Electric car fast-charging network hits road bumps

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by JOE FRYER / KING 5 News

NWCN.com

Posted on May 20, 2013 at 10:24 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 21 at 6:57 PM

FIFE, Wash. – Laura Powers begins every afternoon commute by driving to Tahoma Market in Fife, where she patiently waits 30 minutes for her electric car to charge. 

“Saying $600 a month in fuel is worth it,” she said. 

But she is frustrated by the fact she must drive north from her job in Tacoma to Fife, even though she actually lives one hour south.  She does so because Fife has the only I-5 DC fast-charging station – one that juices up her car in 30 minutes – between downtown Seattle and Tumwater.

“It would be nice if there were more of them,” she said. 

More chargers were part of the original plan.  Starting in 2009, the U.S. government gave $115 million to a company called ECOtality as part of a public-private partnership to install chargers in select cities across the country, including the Seattle area, between Everett and Olympia.  It is called The EV Project.

In 2011, ECOtality announced its Seattle-area goals goals: 22 fast chargers and 1200 Level 2 chargers, which can charge a car in three to four hours, all by the end of 2011. 

But two years later, the company has installed only six fast chargers and 369 Level 2 chargers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. 

“The early car sales were not what we had anticipated,” said Amy Hillman, ECOtality’s Northwest sales manager. 

Hillman said some chargers originally intended for Seattle were moved to other cities because electric-vehicle sales did not take off right away.  The Japanese tsunami hurt production, she added. 

It has also been challenging to find locations to put the fast chargers and get the right permits, Hillman added.

“We’ve considered many, many, many sites that haven’t worked out,” she said. 

In the meantime, the state Department of Transportation got its own grant to install additional chargers, but it did not want to interfere with The EV Project’s territory.  So the state teamed up with a different company, AeroVironment, and put its chargers, including 12 fast chargers, in places outside of those boundaries, along I-5, I-90 and Highway 2.

It has created a “donut hole,” according to Jeff Doyle, WSDOT’s director of public/private partnerships. 

“Now you have a complete charging network outside of Seattle and Tacoma, and we’re hopeful that the other charge provider will finish their network inside the urban area,” Doyle said.  “It’s primarily the DC fast chargers in the greater Puget Sound area that are a little bit slower to roll out than we had hoped.”

Thanks to the fast-charger shortage, Leila Davenport, who lives and works in the Olympia area, limits her Nissan Leaf to the South Sound.

“It’s not a car I’m going to hop into and head for North Seattle,” she said.  “You just don’t do that.”

The Seattle area has some of the highest electric vehicle sales in the country right now, trailing only San Francisco.  There are about 2500 electric cars in Washington state, Doyle said. 

ECOtality plans to install at least 5 more fast chargers in Puget Sound by the end of this year, which would bring the final total to at least 11.  Hillman believes that will be more than enough chargers for the region, at least for now.  She also believes private companies will install chargers to help expand the network. 

The U.S. Department of Energy said it does not have regional goals for the charging stations – just national goals.  So far, ECOtality has deployed 79 fast chargers nationwide, which is about 40 percent of its goal of 200 units.  The company has also installed 3,769 commercial charging stations – about 75 percent of its 5,000-unit goal. 

On a positive note, ECOtality has surpassed its goal for installing residential chargers, deploying more than 1100 in the Seattle area alone.  That is important because 80 percent of charging is done at home. 

The EV Project’s goals go beyond installing chargers.  It is also a study, which is providing the government and industry valuable information about how electric vehicles are used. 

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