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photo: Better Place

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

First Chicago gets Rahm Emanuel, now electric cars.

Well, at least an electric car infrastructure. In a move that indicates electric cars won’t just be a phenomenon of Greater Portlandia, utility Exelon and the city will roll out 280 charging stations across Chicagoland by year’s end. Two stations will even be solar-powered.

It’s part of a smart grid demonstration project, partially funded by the federal government, to get a jump-start on the potential impact on the electric system if Chicagoans start buying battery-powered vehicles in big numbers.

Windy, snow-swept Chicago doesn’t exactly pop to the top of the list as an EV epicenter. But former Mayor Richard M. Daley made greening the second city a priority, and according to a spokesperson for Exelon — which owns Chicago utility ComEd — Illinois ranks in the top 10 when it comes to hybrid car ownership.

“ComEd is preparing now for what may be a large influx of PHEVs in the market and managing its impact on the grid,” Kerry Kelly-Guiliano, the Exelon spokesperson, said in an email, referring to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. “And they are putting in place the charging infrastructure to demonstrate that Chicago is plug-in ready.”

The locations for the charging stations have yet to be determined, but Kelly-Guiliano said they would most likely be deployed at places like shopping malls, Chicago’s two airports, and rest stops along the Illinois Tollway in the city.

Chicago follows another unlikely hot spot for electric cars, the petro capital of Houston. Late last year, utility NRG Energy announced plans to build a $10 million electric charging network in a 25-mile radius surrounding downtown Houston.

Initially, Chicago’s electric charging network will be used by a fleet of electric and hybrid cars maintained by ComEd.

Now we just want to see Mayor Emanuel behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The landscape of Silicon Valley is littered with technology pioneers who were a little too ahead of their time and failed to cash in, either because the market wasn’t ready or because competitors swooped in and commercialized their breakthroughs.

As the first mass-market electric cars hit showrooms, the question is whether Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, has now been early to the party twice.

Back in the late 1990s, Ford acquired a majority share of Think, invested $100 million, and produced a two-seater urban runabout called the City. The car was sold in Norway and was a familiar sight on San Francisco Bay Area streets at the turn of the century, where it was leased to residents as part of a pilot project that allowed drivers to charge up at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. (Among those who drove a Think: Google co-founder Sergey Brin.)

We all know the rest of the story: Low oil prices and California’s abandonment of its zero-emission mandate killed off the electric car. Ford ditched Think, which eventually filed for bankruptcy.

In 2006, a Norwegian professor and entrepreneur named Jan-Olaf Willums and a group of investors revived Think to manufacture a next-generation battery-powered City. When I visited Think in Oslo in 2007, Willums promoted a vision of the electric car as not an isolated hunk of metal (or plastic, in the City’s case) but as an internet-enabled transportation service that interacted with the power grid — and you — through your mobile phone.

“We want to sell mobility,” Willums told me. “We don’t want to sell a thing called the Think.”

Production of the new City began in late 2008, and there are now some 2,500 of the highway-ready cars on the road in Norway and elsewhere in Europe.

But as Think prepares to enter the United States market — the company plans to assemble the City in Indiana — it’s searching for space in a parking lot crowded with competitors which have embraced, to varying degrees, Willums’ vision.

When I test-drove the Chevrolet Volt in May, General Motors executives proudly showed how you could check on the car’s battery charger and communicate with the vehicle through your iPhone or Blackberry. The Nissan guy riding shotgun in the electric Leaf I drove in July did the same.

So how does Think compete against those deep-pocketed competitors offering four-and-five-seat sedans?

I recently talked to Barry Engle, Think’s newest chief executive, about the company’s strategy now that the electric auto age has at last arrived. (Like his immediate predecessor, Richard Canny, Engle was a longtime Ford executive.)

“This is a company that for many years was this lone voice in the wilderness trying to convince people that they had a better idea,” says Engle. “I don’t know if the world was quite ready for what we have. But wow, a lot has changed here over the past year or so.”

Engle stresses that Think is not out to compete with GM and Nissan in the U.S., but will focus on a niche market — urbanites who want a small, easily maneuverable electric car.

“We don’t delude ourselves that we are a full-fledged manufacturer with a full line of products,” he says. “We’re uniquely positioned in the marketplace as few have expressed interest in what we do well, a city car.”

Such cars are popular in Europe’s densely packed cities, where electric cars are exempt from high registration and congestion charges. Then there’s a huge potential market in Asia’s megacities.

