It’s official: Electric cars for the mass consumer crowd have arrived.
The first all-electric Nissan Leaf was sold last week to a man in California, and more are trickling in. And the first Chevrolet Volts (pictured) — GM’s model that can go up to 50 miles on battery power before switching to its gas “range extender” — are rolling off assembly lines in Detroit this week, with 160 cars slated to go to dealers in California, Texas, Washington, D.C. and New York.
There are more on the way. The Coda sedan is slated for the second quarter of 2011, and the Ford Focus Electric will have a 20-city launch in late 2011. Norway’s Think plans to build 300 of its electric vehicles in Indiana by the end of this year. The Wheego is supposed to launch this month, too. Chinese automaker BYD is also planning an electric car for the U.S. market. There’s even an upcoming documentary called Revenge of the Electric Car, a follow-up to 2006’s Who Killed the Electric Car?
The launches have gotten their share of rants and raves. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh bashed the Volt, leading to a rather amusing, Oxycontin-insult-slinging retort from Motor Trend, which Limbaugh bashed for awarding the Volt “Car of the Year.” Cheesy romance-novel coverboy Fabio has been stumping for electric vehicles in Plug In America’s public-service announcements as of late, even taking on Neil Cavuto of Fox News. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has endorsed electric cars via an investment in China’s BYD.
So with that, the push to roll out matching infrastructure is gearing up into full swing, fueled in part by government dollars. Ecotality and Coulomb are rolling out chargers en masse across a number of U.S. cities, backed with money from the Department of Energy. In Ecotality’s case, it is deploying almost 15,000 chargers in 16 cities in a $230 million project, half of which will be fronted by the DOE. Coulomb is rolling out 5,000 chargers across the nation in regions where electric vehicles will be delivered by its partners, Chevrolet, Ford and smart USA .
On the private-money side, power plant player NRG Energy took the unusual step of unveiling its own network of chargers and charging plans in Houston, while lobbying Nissan to allocate more Leafs to the Texas market. And Texas utility Oncor has touted West Texas wind energy, for which it is building transmission lines, as a perfect solution for charging electric cars since the wind tends to be strongest at night — the same time as when most of the vehicles are expected to be plugged in.
Networked chargers, via NRG, Coulomb or Ecotality, will play a key role in supplying data that determines what works and doesn’t work in the unknown world of charging habits and grid load management. As Ecotality CEO Jonathan Read describes it, part of their mission is to manage and influence charging habits and grid load, at some point using algorithms to show consumers when it’d be cheaper for them to charge. (Cheaper would also mean there’s less demand, so less of a chance of overloading the grid.)
“We can help shift load so we don’t blow transformers [and] help the utility influence customers in some markets and control time of charge,” Read said.
The Volt and Leaf mark a historic first step for electric cars in the U.S. (though note that many electric trucks are already on the road). The floodgates are opening, and time will tell how consumers and utilities adjust to the growing skeleton of charger networks popping up across parking lots, streets and slowly blanketing cities. At any rate, it should be an interesting ride.