Brace for Impact: the West Coast Anticipates Electric Vehicles

It’s hard not to see the flurry of activity preceding Dec 2010’s slated electric vehicle launches as an expression of joyous excitement. A range of stakeholders are taking action, and coordinating to prepare for widespread electric vehicle ownership. But are they in fact preparing for a new Golden Age in transportation, for the most significant change since the highway? The New York Times reports that the West Coast will be the first to find out.

Infrastructure for the long haul

At the current rate of investment, even if electric vehicles flop, cities in Washington, Oregon and California will be forced to “make it work” to recoup sunk costs. Perhaps to prevent this outcome, businesses and governments are making long-term commitments that create a version of path dependence to lock in West Coast electric vehicle markets. On the other hand, the steps that communities are taking to commit to electric vehicles are also totally prudent, and are exactly what is required for systematic change. The infrastructure and policy improvements are necessary to foster a successful transition to a new automotive paradigm. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the governing body for electricity policy in California in San Francisco, is the convenient epicenter for this frenzy of planning, collaboration and deal-making.

The result is swift change through public/private partnerships and municipalities:

§       Not only are charging stations rapidly cropping up in prime locations, but San Francisco has now altered its building code such that charging station capacity will be a standard feature in new construction (similar to San Francisco’s, and now California overall, demonstrated leadership incorporating LEED standards into building codes).

§       PG&E is preparing to supply energy differently, to meet the needs of neighborhoods with numerous EV owners, through networks of “smart charging” stations that will let the utility better manage demand.

§       The CPUC is working to streamline permitting and municipal administration of residential charging station installation, a process CPUC President Peevey bemoans as time consuming.

§       Additionally, numerous advocacy and government groups are trying to iron-out policy to govern charging protocol.

EV promotion motivates unusual partnerships

The wartime-like mobilization for EV implementation has produced interesting collaborations. Utilities and automakers–a pair that never before shared interests–are now both teamed for EV success, and find the support of advocates that may otherwise be critics. Private companies, such as Zipcar, and EV producers have also reaped benefits through partnerships with municipalities, who have the power to finance and push through major local overhauls of roads, parking structures infrastructure.

New energy resources still missing in action

Despite all the EV planning, formidable unanswered questions point to the need for innovative solutions before EVs can really get moving. For instance, where is the additional energy required to power the future EV market going to come from? And how much is needed? The race to meet that energy demand is likely to prove an exciting ride. Will California add new nuclear plants? In light of President Obama’s federal loans to fund the new plants in Florida, the first since new nuclear investment since the 1970s,  more nuclear in California seems possible unless renewable interests win. What do readers think?

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