Plugged In 

Electric vehicle preparations rev up in metro area.

Anyone who wants in on ECOtality North America's Electric Vehicle Project needs to get the lead out.

"I would encourage any business interested in having a charging station to do it now to take advantage of the grant dollars," said Rick Bowker, electric vehicle project manager for Memphis Light, Gas & Water.

The electric vehicle project, partially funded by a $114.8 million stimulus grant through the U.S. Department of Energy, establishes a network of commercial and residential charging stations for electric vehicles. It includes parts of Tennessee, Arizona, California, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and Washington, D.C.

Originally, the Memphis area was excluded from the project in favor of cities in Middle and East Tennessee, but Memphis was added in February following objections by local officials.

"There's no reason why Memphis shouldn't be at the forefront of this," said Mayor A C Wharton.

Potential host sites are encouraged to apply to San Francisco-based ECOtality, the project's manager, for a free public charging station, Bowker said.

Grant funding is set to run out by the end of the year, and most of the high-voltage, Blink-brand charging stations will be installed in the local area by September. Sites are vetted mainly on location and access.

"These public charging stations need to be where people are going to spend an hour and a half to three hours," Bowker said. "ECOtality wants to make sure the charging stations are placed where people are going to use them."

Once a potential host signs a letter of intent, ECOtality asks MLGW to conduct a site survey. That includes looking for likely places to mount the stand-alone chargers and understanding what it might take to get them closest to a power source.

The high-voltage stations are similar to a slender gas station pump. They're Internet-capable to collect usage data and can interact with smart phones and other electronic devices.

Last week, Wharton's office announced that 69 public charging stations are being proposed in Shelby County to coincide with sales of vehicles such as the all-electric Nissan LEAF.

More than 40 of the zero-emission cars have been ordered in the Memphis area since their release in December, and about 800 potential customers have expressed interest in the cars, Bowker said. People who buy the LEAF are eligible for a $2,500 rebate and a free residential charging station. The LEAF retails for about $22,500.

Meanwhile, the hybrid Chevrolet Volt is not included in the project.

"The Volt is not being released in this market until the mid-third-quarter because of the lack of infrastructure," said Barry Carver, a dealer at Serra Chevrolet.

By then, ECOtality's charging stations should be up and running in Memphis. Part of the group's urgency with the electric vehicle project is to provide the missing infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles more viable.

An electric car can travel 100 miles between charges, so people who travel a lot must have regular access to charging stations. Carver said LEAF owners' biggest complaint so far has been getting stranded.

Proposed charging locations in Shelby County include high-traffic areas such as Collierville's Town Square, the Bartlett Schnucks, the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, Tiger Lane, Shelby Farms Park, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Proposed sites also include the Frayser branch public library and the Lichterman Nature Center.

Ultimately, it's up to ECOtality to decide which locations offer the most benefit for the greatest number of users. Then it's up to individual host sites to charge for usage or simply allow data to be collected for a longer-range study set to begin in about a month.

It may take from one and a half to three hours to charge a vehicle at a Blink station with the average cost per charge ranging from 20 to 30 cents.

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