Electric vehicle charging stations are springing up all over Florida -- and a lot of them are concentrated around Orlando, which has more than 150 stations within a 70-mile radius. But uptake in central Florida has been ... slow.
The Orlando Utilities Commission, which has installed 78 charging stations around the city, estimates there are about 700 electric vehicles currently on the road in Orlando. That's a tiny percentage of the 915,960 cars and pickup trucks registered in Orange County, which encompasses most of the Orlando metropolitan area.
But alternative fuel advocates are hopeful the vehicles will eventually catch on in the Sunshine State. Florida's electric vehicle infrastructure is growing quickly, and the U.S. Department of Energy lists 319 public charging stations across the state, provided with funding from federal stimulus money.
Orlando resident Mark Thomasen has been an advocate for electric vehicles in the city since 2008. He worked for a company that installed many of the charging stations and now writes an EV blog. He says it's been a challenge to build up acceptance of electric vehicles in the area. "There's not as much of a green movement in central Florida, and in Florida versus say Washington, or Oregon or Colorado."
Motorists might also balk at the upfront price. Chevrolet's plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid Volt sedan has a list price of $39,145, while Nissan's all-electric Leaf, has a base price of $35,000. Even with the $7,500 federal tax rebate, the cars are comparatively expensive.
But Thomasen is confident EVs will catch on in Florida. He says they don't face some of the challenges of hydrogen, such as how to generate and store the gas, as well as the need to dvelop a high capacity, durable and inexpensive fuel cell. And he says even if drivers aren't worried about the environmental cost of gasoline, EVs should appeal to people who don't want to rely on foreign oil.
"Over here, what matters to people is energy independence," he says. "People don't realize how much fuel we use and how little we have within our border. So by moving to an electric car and getting off of that, we go to a different fuel source."
And Thomasen says electric vehicles at least have the infrastructure to support them, unlike hydrogen fuel cars.
Seven years ago there was a big push to build a hydrogen fuel infrastructure in California and in Florida. In 2005, Florida Governor Jeb Bush broke ground on the state's first hydrogen fueling station in Orlando. “Florida is spurring investment in the development and use of pollution-free hydrogen technology,” said Gov. Bush. The new station was to be part of a "hydrogen hub" in central Florida, and the first of a series of stations fueling a fleet of clean energy vehicles.
After Jeb Bush left office, Florida's new governor Charlie Crist grabbed the renewable fuel baton. He cut the ribbon on the station in May 2007, and touted it as a way to wean the nation off foreign oil. A fleet of minibuses operated by the Orange County convention center was adapted to run on hydrogen supplied by the station. Progress Energy, one of the partners in the project, opened a second refueling station near Oviedo as part of a nationwide demonstration project on fuel cell vehicles, led by the US Department of Energy. Eventually though, Florida's hydrogen highway evaporated. After two years and 3,200 fill-ups, the two hydrogen refueling stations shut down and the pilot program finished.
James Fenton, who directs the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research facility at the University of Central Florida, says hydrogen still has a place in the future of alternative fuels in Florida. But he says it's more likely to be used in fuel cells in electric vehicles rather than powering internal combustion engines. "Eventually we'll get to the point when all the battery-powered electric cars will have fuel cell range extenders," says Fenton. "You'll have electric cars with batteries for short trips because the electron out of the wall is dirt cheap, then you'll electrolyze water somewhere else, fill your car with hydrogen and extend the range."
And while electric vehicles aren't yet a common sight on central Florida roads, Fenton says he's upbeat about their future because mile for mile, electricity out of the wall is cheaper than gasoline. But he says there are still some obstacles to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"We don't have a hydrogen infrastructure," says Fenton. "That's the kicker."
Europe is home to expensive gas, a growing wind farm industry and aggressive carbon reduction goals. But so far, when it comes to electric cars, il n'y a pas d'amour -- pas encore.
Transportation ministers and industry leaders, speaking last week at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany, said government subsidies and ever-increasing numbers of charging stations aren't yet enticement enough to convince European consumers.
Case in point: Sergio Monteiro, Portugal's Secretary of State for Public Works, Transport and Communications, said his country is laying the groundwork for EVs -- but so far his fellow citizens aren't buying.
"We have more than 1,300 charging points," he said, adding that Portugal is also financially incentivizing the purchase of EVs. "The average cost (of an electric car) is around 35,000 euros in Portugal, and we have a reduction of five thousand euros subsidized by the state."
But, said Monteiro, "we only managed to sell 200 vehicles last year." And 60 of those went to government administrators.
