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So How Is the Gov't-Supported Electric Car Industry Doing? Guess...

"nobody ever uses them"

Antonia Kraus begins a test drive of the new Chevrolet Volt Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010, outside the state Capitol building in Lansing, Mich. (AP)

In just four years, the Obama Administration wants 1 million electric cars on the road. But will the inventory, demand and infrastructure for owning and charging these electric vehicles (EVs) ever exist, or be adequate? Recent reports offer a bleak outlook.

Though government funding and industry stakeholders are moving forward to meet Obama's goal, consumer demand -- or lack thereof -- may not allow it. According to J.D. Power's 2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study, electric and hybrid cars are estimated to account for less than 10 percent of sales through 2016. The survey also found that the most cited reason for purchasing an EV was to cut costs, not to save the planet.

Last month, Popular Mechanics reported the six-month sales for the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, two well-publicized electric cars. Though the numbers didn't look good, they were quick to add that there are still waiting lists for these vehicles:

Only 3,071 Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicles were delivered to customers since they began arriving at dealerships in the first few “launch market” areas late last year. Nissan’s Leaf electric vehicle bettered that by more than 800 units, with 3,894 Leafs sold or leased by U.S. dealers through June 30 (including 19 in December 2010).

As a comparison, Chevy dealers delivered a total of 156,848 cars during this same time frame.

There are currently $2,500 to $7,500 in federal tax credits for plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars.

Even in terms of infrastructure, Costco -- an early adopter of charging stations for electric cars with 90 stations created in 2006 --  the New York Times was reported the retail giant removed these stations due to lack of use:

“We were early supporters of electric cars, going back as far as 15 years. But nobody ever uses them,” said Dennis Hoover, the general manager for Costco in northern California, in a telephone interview. “At our Folsom store, the manager said he hadn’t seen anybody using the E.V. charging in a full year. At our store in Vacaville, where we had six chargers, one person plugged in once a week.”

Mr. Hoover said that E.V. charging was “very inefficient and not productive” for the retailer. “The bottom line is that there are a lot of other ways to be green,” he said. “We have five million members in the region, and just a handful of people are using these devices.”

Even though the climate for EVs may not be ripe among consumers, government and manufacturers are still moving forward with creating infrastructure. In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $5 million in new funding for EV infrastructure as part of its Clean Cities Initiative.

The Transportation Electrification Initiative, announced in 2009, provided $2.4 billion toward EV infrastructure. But even with this and other funding, Wired reports stakeholders as saying they don't really want the help, nor do they need it:

We’re capitalists,” said [Richard] Lowenthall, chief technology officer at Coulumb Technologies. “We believe this market can only grow through capitalism.”

Wired confirms the industry is well on its way to implementing these capabilities, even though the average American may not be ready to adopt it yet:

These pieces are falling into place as big players like General Electric and NRG Energy join smaller outfits like Coulomb Technologies, Ecotality and Better Place in rolling out the infrastructure. We’ve already got more than 1,300 public charging stations nationwide and thousands more coming. Uncle Sam is spending more than $100 million to help install 22,000 residential and public charging points nationwide by 2014, and ABI Research says we’ll see more than 1.4 million residential and public chargers in the United States by 2016.

Want to know more about the viability of EVs? Here are a couple stats from Wired:

  • The average cost of electricity in the country runs around 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. So, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates charging an EV with a 70 mile range will cost about $2.64 to reach full charge -- that's equivalent to running central AC for six hours. General Motors estimates that its Chevy Volt will use 2,520 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. This means annual charging costs will be about $277.
  • If we were to reach the 1 million car goal, the electricity grid would be able to handle it, according to Mark Duvall of the Electric Power Research Institute. “The United States produces 4,000 terawatt-hours of electricity a year,” he said [to Wired]. “One million EVs would be about one one-thousandth of our annual electrical production.”
  • Most manufacturers claim their EVs run up to 100 miles. According to a survey of 120 California families, EVs were able to meet 90 percent of their driving needs. But Wired states, these cars may not be reliable enough for heavy commuters.
  • How long does it take to charge? Depending on the type of charger, it could take up to 20 hours or it could take less than 1. According to CarStations.com, there are three levels of EV chargers. Level 1 will most likely be in a home's garage or somewhere where the vehicle can be parked for a while; this level takes 16 to 20 hours to charge, depending on the vehicle. Level 2 is a faster option (takes about eight hours), which could allow for overnight charing and can be plugged in a normal home's outlet. Level 3 charging stations are most costly to install but it can charge a vehicle up to 80 percent in just under 30 minutes. Repeated use of a level 3 charging station could downgrade the battery though and, therefore is not recommended, for at home, regular use.

Wired reported Ecotality, a clean energy technology company, is estimating there would need to be about 1.51 chargers per electric car to meet demand:

“The ‘one’ is the charger in your garage,” said CEO Jonathan Read. “The ‘point five one’ is the public or commercial charger.”

This means we need more than 1.5 million chargers to meet the president's hope for 1 million EVs on the road by 2015, and only 1,300 are currently installed in homes and public places in the country.

But the bigger question is: Will we really need them?

One last thing…
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