And if American city-dwellers start to downsize their rides and go electric at the same time, then Think will have arrived right on time.

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photo: Ford

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Bummed that you don’t live in one of the select cities that will be the first to get the electric Nissan Leaf or the Chevrolet Volt next month? Or you do live in one of those early-adopter municipalities and want an electric ride but don’t like either car?

Well, if you’re willing to wait another year, the electric Ford Focus will be rolling into town. Twenty towns, to be exact. Ford on Monday announced that in late 2011, a battery-powered version of its compact car will be sold in — drum roll, please — Atlanta, Austin, and Boston as well as Houston, Chicago, and New York.

Denver, Detroit, and Orlando will get the Focus along with Raleigh and Durham, N.C. and Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C. Out West, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson are on the list.

Then there are the usual suspects: San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

“Markets were chosen based on several criteria, including commuting patterns, existing hybrid purchase trends, utility company collaboration and local government commitment to electrification,” Ford said in a statement.

“Ford wants to build on this enthusiasm by making our first all electric passenger vehicle available in as many pilot markets as possible,” Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, said in a statement.

“This is the first step in rolling out the Focus Electric. As the country continues to build up its electric vehicle infrastructure and demand for the Focus Electric grows, Ford will continue to evaluate additional markets and consider making this vehicle available in more cities across the country.”

The electric version of its existing Focus will be powered by a lithium ion battery that will give the car an estimated range of 100 miles. That’s the same range that Nissan is advertising for the Leaf. The Chevrolet Volt will travel about 40 miles on a charge before a small gasoline engine kicks in to generate electricity.

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In Wednesday’s New York Times, I wrote about two experimental projects in California to store solar energy produced by photovoltaic rooftop arrays:

In the garage of Peter Rive’s San Francisco home is a battery pack. It is not connected to Mr. Rive’s electric Tesla Roadster sports car, but to the power grid.

The California Public Utilities Commission has awarded $1.8 million to Mr. Rive’s company, SolarCity, a residential photovoltaic panel installer, to research the feasibility of storing electricity generated by rooftop solar arrays in batteries.

As rooftop solar systems provide a growing percentage of electricity to California’s grid, regulators and utilities are increasingly concerned about how to balance the intermittent nature of that power with demand.

One possible solution is to store energy generated by solar arrays in batteries and other systems and then feed that electricity to the grid when, say, a cloudy day results in a drop in power production. And when demand peaks, electricity generated from renewable sources could be dispatched from batteries rather than fossil-fuel burning power plants.

“As soon as distributed solar starts providing 5 to 10 percent of demand, its intermittent nature will need to be addressed,” said Mr. Rive, who is SolarCity’s co-founder and chief operating officer.

SolarCity is teaming with Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley electric car company run by Mr. Rive’s cousin, Elon Musk, and the University of California, Berkeley, to study how to integrate solar arrays and off-the-shelf Tesla lithium-ion battery backs into the grid. SolarCity plans to put such systems in six homes.

“We think in the years ahead this will be the default way that solar is installed,” Mr. Rive said. “Getting the costs down, though, is not going to be an easy task.”

Homeowners could potentially benefit by tapping batteries at hours when electricity rates are high or using them to provide backup power if the grid goes down.

The research has just begun, and at the moment SolarCity is testing the impact of charging and discharging electricity from the Tesla battery pack in Mr. Rive’s garage. His roof sports a three-kilowatt solar array.

“We’re at the point now where we can direct the battery to charge and discharge at specific times by sending a signal over the Internet,” Mr. Rive said.

Included in the $14.6 million awarded for solar energy storage research by the utilities commission was $1.9 million to SunPower for a project that will store in ice and batteries electricity generated by solar arrays at Target stores.

SunPower, a Silicon Valley solar panel manufacturer and power plant developer, will work with Ice Energy, a Colorado company that makes systems that use electricity when rates are low to form ice. When rates are high, air conditioning refrigerant is cooled by the melting ice rather than by an electricity-hogging compressor.

The Ice Bear system and a solar array will be installed at one Target store while battery packs will be used at two other stores in California.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Better Place

In The New York Times on Monday, I wrote about the challenges of developing electric car batteries that will match the range of gasoline-powered vehicles:

Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.

“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.

“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.

Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.

Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.

“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”

He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.

“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”

He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.

“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”

Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.

Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.

Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.

