Electric cars searching for a place to plug in

A line will start forming this week for people wanting to buy mass-produced electric cars, but the vehicles’ rollout could be hindered by a shortage of Bay Area charging stations.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. will begin accepting online reservations for the fully-electric Leaf vehicle on Tuesday for a $99 fee.

It plans to become the first auto giant to mass market electric vehicles, but industry watchers say other manufacturers are also poised to get combustion engine-free products out to consumers soon.

The first Leafs could become available in December to those at the front of the virtual queue in the Bay Area, which was selected as a test market because of the region’s high concentration of hybrid cars.

Electric vehicles differ from traditional cars and hybrids because they rely on power that’s produced elsewhere, such as in a coal- or gas-fired power plant or at a wind or solar farm, instead of burning fuel.

Tailpipe emissions from internal combustion engines create health problems and localized greenhouse gas effects in urban areas.

Electric vehicles are considered environmentally friendly because they reduce overall air pollution emissions, particularly if they are recharged using renewable energy.

Charging times can vary from two to 15 hours depending on the type of charging station used and the car being charged.

An apparent burst of interest in electric vehicles among car manufacturers died swiftly in the late 1990s.

But supporters of the technology say rising petroleum costs, tightening air pollution regulations, improved battery technology and increased public awareness about climate change will finally help electric vehicles begin to phase out the use of personal combustion engines.

“I’ve been watching this stuff for the better portion of 12 years and it’s exciting that, this time, it’s going to happen,” said Ron Freund, chairman of the 43 year-old nonprofit Electric Auto Association.

“The memory of 2008 gas prices is too fresh,” he said. “Just wait until India, China and Brazil all start driving
our automotive cast-offs as well as their own cars.”

One of the most important ingredients for an electric vehicle culture would be the introduction of a network of public charging stations, according to Freund and others.

“Public infrastructure will help reduce the anxiety that some people feel of, ‘Well, what if I run out of juice?’” he said.

Nissan has been working with Bay Area agencies to smooth local permitting issues related to private charging stations and to provide public charging stations by the end of this year.

Eager to reduce air pollution, counties, cities and other agencies are banding together to try to cobble together a network of hundreds of public charging stations throughout the Bay Area and down to Monterey.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District agreed to provide roughly $2 million toward the Association of Bay Area Governments’ coordinated effort and the California Energy Commission expects to rule on a similar grant request on
April 26.

The project could be pared back if the grant request is rejected in favor of some of the 51 other applications filed for a
$13.8 million pool of funds available under the state’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel & Vehicle Technology Program.

San Francisco officials have identified 22 city-owned garages where initial charging stations might be provided. Several demonstration charging stations are already in place opposite City Hall.

No fees are expected to be levied for electrons that will flow into cars from the public charging stations, according to Environment Department official Bob Hayden.

“In these public garages, you would have to pay the garage fee,” Hayden said. “Charging a car for an hour or two while you’re in a meeting would only be 10 to 15 cents. It wouldn’t be worth it to charge for the electricity.”


It may take a lot of juice to fill up an electric car

The Bay Area’s electrical grid is being prepared for an influx of private electric car charging stations.

The charging stations can drain three times as much power as a San Francisco household typically consumes at any given moment, according to Saul Zambrano, a power-demand official at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Smart-grid technology is being developed to help cars communicate with the utility when they are plugged in, according to Zambrano.

“We need to know that a car is charging, how long it needs to charge and how we can balance that so that we don’t tax the wires or the transformers,” Zambrano said.

San Mateo County and its cities have not applied for state funds to install charging stations, according to EV Communities Alliance executive director Richard Schorske. “I’m reasonably confident that’s not going to last for long,” he said.

The county planned to purchase 10 electric vehicles, which would lead the installation of charging stations, but those plans were put on hold because of budget problems, according to public works official Jim Porter.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” he said.

Most San Francisco residents do not have garages, and San Francisco environment official Bob Hayden said The City will work to help owners of multifamily apartment buildings install shared charge-stations.

It’s anticipated that car charging will take place mostly at night, when demand for power is lowest and electricity is cheapest.

Although solar power is not generally available from the grid in the evenings, wind power is strongest at night.

Potential charging locations in The City


  • Civic Center Garage
  • Ellis and O’Farrell streets, Tenderloin
  • Fifth and Mission streets, SoMa
  • Golden Gateway Garage, Financial District
  • Japan Center, Japantown
  • Lombard Street Garage, Marina district
  • Mission and Bartlett streets, Mission district
  • Moscone Center,
  • South of Market
  • North Beach Garage, North Beach
  • Performing Arts Garage, Hayes Valley
  • Polk and Bush streets, Tenderloin
  • Portsmouth Square Garage, Chinatown
  • St. Mary’s Square Garage, Chinatown
  • San Francisco General Hospital, Mission district
  • 1660 Mission St., South of Market
  • Sutter and Stockton streets, Nob Hill, Union Square
  • Vallejo Street Garage,North Beach
  • Pierce and Lombard Streets, Marina district
  • SFO Domestic Parking Garage
  • SFO International Parking Garage
  • SFO Long-Term Parking

Source: San Francisco Department of the Environment


Electric vehicle costs

Retail price of a Nissan Leaf
Federal tax credit available for electric vehicle purchase
California tax rebate available for electric vehicle purchase
Nissan Leaf price after tax credit and rebate
Monthly lease payment for a Nissan Leaf
$12,500 (and a $1,500 tax credit):
Conversion of Toyota Prius into a plug-in electric vehicle at Pat’s Garage on Third Street
$2,200: Purchase and installation of a charging station from Nissan
$170: Fee for a permit to install a charging station
$3: Cost of electricity needed to travel 100 miles in an electric vehicle

Sources: Nissan, Pat’s Garage, Department of Building Inspection

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