Monteiro dusted off a phrase uttered by the Irish transport minister earlier that day. "It was like the field of dreams," he said. "You have the infrastructure, then services would come. That was not the case." He added that it was "living proof that infrastructure can only do so much -- you need to break a number of barriers." And chief among them is cost. Even with a 5,000 euro reduction, Monteiro said, EVs are too expensive for the average Portuguese citizen navigating austerity measures.
The wait for lower prices may be a decade away. Nissan vice president Mitsuhiko Yamashita said it usually takes ten years to reduce the price of new technologies by half. He used airbags as an example, saying it now cost automakers as much to put six airbags in a vehicle today as it did to include two a decade ago. "We can do the same thing for the EV, but...it takes maybe five to ten years, ten years on average. But during that time frame, I'd like to expect some type of support from the government."
While some European countries offer subsidies to purchase EVs, not all do.
Another issue hampering EV adoption is standardization. Europe is home to multiple electrical grids, and different EVs have different plugs. Pat O'Doherty, the CEO of Ireland's Electricity Supply Board, said "I should be able to drive my electric vehicle from Dublin in the future, down through Britain and charge it, down through France and into the South of Spain." He added that even the technology governing payment systems at public charging stations differs from place to place.
Yamashita later said ruefully "that's my headache at this moment."
Nissan launched the all-electric Leaf at the end of 2010, but so far sales have been underwhelming. Yamashita tried to put a good face on it. "We already sold more than 27,000 vehicles worldwide as of the beginning of April," he said. "Thirteen thousand in Japan, 11,000 in the U.S...We just started sales in Europe but we've sold 3,000."
Those are stark numbers, and it doesn't look much better when you read reports that Nissan wants to sell 20,000 to 25,000 of them in Europe in 2012. The company is trying to boost sales by moving production to the U.K., which will lower costs, and also redesign it in order to appeal to European tastes.
One bright spot for the Leaf, though, can be found in Norway, where 1,000 of them were sold in six months.
But on a large scale, "it will only work if the customer benefits financially," said O'Doherty. He said the Nissan Leaf had been selling better in Ireland since Nissan had knocked 5,000 euros off the price.
Watch a video of the conversation at the ITF summit below.
Jimmy Sauers was the first person in Texas to take delivery of a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. "Both my wife and I are engineers," he said, "and so we were very meticulous about doing cost-benefit analysis." Sauers uses his Leaf to drive from his home in Seabrook to his job in downtown Houston. That's about a 75-mile round trip. He charges his vehicle at home and on the road. So how much money have they saved? "In 13 months, based on the miles I've driven," he said, "it's been about $3,000 dollars."
Sauers was one of the electric car drivers on hand for the unveiling of a new charging station at Memorial City Mall, just off I-10 in west Houston. The charging station is operated by the eVgo company, a subsidiary of NRG Energy. Electric car drivers can use the station as much as they want for a monthly fee. They can add about 50 miles of range in a 15-minute charge. Laura Spanjian, the sustainability director for the City of Houston, said the new station will be a huge benefit to drivers along the I-10 corridor. "It will give them the confidence," she said, "that if they do need a little more electricity to power their car, they can quickly get off the freeway."
Spanjian said the city is encouraging the use of electric vehicles by teaming up with private partners to install charging stations around the city. She's hoping drivers will see hundreds of new stations by the end of the year. "There's been statistics out there that say that by 2020, fifteen percent of the cars on the road will be electric."
The city of Houston is also adding to its fleet of electric vehicles. Spanjian said the city will soon have about 40 electric cars, one of the largest alternative fleets in the country.
To listen to this story, visit KUHF.
In other news...
Did two of New York's largest construction companies finesse minority hiring requirements in order to win contracts? Federal authorities are investigating Schiavone and the U.S. unit of Swedish construction company Skanska AB. Skanska is working on a number of transit projects, including the Brooklyn Bridge rehabilitation, the 2nd Avenue Subway, and the PATH terminal at the World Trade Center site. (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, New York Daily News)
DC Metro shakeup in the works? The governors of Maryland and Virginia and the incoming D.C. mayor directed their top transportation officials to come up with a detailed plan for carrying out broad changes in how Metro is run. (Washington Post)
After your Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt dies, what will happen to its lithium-ion battery? Automakers are trying to find ways to monetize old batteries. (Wired)
Riders at NYC's Union Square subway station might wonder: does this train go to Hogwarts? (New York Daily News).
The number of bicyclists in Portland continues to rise--8% increase over 2009. 190% increase (yes, 190%) since 2000. (KPTV)