Earth Talk: Who’s building places to charge plug-in cars?

Finding a place to plug in an electric car – and what it will cost.

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Q: With plug-in hybrid and electric cars due to hit the roads sometime soon, will there be places to plug them in besides at home? And if so, how much will it cost to recharge them?
Nicole Koslowsky, Pompano Beach, Fla.
A: Gasoline-electric hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, are popular due to their fuel-efficiency, and consumers have been clamoring for carmakers to up the ante and give these vehicles a plug so the batteries can be charged at home and not just by the gas engine and other onboard features. That greatly reduces the need for gas except for long trips.

Although the all-electric Tesla reportedly went 241 miles on a charge in a recent European road rally, its everyday stop-and-go efficiency may be less, and drivers could need “pit stops” far from home.

So what’s a driver to do when he needs a charge and is nowhere near home? A few forward-thinking large companies have installed electric outlets accessible to employee parking, but most plug-in hybrid and electric-car drivers will be looking for help well beyond the scope of their commutes.

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In the US, several cities in California, as well as Seattle, Chicago, Phoenix, and others are setting up recharging infrastructures. Paris already has more than 80 recharging stations throughout the city and suburbs. London is working to install more than 40 electric recharging stations.

According to the California Cars Initiative (CalCars), which promotes plug-in hybrids, Americans recharging their plug-ins via a regular 120V outlet should expect to pay about the equivalent of $1 per gallon of gas. “Using the average US electricity rate of nine cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), 30 miles of electric driving will cost 81 cents,” the group maintains. Assuming an average fuel economy of 25 miles per gallon and gasoline at $3 per gallon, “this equates to 75 cents a gallon for equivalent electricity.”

Toyota has already released a few hundred plug-in Priuses in the US to university and commercial fleet customers. The company will monitor the vehicles’ performance and use the data to tweak the design for a consumer-friendly version to be released sometime after 2010. Pricing on the vehicles, which are expected to get 65 m.p.g. or more in combined gas/electric mode and can run on electricity alone, is as yet undecided. But probably the car will command a premium of several thousand dollars over the cost of a regular hybrid Prius. The fact that such a feature might obviate the need for gasoline entirely – save for long trips – may well make it worth the extra upfront cost for some buyers.

Questions about living green? Send to: EarthTalk, c/o E - The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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