A year from now, about 1,000 all-electric vehicles will be whispering around Puget Sound as part of a federally funded project that eventually may lead to an electronic corridor stretching from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., where you could swipe your card and receive a 15-minute quick charge to speed you on your way.
Washington is one of five states with metro markets selected to participate in the 36-month study funded by a $100 million grant from the Department of Energy under the economic recovery program.
About 1,000 of the nearly 5,000 Nissan zero-emission electric vehicles, dubbed the LEAF, will be deployed to cities around central Puget Sound. More than 2,000 charging stations will be installed mostly in homes, but also in public and commercial areas.
Among the 47 partners in the project are Tacoma Power, Puget Sound Energy, King County, Seattle City Light, the Snohomish Public Utility District and the state of Washington.
"This is the largest deployment of electric cars and charging stations ever," said Colin Reed, a spokesman for the EV (Electric Vehicle) Project. "No one has ever tried a project like this."
Tacoma Power will not only help connect and supply electricity to the charge stations, it hopes to buy 10 or so of the vehicles for its own fleet.
"It's the new frontier in sustainable green transportation," said Frank Castro, utilities fleet manager for Tacoma Public Utilities.
Electric cars aren't just some green fantasy, Reed said.
An estimated 1 million to 1.5 million plug-in electric cars could be on the road within five years. According to other estimates, by 2030 a third of all new cars in the Northwest may be plug-in electric cars.
The problem isn't developing the cars, Reed said. Though Nissan's LEAF is further along than most and will be in full production by 2011, Reed said nearly every major car manufacturer plans an electric vehicle either powered entirely by its batteries or coupled with a small gasoline-powered engine.
Reed said the success of the electric car will depend on how accessible and easy it will be to recharge a car's batteries.
"Will cars drive the market or will infrastructure?" Reed said. "We need to figure out how to deploy the infrastructure."
It's called "range anxiety." It's akin to how empty a gas tank you're willing to drive on before filling up.
One study in Japan found that when the charge in a battery in an electric vehicle dropped to 50 percent, half of the owners would stop driving it because they feared not being able to find a place to plug in. When a fast recharge station was available, the same owners of electric cars felt comfortable to run their batteries down to 15 percent or 20 percent.
"We've had plug-in hybrids in our fleet and they won't leave you stranded because of the gas motor," Castro said. "This (the LEAF) is a progression. It's the mother of inventions."
The Nissan LEAF, which is expected to cost about the same as a Toyota Prius, will be able to travel about 100 miles before it needs its batteries charged. The five-passenger hatchback uses a lithium-ion battery and can reach speeds up to 90 miles per hour. The cars will be available on a lease-to-own basis through the project and will include a free home recharger. In exchange, the owners of the cars have to provide detailed information on how they use them.
Decisions about where to locate the other rechargers in the Puget Sound area have not been made and, in part, will be determined by where the people who purchase the cars live.
Though the LEAF can only travel 100 miles before needing a charge, Reed said that eventually the battery technology will evolve enough so that an all-electric car can travel farther.
"We are still in the early generations," he said.
When that happens, he said, the project is "very seriously considering" an electric corridor stretching along Interstate 5 between Eugene and Seattle, with an eventual extension to Vancouver, B.C. Recharging stations would be available along the corridor.
"This is real," Reed said.
The first corridor that will be developed runs between Phoenix and Tucson, a distance of just over 100 miles. Others corridors could be developed between San Diego and Los Angeles and Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee. Reed said a corridor running along I-5 between San Diego and Vancouver, B.C., may not be possible because there are no major population centers in far northern California and southern Oregon.
For now, the project is concentrating on urban areas.
"We believe we need to build a rich infrastructure in the cities and then start connecting them," Reed said.
The idea is to make the rechargers for electric vehicles readily available at places like coffee shops, post offices, grocery stores and where people work. A regular charge could take four to eight hours, while a rapid charge could take 10 to 15 minutes. Reed said large retailers might provide recharging free to attract customers.
A charge could cost 50 cents to $1.50 at home, but a rapid charge would be more expensive. No decisions have been made on whether the utilities or someone else will own and operate the recharge stations. Customers could pay by swiping a credit or other card, or maybe by putting cash in the recharging machine.
Power managers in the Northwest aren't particularly worried about the drain on electricity supplies and believe the grid will be capable of carrying increased loads, especially at night when owners of electric cars will probably do more of their recharging.
"It's not something in the first decade that will be an issue or a particular problem," said Andy Wappler, a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy.
Even so, the 20-year power plan for the region under development by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council takes note of the expected growth in electric cars. The plan notes the vehicles store electricity that could be tapped to ensure a stable power supply during periods of high demand.
"There is some potential, but it is hard to gauge," said Massoud Jourabchi, manager of economic analysis for the power council, which oversees electricity generation and conservation acquisitions for the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency which is the largest distributor of wholesale power in the region.
Jourabchi said it's possible that eventually electric cars in the Northwest may consume 400 to 500 megawatts of electricity, about the same amount produced by half a nuclear plant or a medium-sized coal plant.
Tacoma's Castro is among those who think an electronic corridor running along I-5 is not that farfetched.
"They got the West Coast dialed," he said. "It's a progression, a matter of time."