Monday, January 3, 2011

Electric Vehicles reached top gear in 2010, but is California ready to turn over a new Leaf?

What a bumper year 2010 was for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). While some countries like the UK saw sales plummet, global figures were expected to reach 954,5000 units in 2010, compared with 732,000 units in 2009, according to analysts JD Power.

Although San Francisco, where I live, saw the first deliveries of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt in the US, in general, there is not much in the way of visible signs that the Bay Area is the electric vehicle capital of the world as envisioned by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2008

The San Francisco Bay Area became the number one market in the US for Nissan LEAF reservations. In December, Olivier Chalouhi, a 31 year old Silicon Valley entrepreneur was the first in the world to take delivery of a Nissan Leaf, closely followed by the arrival of the Chevy Volt.

Nissan is planning to manufacture 50,000 Leafs and GM is planning to roll 10,000 Volts off the conveyor belt this year, and 45,000 in 2012. No doubt many of them will end up in California. Although the state appears to have the highest number of charging points, according to, there is a dearth of central charging sites that EV drivers of the approximately 2,100 plug-in cars registered in London might see at parking bays dotted around the city. Source London, which launches this spring, will see the installation of 1,300 charging stations across the capital in anticipation of 2011 being a breakthrough year for PEVs in the UK.

US Department of Energy figures put the number of EV charging stations in the Bay Area at a paltry 11, although a search for privately owned EV stations on indicates there are a good deal more than this, mostly at privately owned car parks across San Francisco. But there is no way to regulate the cost of these which thereby reduces certainty for consumers about how much it will cost to run their EV, although the Environmental Protection Agency has rated the Nissan Leaf as costing around $561 a year in electricity.

This lack of infrastructure may be the greatest barrier to consumers –  Californians, after all, like their cars, and even an average Bay Area commute may be pushing the limit for the range of the Nissan Leaf’s mileage estimated by the EPA at around 73 miles.

Californians don’t like being either too hot or too cold, and consider air-conditioning a right not a privilege. The variation in the distance between charges for Nissan’s Leaf will only increase “range anxiety” for those Californians sweating it out in Long Beach, or shivering amid San Francisco fog. A Guardian journalist recently reported during a test drive that the “battery-range display plummeted from 77 to 54 miles” on a cold drive in the south-east of England.

Such concerns have prompted action from the Department of Energy which has stumped up a $114.8m grant to pay a company called ECOtality, to install 15,000 charging stations across 16 states within three years. But this is unlikely to be anything like enough and private companies, without incentives from government, are expected to fill the gap.

Green Tech Media anticipates a battle for EV territory over the next couple of years, as Coulomb Technologies and Better Place are attempt to accelerate the installation of subscription-based on-street charging points, while Nissan selected AeroVironment to install domestic charging points for purchasers of its Leaf.

The PEV sector is one area that clearly demonstrates even more than other low-carbon technologies the need for joined up thinking in government incentives. And Asia is yet again proving that policy pays. A report last year from Pike Research said that aggressive goals, subsidies for EV purchasers, support for R&D and demonstration projects, tax incentives, regulation and standardization, would fuel a burgeoning market for plug-in electric vehicles within the region, and cumulative sales of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles will surpass 1.4 million units in Asia Pacific between 2010 and 2015.

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