to 2,600 Chevrolet Volt cars.

350Green to Launch in Chicago, Bay Area

350Green said earlier this month it would receive $1.9 million in grants from federal stimulus dollars for its Chicago project. The firm will spend $8.77 million to purchase, operate and maintain 280 charging stations at 73 sites in the metropolitan area, including the O’Hare and Midway airports, and it will not share revenues with the city or Illinois.

Both monthly subscriptions and pay-per-session rates will be available to drivers, Gerzanych said, with incentives for charging at off-peak hours on the electrical grid, although the firm is still sorting out the costs with local utilities. The installation of chargers must be reported to local utilities so the electricity suppliers can track locations and potential grid demand.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, 350Green will also receive part of a $1.3 million “Spare the Air” non-stimulus grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to install and operate six direct current (DC) fast chargers and a dozen Level 2 chargers at Safeway convenience stores in six cities within the nine-county region.

The 480-volt fast chargers can fully replenish a lithium-ion car battery in less than 30 minutes, while 240-volt Level 2 chargers can take 90 minutes to four hours. Home chargers destined for garages have around 120 volts and can take up to eight hours for a full charge.

BAAQMD spokesperson Aaron Richardson told SolveClimate News that the grant program is a response to increasing consumer interest in the EV market, as the Bay Area has had the largest response in continuing stages of the Nissan Leaf reservation process.

The Air District has also issued $3.9 million in grants to ECOtality, Coulomb Technologies, AeroVironment and Clipper Creek to coordinate and deploy EV-charging equipment in homes throughout the area.

EV news site Clean Fleet Report estimates that the Bay Area will receive 4,000 electric cars this year, and 10,000 more will be delivered in 2012. The area is a major thoroughfare connection along the north-south transportation corridor that runs from southern California to Washington, a route that the federal government is targeting as a critical place to expand the EV market.

“If the EV is really going to be viable, there needs to be an infrastructure that will inspire consumer confidence,” Richardson said.

Competitor Coulomb Grows by 400%

Like 350Green, the Bay Area-based Coulomb Technologies is another young company successfully expanding within the EV charging market.

But Coulomb does things differently. While 350Green owns, installs and operates all of its charging stations — and then gives property owners such as retailers a 5 percent revenue share after it breaks even on costs — Coulomb sells its software and stations to corporations like Dell and Netflix and cities like San Francisco and Amsterdam. 

“Our mission is to ensure that when you’re on the showroom floor and you’re thinking about buying an EV, we want to take care of anything that might inhibit you from buying electric,” said Richard Lowenthal in an interview, who founded the company with Harjinder S. Bhade in 2007.

Lowenthal, Coulomb’s chief technology officer, said the 100-employee firm had sold 2,000 chargers globally in the last couple months — about double the total amount of chargers it sold in the past three years. He said the company grew by 400 percent from 2009 to 2010 and could do so again this year, although he did not provide sales figures.

“What is happening is that it is becoming commonplace” to purchase EV charging stations, Lowenthal said.

Last June, Coulomb received $15 million in ARRA funds and $21 million in DOE grants to deploy 4,600 of its ChargePoint Networks charging stations in nine U.S. regions, including metropolitan areas around Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and Austin, Texas.

The charging stations feature software to tell drivers which pumps are occupied and provide a billing system for apartment landlords to charge tenants, among other information. About 2,600 of the stations will be placed in shared parking lots and neighborhood curbsides, while the rest will go to buyers of the Volt, the all-electric Ford Focus and Daimler’s Smart ForTwo EVs.

With nearly 500 customers worldwide, 40 percent of Coulomb’s products are sold to hotels, fast-food chains and corporate garages, and 37 percent goes to cities and countries for government fleets and public vehicles, Lowenthal said. Twenty-two percent of charging networks are sold to electric utilities primarily in Amsterdam.

Lowenthal, who is also a former mayor of Cupertino, Calif., said he expects the next wave of customers to be U.S. utilities. After cities and companies buy up the charging stations for their residents and employees, then utilities could sell them to customers like meters.

But many kinks still need to be worked out, he said. Both Coulomb’s and 350Green’s systems charge drivers by time spent at the pump or per session, not by kilowatt-hours.

“Are we constructing a bunch of little utilities?” Lowenthal asked. “[Public utility companies] have a regulatory concern around us selling electricity, so we work with them to sort that out. If an apartment building has its tenants pay for charging vehicles, is it acting like a utility? How are these things regulated?”