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Car charging network grows in Austin

Local utilities and states push to add car charging stations in anticipation of more E-cars hitting the road.

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Deciding where to put chargers takes strategic thinking; a full charge can take three to four hours. Top-off points are slated for spaces where people leave their cars for extended periods, such as municipal parking lots or outside retail stores. Across the US, retailers such as Costco, Cracker Barrel, and Walgreens have signed up for chargers.

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According to clean-technology firm Pike Research, however, 80 percent of charging in the US is expected to occur at home. To fight grid overload, Austin Energy is monitoring power consumption through a pilot program that offers free home chargers to early electric-vehicle (EV) adopters. The utility will use the data it culls to devise plans to incentivize off-peak charging.

"Eventually we'll be able to learn how to conduct a symphony of chargers," says Karl Rábago, Austin Energy's vice president of distributed energy services.

So how will electric-car drivers pay for their power, both at home and around town? In Houston, utility NRG offers a typical range of monthly subscriptions, from a $49 fee for home-charging equipment (not including electricity) to an $89 all-inclusive plan with unlimited electricity and access to roadside chargers.

Austin Energy wants to offer a program for public chargers that lets consumers prepay for power that translates to a number of miles.

Already, states and local utilities are talking about extending their charging networks so drivers can roam farther.

•Austin Energy and other utilities are considering a network of chargers along the Interstate 35 corridor from San Antonio to Dallas.

•NRG plans to expand its charging network around the state later this year.

Washington State has announced plans to build charging stations along its 275-mile stretch of Interstate 5.

But "right now travel is pretty much limited to your region," says John Gartner of Pike Research.

Moreover, developing a consistent experience from city to city could take some time. "It's like when the mobile phone industry adopted roaming charges," he says. "That took a long time to evolve."

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