“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

With months to go before the first mass production electric cars hit American streets, the $41,000 question (before rebates and tax incentives) is whether drivers will buy them en masse.

Which is why you should keep your eye on Berkeley, Calif. While I would hardly hold out my hometown as an avatar of mainstream American values, on the environmental front it’s often been in the vanguard of things to come, like curbside recycling.

Take hybrid cars. When I was reporting a story earlier this year on the San Francisco Bay Area as the launch pad for mass-market electric cars, Andrew Tang, an executive with PG&E, told me that the utility was closely watching local sales of the Toyota Prius as a proxy for likely purchases of electric cars. Studying Prius distribution helped PG&E create a heat map of neighborhoods where the electricity demand might spike.

In Berkeley, he said, one out of every five cars sold for the past four years has been a Prius. Made sense to me. Priuses seem as common as Obama bumper stickers and are just part of the visual landscape, like Alice Waters. But it wasn’t until my friend Mike and his son Bryce were visiting from Texas recently that the hybridization of Berkeley really became apparent to me.

We were at REI picking up some gear for a camping trip when Bryce remarked that he had counted eight Priuses in the store’s rather small parking lot. On the 2.8-mile drive home we decided to see how many Priuses we could spot along the road into the Berkeley Hills.

We counted 34, including four on my block.

A few weeks later I played the Prius game on the way down the hill to the Berkeley Bowl to pick up some groceries. I counted 25 Priuses, two Honda Insight hybrids, an old Toyota RAV4 electric and one gunmetal gray Tesla Roadster.

So will Toyota’s hegemony stand once Nissan’s battery-powered Leaf blows into town? No doubt, many will trade in their Prius to go electric. The Leaf sports a distinctive look that, like the Prius, screams green to your neighbors. (And keeping up with the Joneses is just a part of Berkeley’s cultural fabric.)

The Chevrolet Volt may be a harder sell, given it is an electric hybrid and boasts a muscular all-American look that you don’t see too often on the streets here.

But every Prius owner won’t have to switch to electric in order to have an impact. Seeing a Leaf or Volt in the neighbor’s driveway or in the REI parking lot will make an electric car less a curiosity and more just another automotive option when trading in that ’95 Volvo station wagon.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Judging by the comments on my previous post comparing the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan Leaf electric car, more than a few readers are suffering sticker shock at the price of greening their rides.

Now there’s another option for those wanting to take the occasional trip down the electric highway without forking over $41,000 for a Volt or $32,780 for a Leaf (before a $7,500 federal tax incentive).

This week, rental car giant Enterprise Holdings announced it had placed an order for 500 Leafs that will be available in early 2011 at Enterprise Rent-a-Car locations in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn.; San Diego; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle. (Not coincidentally, those cities are also where Nissan will first roll out the Leaf later this year and where a Department of Energy-funded network of charging stations will be built.)

“There is a lot of conversation and buzz about the electric car and we would like to offer it to our customer base as it comes commercially and economically viable,” Lee Broughton, Enterprise Holdings’ director of sustainability, told me.

Enterprise Holdings also owns Alamo and National Car Rental, but decided to place the Leafs with Enterprise Rent-a-Car as its locations are concentrated in neighborhoods.

“We’re uniquely placed to offer exposure of the electric vehicle to customers,” says Broughton. “When you think about the daily urban commuter, electric cars are in the sweet spot.”

He says Enterprise, which currently offers nearly 7,000 hybrid cars for rent, is also talking to other electric carmakers.

The company has not set a price for renting a Leaf, but Broughton noted that Enterprise’s hybrid fleet commands a slight premium.

“There is a sticker price difference for a vehicle of a similar size simply because of the technology and the infrastructure to support it,” he notes of the Leaf.

Enterprise will qualify for the $7,500 federal tax incentive for each Leaf as well as any available local and state rebates.

Adding cars like the Leaf and the Volt to rental fleets could be an effective way to expose people to electric cars and expand the market. They would also seem ideal for urban car-sharing services like Zipcar, which offer hipsters cool rides like the Mini Cooper and the Prius.

But when I talked to top executives at Zipcar and its competitors earlier this year, I found their enthusiasm tempered by the costs of the first mass-market electric cars and plug-in hybrids and worries about whether a sufficient number of charging stations will be available for their customers.

That could well change over the next year as electric cars begin to proliferate and curious consumers decide the best way to go electric is to do a time-share.

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