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First Fast-Charging Station for E-Cars Goes Live as Part of “Electric Highway”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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2011 has turned out to be a groundbreaking year for electric vehicles—literally. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) earlier this week chose a shopping center in Bellingham as the first location to break ground on the state’s segment of the West Coast Electric Highway, part of a 444-kilometer stretch of road along Interstate 5 between Washington’s borders with Oregon and Canada.

Bellingham will host the Electric Highway’s first direct-current (DC) electric vehicle fast-charging station, designed by AeroVironment Inc. to provide a 30-minute recharge for all-electric vehicles. (AeroVironment has deployed fast-charging stations in other locations nationwide, including Hawaii, as have competitors such as ECOtality Inc.) The Bellingham charging station will also include a pedestal with a 220-volt alternate-current (AC) outlet that can recharge one plug-in vehicle at a time at an intermediate rate of about two to eight hours, depending on the size of the battery. (Currently, some U.S. homes have 220-volt AC outlets installed to power air conditioners and clothes dryers. Most outlets supply 120-volt AC, which can charge e-cars at the slowest “trickle” rate.)

AeroVironment’s Electric Highway work with the WSDOT is part of the larger West Coast Green Highway, a three-state initiative to promote the use of cleaner fuels along nearly 2,173 kilometers of I-5 from British Columbia to Baja, California in Mexico. The U.S. Department of Energy is also adding fast-charging stations along I-5 through its EV Project, a nationwide initiative managed by ECOtality.

In terms of the Electric Highway, the WSDOT awarded AeroVironment a $1 million contract in July to outfit I-5 and U.S. Highway 2 with a network of at least nine fast-charging stations by November 30. The completion date slipped to next year as AeroVironment works out lease agreements for the charging locations.

AeroVironment plans to install six stations every 64 to 97 kilometers along I-5 in shopping malls, fueling stations and restaurants with easy access to the highway. Three more stations will be built along U.S. Highway 2 to the north and potentially two more along Interstate 90, near Seattle.

2012 will be a pivotal year for electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and plug-in electric hybrids such as the Chevy Volt. General Motors had high hopes for the Volt in its first full year on the market, but the company expects to miss its sales target of 10,000 cars in 2011, coming up short by more than 3,800, according to Bloomberg. Sales were stronger toward the end of the year. The company is expanding its annual production to 60,000 vehicles starting next month, even as the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigates lithium-ion battery-pack fires following tests designed to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. Neither Nissan nor Tesla Motors—both of which sell all-electric vehicles powered entirely by lithium-ion batteries—have reported any fires in either the LEAF or Roadster, respectively.

Another important issue that remains unresolved heading into the new year—standards for electric-vehicle fast charging. In the U.S. the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) has approved the J1772 standard that governs slow- to moderate-speed electric car charging, and most electric car manufacturers have committed to using J1772 moving forward. Fast-charging standards, however, remain fragmented. Japanese carmakers Nissan and Mitsubishi have chosen a fast-charging standard known as CHAdeMO and developed by a consortium of Japanese companies even as the SAE sets to work on its own standard, which won’t be ready for the road for at least another year.

CHAdeMO may have some shortcomings (it uses an older communication standard not expected to work well with coming smart grid technologies), but it’s the only game in town right now and is catching on worldwide. As a result AeroVironment’s stations along West Coast Electric Highway are CHAdeMO compliant.

Nissan LEAF image courtesy of MythicSeabass, via Flickr

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RonStrong 10:40 am 12/30/2011

    “Only” 30 minutes to charge up. If it took this long to fuel up on New Jersey Turnpike, traffic would be backed up through Delaware.

    Just one more indication that the current breed of electric vehicle is nothing more than an environmentally PC fashion statement for the wealthy.

    Someday electric vehicles are likely to make sense, but not with technologies now in use or on the drawing board. My guess is this will occur when we can charge cars in much the same way that trains are charged – through the roadway while driving. That will require, among other things, automated highways with cars capable of driving themselves.

