Charging to a world of electric vehicles: "It's a gold rush"

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Tuesday night is "Public Night" at the Plug-In 2011 Conference & Exposition, the event at the Raleigh Convention Center for the EV — Electric Vehicles — industry. For $10, you can say you were there when your grandchildren ask, "Whatever happened to the gasoline-powered automobile?"

"Well, kids," you'll be able to say, "it was back in '11 when General Electric came out with an EV charging station in a box, and it sold at Lowe's for about $1,000.

"That's right, kids, one thousand dollars — it was the same year that the Republicans defaulted on the national debt, which as you know crashed our currency and forced the U.S. to begin using the Chinese yuan."

That's a joke :) — I hope.

***

But seriously, electric cars (you read it here first — first around here, anyway) could solve some big problems for the U.S., not to mention the world. Petroleum imports? Wars in the Middle East? Kiss them good-bye if we can run our cars on electricity, and the electricity comes from wind, solar and other renewable sources ... and we juice 'em up at night when power demands on the grid are low.

Electricity at current rates is far below gasoline — about 75 cents for the equivalent of a gallon's worth of power. Heck, put solar panels on your roof and a big battery in the garage and you'll really be happy motoring.

So the electric cars are here — the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and many more — but what's missing is the charging stations. Sure, in theory you can plug your EV into a wall socket, but that's the power equivalent of filling your swimming pool with a garden hose. What you need is one of those Level-2 chargers, which will fire up your dead EV battery in about four hours.

And folks, that's what GE's "WattStation" is. (It's the hanging unit on the left in the picture.)

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The big announcement this afternoon was that GE is building the WattStation at its facility in Mebane, NC and will start selling them at Lowe's stores next month.

Lowe's stores in California, at first, then a national rollout.

Price: "About $1,000." These WattStation chargers hang on the wall, attached to a 240-volt outlet (like your dryer) or else hard-wired into your control panel.

(They're made in Mebane, and you're selling them first in California? I asked. Come back Wednesday, said the gang in the GE booth in unison, and we'll have an answer for you.)

Or, try my favorite product, the Plugless Power charger, a wireless Level-2 gizmo that shoots magnetic rays (I think that's what the guy said) from a pad on the floor of your garage into a module installed on your EV's chassis. Evatran, the company which makes them, is a spinoff from a company that makes transformers. It's looking for partners to test its product — at first, any company with Chevy Volts in its fleet.

***

Looking around the Plug-In 2011 show floor, charging stations for residential, office or retail-mall parking lot use are the next big thing, and the antidote to so-called "range anxiety." That is, will I be stranded if I'm driving around and my battery dies — how will I recharge it?

Answer: Most days, you won't have to until you get home; but on those days when you do, the electric utilities and local governments are putting in charging stations, as are malls, as are parking decks. And guess what?

AAA is also putting Level-2 and, for the few vehicles equipped to plug into them, Level-3 chargers onto its mobile rescue vehicles. Only a few so far, but AAA is committed, a spokesman said, to coming to your aid whatever size your battery problems come in. Right now, everybody's got a little battery and big ol' gas tank. In the future, big ol' batteries and little, if any, gas.

In this new venture, AAS is partnering with an outfit from California, Green Charge Networks. Its president, Ron Prosser, is in Raleigh showing off his own gear, including mobile charging stations equipped (some of them) with solar-panel arrays. He's looking for customers — say, a football stadium — that may need to charge lots of cars at the same time but intermittently.

The EV industry is in its infancy, Prosser said, with a lot of start-ups competing for the brass ring. Make that the gold ring — "It's a gold rush out there," a smiling Prosser told me.

That'd be sweet.

Public night Tuesday starts at 5:30. The exposition floor is open for a couple of hours, until 7:30, followed by a film, "Revenge of the Electric Car," and a panel discussion featuring Dan Neil, erstwhile writer for the N&O and later the Indy who went on to fame and a Pulitzer Prize for his nothing's-sacred style of auto journalism at The Los Angeles Times. I see he's now at The Wall Street Journal, working for Rupert Murdoch. (Don't hack me, Dan.)

The schedule is here.

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