The future of electric vehicles (EVs) in the U.S. balances tenuously these days on a chicken-and-egg quandary. Roadside stations that charge EVs in less than 30 minutes are needed to encourage drivers to buy EVs, yet there must also be enough EVs already on the road to justify the investment in a fast-charging infrastructure. The state of Washington took a major step toward breaking this impasse July 13, announcing that it has chosen a company to manufacture, supply, install and operate a network of nine fast-charging stations by the end of the year along the state's portion of the Pacific Northwest's Electric Highway.

The AeroVironment 480-volt stations will be located every 64 to 97 kilometers along stretches of Interstate 5 between the Canadian border and Everett, Wash., and between Olympia and the Oregon border, as well as along a portion of U.S. Route 2. The fast-charging—aka Level 3—stations will be operational by November 30, and are expected to power an electric vehicle from zero to fully charged in less than a half hour. Each station will also have slower, 240-volt Level 2 charging units expected to cost less but take up to six hours for a full charge. The stations will be located at private retail locations such as shopping malls, fueling stations and travel centers with easy access to the highway.

The federal government is also pitching in via the Department of Energy's EV Project, with plans to bring 900 Nissan Leaf EVs and more than 2,000 EV charging stations to the Seattle area. Combined, the Electric Highway and EV projects are expected to connect Washington drivers along the entire 444 kilometers of I-5 between Canada and Oregon. (AeroVironment is also installing fast-charge stations along I-5 in Oregon through a similar project managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation.)

Washington's EV-charging infrastructure is an important part of the larger West Coast Green Highway, whose plans also call for hydrogen refueling stations as well as solar-powered lighting. When complete, the green highway will extend a network of EV recharging stations along all 2,173 kilometers of I-5 from Canada to Mexico to serve the more than 2 million EVs expected to be sold in Washington, Oregon and California in the next decade.

Of course, AeroVironment isn't the only EV charging provider building out infrastructure across the nation. Coulomb Technologies—working with Ford, Chevrolet and smart USA—is sponsoring the ChargePoint America program to provide EVs and EV charging infrastructure to homes and businesses in California, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, the Northeast and Florida. Unlike the Electric Highway, however, the ChargePoint infrastructure will consist of 5,000 networked Level 2 stations. The EV Project, which kicked off in August 2009, plans to deploy about 14,000 Level 2 and up to 400 Level 3 charging stations from ECOtality across the U.S.

Fast-charging technology is still in a formative stage of development. Most fast-charge technology, including AeroVironment's, adheres to the CHAdeMO standard endorsed primarily by Nissan and Mitsubishi. The Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) is developing its own DC fast-charging standard, although this won't be ready for another nine months, giving CHAdeMO a healthy head start.

Image courtesy of Gene Chutka, via

Image of I5 West Coast Green Highway map courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation