Bay Area aims to be nation’s EV capital

By Joseph Doolen
An electric vehicle (EV) getting a charge at San Francisco City Hall

EV charging up outside of San Francisco's City Hall. Photo by Joseph Doolen.

The Bay Area is charging up. Along with L.A. and New York, San Francisco is one of the largest U.S. markets for plug-in electric vehicles (EVs). The pledge by the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose in 2008 to make the metropolis the nation’s EV capital is now bearing fruit.

With political will lacking in most other large cities (and indeed, nationwide), holding such a title will not be a major challenge. But with a projected 359,000 EVs on American roads by 2017, according to a report by Pike Research, city governments and the private sector are working to meet the anticipated demands.

San Francisco has a list of steps it’s taking to prepare for the influx of plug-in EVs. The 2011 San Francisco building code requires new buildings to be wired for EV chargers. But since new buildings are uncommon, the impact of this regulation will likely be minimal.

“San Francisco already has built up infrastructure. The real question is: ‘How do you complement the existing infrastructure?’” said Ron Miguel, Vice President of the San Francisco Planning Commission.

The answer appears to be a mix of public and private charging stations with incentives provided from local and federal government to jump-start the switch to EVs.

Already, a handful of charging stations are available to the public at City Hall, and with current Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) funding, the number of public plug-in chargers in the region will exceed 1,000 in 2012, up from the 71 available in 2010, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Four hundred of these will be in the city of San Francisco. Each 40 amp, 240 volt unit (called “Level 2”) provides a complete charge to a vehicle in four to six hours.

An EV charging station sign at San Francisco City Hall

EV charging stations by San Francisco's City Hall. Photo by Joseph Doolen.

About 50 additional “quick charge” stations are also slated to be installed under current grants. These provide an 80 percent charge in as little as 15-30 minutes, but are much more expensive.

To get a full charge on their EV, the average citizen will frequently have to use the more affordable Level 2 charger overnight at or near their home.

Robert Hayden of the San Francisco Department of Environment knows that charging stations must be available to the population for the city’s EV initiatives to work.

“Home garage chargers are priority one,” Hayden said.

San Francisco is working with companies that provide home chargers, while the BAAQMD is leading the public sector in this effort through next year with a $5 million EV infrastructure grant program to fund home and public charger installation.

PG&E is also joining the preparations. To avoid future overloading of the power grid, the utility company is making it cheaper to charge during off-peak hours.

For these efforts to work, San Francisco is in dire need of more public charging capacity. It’s a dense city of multi-family homes and more than 80 percent of inhabitants are renters. More immediately, downtown workers will have it easiest. Hayden said by the end of this year, 80 chargers will be available in more than 20 municipal garages, most located in the financial district.

Companies like Google  are also helping workers switch to EVs. Corporate headquarters in Mountain View has the largest private charging infrastructure in the U.S., and they are now adding 250 more chargers. If other companies do not follow suit, the EV market will remain small due to “range anxiety”, according to Hayden.

The Nissan Leaf, a five-passenger electric car with a range of 100 miles on a fully charged battery, provides a test for the new market. Forty percent of the nearly 1,000 Nissan Leaf orders in the state have come to the Bay Area.

“Indeed, we are the EV capital,” says Damian Breen, Grants Manager of the BAAQMD. “Our goal is to have zero tailpipe emissions in 30 to 40 years.”

Electric vehicle owners can expect to save up to $1,800 per year on fuel and $350 per year in maintenance costs, according to the Bay Area Climate Collaborative. Bay cities are hoping to capitalize on these savings directly by adding EVs to city government fleets and municipally-owned taxis.

While the Bay Area is leading the way in piloting EV infrastructure projects, the most environmentally friendly alternatives to driving are still public transportation and driving less. Bay Area drivers travel 170 million vehicle miles daily.

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