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