Ready to charge

When Nissan starts selling its Leaf electric cars in Oregon next year, the early adapters will be able to recharge at home in their garages or at a growing network of public stations.

The network got a boost this month when Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. announced that it had been awarded a $99.8 million U.S. Energy Department grant to install 11,210 electric-vehicle charging stations in five states, including Oregon. The buildup of the charging network dovetails with Nissan's previously announced decision to start selling its Leaf electric vehicle in selected markets, including Portland.

Together, the developments illustrate the utility of the network effect, in which the entire system is enriched by the addition of new elements. More charging stations mean an area can support more electric vehicles, making electric vehicles more viable as alternatives to gasoline-fueled vehicles. By this time next year, Oregon will have advanced significantly toward its goal of building a robust infrastructure to support the use of electric vehicles, including, but not limited to, Nissan's Leaf. That's good for those who make and sell electric cars, and it's good for a state that is moving aggressively to position itself as a center of electric vehicle technology.

Right now, the electric vehicle infrastructure has begun but is spider-web skinny. A person determined to buy an electric car this weekend would have to be careful to plot her travels so as to avoid being stranded away from a plug. It's about the same place where we were in the early days of wireless Internet access, when users had to hunt for scattered hot spots to check their e-mail. In the future, it's likely that electric vehicle charging stations will be as ubiquitous as gas stations.

Electrical Transportation Engineering, a subsidiary of Scottsdale-based Ecotality, was awarded the Energy Department grant on the strength of its proposal to measure the performance of electric vehicle networks in different climates and terrains, a company spokeswoman explains. Besides Oregon, the company is installing charging networks in Arizona, Tennessee, California and Washington. The system also will permit tests of various means of charging — as in money, not electricity — for the service.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric is the utility partner for the rollout. Its Web site, along with the project Web site run by Electrical Transportation Engineering (http:theevproject.com), includes maps that are slowly becoming populated with pushpins showing charging locations. Initially, the Oregon stations will be concentrated mostly around Portland, Corvallis, Eugene and Salem.

That suggests that, on football game days, the highways will be as colorful as ever, plied by vehicles festooned in orange, black, green and yellow.

But they'll be quieter.

— The Oregonian

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