Helping cities prepare for electric cars

In Boulder, Colo., the Rocky Mountain Institute has set up a project to help cities recognize and do the long-term work they need to do to prepare for electric cars.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

BOULDER, Colo.--When President Obama said that he wanted to put 1 million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015, it sounded good to many people worried about the effects of fossil fuels.

But when you consider that there are currently about 230 million vehicles on the road in the United States alone, you realize that Obama's goal amounts to less than one half of 1 percent--hardly what's going to move the U.S. into a post-gas future.

Project Get Ready, an initiative of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is trying to help cities get ready for an electric-car future. Project Get Ready

Still, to the people at Project Get Ready, an initiative of the Rocky Mountain Institute, anything that can jump-start a culture trajectory away from fossil fuels is a good thing. And that's why Project Get Ready is starting to work with cities around the country to prepare them, their communities, utilities and merchants for a day when the electric car is not only a viable option but a significant piece of the transportation puzzle.

On Road Trip 2009, I stopped in Boulder to talk with Matt Mattila, one of the leaders of Project Get Ready. I wanted to hear whether he and his team really think that electric cars can become a dominant fixture on our roads and in our cities.

The answer? Not anytime soon, but if we all work together to prepare, it may well happen in the not too, too distant future. But it will take serious thought, cooperation among various constituencies, and a willingness to think long term.

Don't make Chevy Volt a disaster
One of the most important goals has to be, Mattila argued, that electric-car ventures currently under way not fail before they can even get off the ground. That means that by the time a car like the much-heralded Chevy Volt starts to roll off production lines in a year or two, that there be enough of an infrastructure in place to handle them.

To Mattila, one major consideration is the thinking that's going to go on in the board rooms of companies like General Motors and other car makers, which are going to look at the market and the cultural environment and say: We're getting these new cars ready, so make sure there's enough charging stations, easy-to-get permits, consumer education and fleet buy-in. The point? So that, "when Chevy hands its billion-dollar Volt off, it's not going to be a big disaster because there's nowhere to plug it in," Mattila said.

That's where Project Get Ready comes into play, he said. The idea is to work on spreading awareness of what it takes to have an infrastructure for electric cars so that enough cities around the country feel like it's worth the effort to prepare for that future.

As well, it's important to address the chicken-and-egg problem: If consumers don't feel they have places to plug in their new electric cars, they won't buy them. And if people won't buy them, car makers won't make them.

"These few years are critical," Mattila said, "so focus on making (the coming launches) great, so that early adopters evangelize" electric cars and the experience of driving and maintaining them.

But, of course, there's nowhere in the United States that is ready for this yet. So Project Get Ready considers its major task to try to identify the gap that exists in understanding what it takes, and bringing all the various players to the table: city planners, local coalitions, nonprofits and, last, but not least, big utilities.

"They have to be part of the (solution)," Mattila said of the utilities. "If thousands of cars are going to be plugged into their grid, they need to know who's going to be plugged in, and at what rate."

Most will plug in at home
One thing that the electric car has going for it, according to Mattila, is that 80 percent of the charging up that will be done will be done at home or at the office. Many people who own such cars will install a charging station at home, taking some of the burden off the public infrastructure.

"But what can we do to make people see that there are public charging stations" as well, said Mattila. "It's getting people comfortable with seeing them out there" in public.

That's not going to be possible, of course, unless cities, large merchants, and/or utility companies feel there is an economic incentive to make the substantial investment in widespread charging stations.

Today, however, there is a lot of public money available for such projects. Mattila said that as much as half of the costs of charging stations can be offset by government funding. As well, it's a young market without a lot of competition, so some companies making charging stations are installing them for free to try to establish a market.

Others are following a cell phone business model and are installing the charging stations for free, but charging access fees for using them. And still others feel they will only make money by charging for the installation. The folks at Project Get Ready clearly see that merchants may have the most to gain by investing in the infrastructure.

"Our approach is to make a real business case," Mattila said, "so that Gold's Gym and UA Theaters (and such companies) have a real incentive to put them in on their own."

The reason? So that cities don't have to pay for everything.

At the same time, Mattila said that utility companies are looking at a huge windfall when it comes to electric cars and the power they will require. "There could be a huge opportunity for utilities," he said, "to own the boxes and install them and say, 'We can determine when you get energy...how much you get and how much you pay."

The idea there, he added, is that the utilities can ensure that if people plug in during high-demand periods, they pay a premium.

Still, despite the potential economic advantages to utility companies, Mattila said that Project Get Ready's research suggests that the most common models for electric-car infrastructure will be cities and large merchants paying for it.

"The Wal-Marts of the world (can do it to) fulfill the promise of being more green," he said. To them, "it's a drop in the bucket, so they view it as a loss leader to get people coming into the store to buy things."

In that scenario, he added, you might someday see a charging station at every parking spot in a Wal-Mart lot.

More efficient and less expensive
When the Volt comes out, it is expected to be fairly expensive, along the lines of a standard-engine luxury vehicle. So to Mattila, the goal has to be to survive the early adopter stage and get to a point where not only are the second-generation Volts affordable for a larger consumer base, but where there are enough public charging stations available to handle future generations of less expensive electric cars with smaller batteries and shorter driving ranges.

Some people want the green car of tomorrow to be a hydrogen fuel vehicle, Mattila acknowledged, but added that there's no existing hydrogen infrastructure. "The entire country's wired," he said, touting electric cars, "and we can plug in just about anywhere."

Despite his full-time efforts on behalf of a world full of electric cars, Mattila is not entirely optimistic about what he sees.

He does say that he sees maturity in the market in 10 or 15 years and that by 2030 electric cars may well make up a significant percentage of cars on the road. But that's a long time from now.

"I'd say I'm more on the skeptical side...at least when I attend conferences and preach to our choir," he explained. "We try to rein in our people (and) look at the barriers and try to address them, rather than focus on what would be good if we had millions and millions of these things being sold."

Still, Project Get Ready has started ongoing conversations with cities like Houston, Raleigh, N.C., Indianapolis, Portland, and Denver and is in unofficial talks with half a dozen more, all in an effort to inform decision-makers about what they have to do to prepare.

Ultimately, Mattila said, Project Get Ready's five-year plan is to put the country on a trajectory to get off of fossil fuels.

"It's hard to be motivated by something that the next generation is going to benefit from," he explained, "but if we can demonstrate (the profit motivation) then maybe people will get on board. We don't want it to be a sacrifice."

Click here for the entire Road Trip 2009 package.