This post, part of a series we're running all about electric cars, was written by Akweli Parker from HowStuffWorks.com.
For better or worse, we've come to rely on our motor vehicles as long-distance conveyances. Even though the average trip by car in the United States is around 10 miles (16.1 kilometers), we want our cars and trucks to be able to take us the 120 miles (193.1 kilometers) to grandma's house for the two or three times a year we actually need to.
For that reason, electric vehicles, which have notoriously limited ranges, need to have long-range capability comparable to that of fossil fuel-powered cars -- if they're to gain mainstream acceptance. To make that happen, we'll need an infrastructure of roadside electrical chargers at least as numerous and widespread as the nation's existing gasoline service stations.
This Scientific American article does a good job of framing some of the many obstacles to building out an electric car charging infrastructure -- politics, price and of course, the timeless "chicken and egg" question.
Still, examples of electric car charging stations and networks abound already, even in the United States, which has not been the most progressive of countries when it comes to developing an energy policy suitable for the 21st century.
Coulomb Technologies has been putting together something called the ChargePoint Network -- a nationwide web of Internet-linked charging stations. The network allows drivers to use the Internet or even their mobile phone to locate the nearest charging station. On its Web site, the company invites people or organizations interested in hosting a charging location (for a fee, and then a continuing revenue stream) to contact the company.
Vehicle-to-Grid technology (V2G) will likely go hand-in-hand with any grand plan to build out charging stations. V2G is a sophisticated power-balancing system in which electric cars (actually their computers), communicate with the computers of the power grid when they're plugged in -- sort of like a real-life, road-going R2D2. V2G can facilitate the best time to recharge based on cost, availability of renewable power sources and other variables the driver chooses. V2G also creates the possibility for drivers to get paid, by returning energy into the grid during times of high electrical demand.
So when is a V2G car coming to a dealer showroom near you? It's always tough to say with these things, but the University of Delaware, among other groups, has been developing the technology (and just licensed it this year to be built in actual vehicles).
One of the most ambitious projects under way (so far) is a plan to build up to 12,750 charging stations in Tennessee, Oregon, San Diego, Seattle, and the Phoenix-Tucson, Arizona, market. The Department of Energy first said in August 2009 that it was allocating $99.8 million to make possible such a project, and it will be led by Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. The big bucks were part of an even larger $2.4 billion in grants announced by the federal government to go toward developing batteries and electric vehicles in the United States. The entire package came as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known more commonly as the Stimulus.
In addition to building charging infrastructure stations, the $99.8 million will also go toward buying up to 5,000 Nissan LEAF electric cars.
So, if you happen to be strolling along and see a weird kiosk-like thing on the sidewalk that's neither a fire hydrant nor a parking meter, stop and take a closer look -- you just might be getting a glimpse of the electric car infrastructure future.