State to install charging stations for electric vehicles

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to charge your engines. The state is giving a $1 million jump-start to the fledgling electric vehicle industry, as the Maryland Energy Administration awarded grants Thursday to build at least 64 charging stations in Baltimore and the rest of the state to support a hoped-for influx of battery-powered cars and trucks in the near future.

Using federal stimulus funds, the state energy agency awarded a pair of grants to install charging stations at parking garages in Baltimore and at other sites in Maryland, particularly along Interstate 95. A third grant will go toward wiring truck stops in Baltimore, Elkton and Jessup, so truckers won't have to run their diesel engines as much to provide electricity while parked.

With GM's Volt, Nissan's Leaf and other electric vehicles expected to debut in the next year or two, state officials say the grants are meant to begin developing the network of charging stations that will be needed to support the new technology — and to encourage consumers to buy the vehicles.

"The point is to make this available to the public," said state energy administrator Malcolm Woolf, "so a citizen will know he can drive downtown and charge in that lot."

On average, Marylanders drive fewer than 40 miles per day, well within the range of battery-powered cars about to come on the market, Woolf said. By providing a "basic infrastructure" of public charging stations, he said, the state hopes to give a shot in the arm to sales of the vehicles — and to stimulate new businesses and jobs in the process.

Maryland joins a growing number of states and cities across the country that are installing charging stations to encourage use of electric vehicles. A California-based company, Coulomb Technologies, said recently that it plans to install more than 4,600 charging stations in nine metropolitan areas, including Washington. The $37 million ChargePoint America program, partially underwritten with a $15 million Department of Energy grant, plans to have 1,000 public charging stations in place by year's end.

Roughly half of the $1 million state grant won't go to electric vehicles, but to curb diesel fuel consumption and emissions with "truck-stop electrification" stations from Shore Power, providing power, cable TV and Internet so truckers can run air conditioners, watch TV or browse the Web while off the road.

The city of Baltimore and Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. received $134,500 to install nine to 16 charging stations in parking garages around town. The state lacks funds to put stations in all 16 facilities targeted by the city, but Woolf said he is hopeful that officials can renegotiate the contract to cover more than nine.

Another $367,500 goes to the Baltimore-Washington Electric Vehicle Initiative to place 55 charging stations around the state, including in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The initiative, an offshoot of the nonprofit International Center for Sustainable Development, helped launch a short-lived electric car-sharing demonstration project last year at the Maryland Science Center.

Jill Sorensen, executive director of the initiative, said a large share of the charging stations will be along I-95 and that data would be collected to see how many vehicles use them and for how long.

Sorensen said some charging stations are needed as electric vehicles roll out of assembly plants to convince consumers that they are a practical alternative to cars and trucks that run on gasoline or diesel.

"A lot of it is chicken and egg," she said. "Will you buy it if you can't charge it?"

The recharge in city parking garages will be free to the driver, Woolf said. But even if one paid for it, he said, the cost would work out to the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon of gas.

"When you look at the driving range of a fully charged vehicle," he said, "even if you include high Maryland rates for electricity, it's a pretty good deal."

Each station will have two outlets for recharging, but Woolf noted that in the first year, the number of electric vehicles coming on the market will be fairly limited.

The stations will be Level II, the energy official said, meaning that they'll be powerful enough to fully recharge a battery in up to four hours. It won't be as quick as pulling into a gas station to fill up, but it will be convenient for commuters or others who plan to leave their vehicles for a few hours.

"It would be great to do it at Metro stations, so folks can drive to the Metro and refuel while at work," Woolf said. Or, "if you're going down to Camden Yards to watch a ballgame, and going to be there three or four hours, you can recharge it while downtown."

Most observers, though, expect users to recharge their electric vehicles while at home or at work. At least one automaker, General Motors, is offering to provide initial buyers of its Chevrolet Volt free chargers, in return for supplying information to the company on charging frequency and duration.

The Volt, which is scheduled to debut late this year in the Washington area, in California and in Michigan, promises a battery range of 40 miles, depending on weather. To extend range, a gasoline-powered generator could kick in to power the car once the battery is drained.

"While we love to see public infrastructure in City Hall or elsewhere," said GM spokesman Rob Peterson, "we didn't want to be dependent on that."

The Nissan Leaf and other electric cars are to appear on the market in 2011 or 2012.

Woolf said the charging station grants are part of the O'Malley administration's effort to promote electric vehicles for their environmental and economic benefits. This year, the General Assembly approved a $2,000 excise tax credit on purchases of battery-powered cars and trucks, and authorized electric vehicle drivers to use express commuter lanes reserved for high-occupancy vehicles. Those incentives come on top of federal tax breaks of up to $7,500 for some electric vehicles.

"This really could be a geopolitical game-changer," Woolf said, potentially slashing U.S. demand in the next decade or so for oil. "It all depends on how the technology works and is adopted."

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