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San Diego leading way in alternative fuel use

City is a test market for electric cars

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With gas prices hitting new highs in the United States, electricity is being considered as a viable sustainable fuel alternative and San Diego is one of the largest test markets.

The U.S. Department of Energy has partnered with ECOtality (Nasdaq: ECTY), a clean electric transportation and storage technology company, to invest a combined $230 million in electric vehicle research, known as the EV Project.

The EV Project has funded the installation of more than 3,000 electric car charging stations in 17 cities across the country and is projecting a total of 15,000 stations by 2012. The station deployments correspond with the city release dates for the new Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt.

In 2009, San Diego became the first test market in California to install electric vehicle charging stations. There are currently 40 serviceable charging stations around San Diego, and ECOtality has a goal to install more than 600 throughout the city by early 2012.

San Diegans can expect to see more of these electric car chargers around the city. ECOtality, a clean-tech company, plans to install hundreds of its Blink level 2 commercial chargers at shopping malls, theaters and parking lots by early next year. Photo courtesy ECOtality

“We believe San Diego is a mature charging environment and an eco-sensitive city,” said Collin Reed, vice president of corporate development for ECOtality.

“San Diego is an ideal city for collecting data because of the climate, topography and demographic. The purpose of collecting all this data is to determine how to utilize charging stations for large commuter-based cities,” said Reed.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in the United States, with the average passenger vehicle producing approximately five tons of carbon dioxide annually.

The EV Project is taking steps to learn more about creating a new electric vehicle infrastructure as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“San Diego was chosen for its strong environmental public support and government support,” said Reed. “With new infrastructure comes new jobs that include engineers, managers, installation contractors and maintenance workers.”

ECOtality is also supporting classroom education and vocational training.

The EV Project is investing in the installation and hardware costs for commercial charging stations for local businesses, nonprofits and government entities. Most of the stations will be turned over to the commercial host at a negotiated time.

ECOtality mainly uses level 2 chargers, which emit 220 volts and can recharge an electric vehicle in just over four hours. Level 2 charging is the standard for residential use, since drivers can recharge their vehicles overnight.

The project will also include more than 30 commercial DC fast charge ports around San Diego. The DC fast chargers emit 320 volts and can recharge a vehicle in just under an hour.

“The commercial chargers will provide the EV owner an additional top off when they are out running errands,” said Reed. “The stations will be, for example, in front of grocery stores or in mall parking lots and will allow the customer to recharge while they shop. The stations are designed to allow the driver to extend their drive time and move around the city comfortably.”

In San Diego, the EV Project will provide the first 1,000 new Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners with a free ECOtality Blink residential electric vehicle charger, as well as a subsidized home installation cost of up to $1,200. In exchange, participants must agree to provide usage data to the DOE via ECOtality’s smart Blink charging station.

“ECOtality has been a strong partner making the 100 percent electric Nissan Leaf a success in San Diego,” said Leon Kamins, general manager of Mossy Nissan and Leaf owner.

The Nissan Leaf was released in December 2010. It is the only mass-produced electric car currently on the market.

“The electric infrastructure must be present to have a successful launch of any electric car, so ECOtality plays a crucial role for Nissan in San Diego,” said Kamins. “Although the rollout of charging stations has been slower than expected, ECOtality has begun to deploy charging infrastructure throughout the county.”

The Leaf has a battery life of 100 city miles and 70 highway miles when fully charged, so it is not practical for long distance travel.

However, battery powered vehicles are very cost efficient for daily city commutes, since currently there is no cost for refueling.

“If you give me the choice of filling up at a gas station or recharging for free overnight it’s a no brainer,” said Kamins.

At this time recharging stations are located in Escondido, Kearny Mesa, downtown, Balboa Park and La Jolla, with more being installed daily.

“A well-planned charging network tears down a significant barrier to adopting electric vehicles," said Mayor Jerry Sanders in a recent press release. "I’m proud San Diego will be one of the first cities in the nation to encourage residents to purchase EVs, and that we'll serve as a model for other cities as they look to deploy their charging infrastructures.”

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