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  2. 2. sault 11:11 am 12/30/2011

    Re: Ron,

    Most charging by Leaf and Volt Owners is done at home. Also, electric cars will make up a small, but steadily growing, portion of the vehicle fleet as time goes on. By the time there are enough EVs to cause the NJ turnpike to be “backed up through Delaware”, the batteries will go for several hundred miles and the charge times will be lower. Right now however, for the number of people owning electric cars, being able to quick charge on the highway just in case they’re running a little low on charge is a good thing to have. For those thinking of buying an electric car, having the peace of mind knowing that they COULD charge up if need be might convince a few people to make the purchase.

    So, even though you present no proof in your first paragraph, it is totally incorrect. Your value judgement of EVs in your second paragraph is also incorrect (and useless, really).

    Do you know how much electricity it takes to refine a gallon of gasoline? Did you know that an electric car can go FARTHER on that electricity than a gas car can on the gasoline from the refinery using all that electricity? So, as more electric cars displace ICE cars, electricity consumption will DECREASE! That people’s health will suffer less negative consequences because less vehicles will be spewing pollution right where they breathe is a bonus. That oil importing countries won’t have to spend millions of $$$ (Euros, Sheckels, Yen, etc.) every day to buy fuel is another bonus. That those millions of $$$ won’t find their way into the hands of terrorists or dictators is yet another bonus. And don’t even get me started on the costs of climate change!

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  3. 3. VernW 11:49 am 12/30/2011

    To and from work commuters may be a more reasonable market for fast charge stations than turnpike or shopping center trips. Commuting trips are shorter and there is a longer opportunity to charge before the car is needed again. Parking garages could easily cash in on this opportunity by phasing in special parking spots as the market grows.

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  4. 4. desertchyuoto 3:08 pm 12/30/2011

    “…the current breed of electric vehicle is nothing more than an environmentally PC fashion statement for the wealthy.” Translated: “I hate science, government and rich liberals.”

    Why has “PC” (Politically Correct) become the motif of fools? PC is/was your tool to hammer equal opportunity, remember? PC is the avenue by which you and your ilk feel free to express your racist worldviews – or have you forgotten? (sigh).

    Early adopter: “In exchange for being an early adopter, and thus being exposed to the problems, risks, and annoyances common to early-stage product testing and deployment, the lighthouse customer is sometimes given especially attentive vendor assistance and support, even to the point of having personnel at the customer’s work site to assist with implementation. The customer is sometimes given preferential pricing, terms, and conditions, although new technology is very often expensive, so the early adopter still often pays quite a lot.
    The vendor, on the other hand, benefits from receiving early revenues, and also from a lighthouse customer’s endorsement and assistance in further developing the product and its go-to-market mechanisms. Acquiring lighthouse customers is a common step in new product development and implementation. The real-world focus that this type of relationship can bring to a vendor can be extremely valuable.”

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  5. 5. Mobsey 7:05 pm 01/4/2012

    I know very little about the engineering feasibility, but it strikes me that if manufacturers made their batteries compatible – or more precisely, generic – a “fast charging station” could simply be a spot where you could swap your old (depleted) battery for a new (charged) one. You’d simply be paying the station for the charging, and for the swapping convenience. And as battery technology was upgraded, you’d be offered the chance to upgrade or to continue swapping with the older technology.

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  6. 6. electric38 4:52 pm 01/5/2012

    Where’s the solar and the quick change batteries? Capitalism again rears its ugly head in the speed of bringing technology to the average citizen.

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  7. 7. Quinn the Eskimo 11:25 pm 01/8/2012

    When will they start calling them “sparky” stations?

    Oooooo, I couldn’t resist.

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  8. 8. bucketofsquid 11:52 am 01/16/2012

    I don’t see a mention of cost for these charging stations. Who pays for the electricity? Someone has to.

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  9. 9. SamMaclaren22 1:08 pm 11/15/2012

    I can’t wait till all I have to do is pull into an electric car charging station and not have to worry about gas anymore.

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