Silicon Valley News

Friday, June 25, 2010

Silicon Valley Leads Electric Car Movement

Silicon Valley has emerged as the hub for the nascent electric vehicle movement. Tesla Motors, glowing in the spotlight of the first initial public offering of a U.S. automaker in over 50 years, is the star at the moment. The Palo Alto-based maker of the sporty, $109,000 Roadster has the strong supporting cast that it sorely needs to make this IPO venture a success.

Two Silicon Valley companies, Coulomb Technologies and Better Place, are building electric vehicle charging stations across the country and around the world. With the growing pipeline of plug-in cars, including the expected launch of the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt by the end of the year, a recent ABI Research report says that the existing 20,000 recharging stations will skyrocket to three million in five years. Almost 2,000 people in the Bay Area have paid $99 to reserve the LEAF, more than any other region in the U.S.

"Infrastructure supporting electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles is on the cusp of a rapid and sustained growth curve," says Research director Larry Fisher.  "The charging infrastructure technology is here. We're just waiting for the release of these vehicles."

Coulomb's network has features that include an iPhone application that gives directions to charging stations. The company so far has built 136 stations nationwide. Near its headquarters in the Bay Area, Coulomb stations are located in the San Jose and San Francisco City Halls.

Better Place has a growing network of charging stations for homes, businesses, public parking lots, movie theaters and sports arenas.  The company already has some 1,000 stations in Israel, its chief market, and is expanding globally. California, Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and Ontario all plan to adopt the Better Place electric network. Better Place is also developing its novel concept of automated stations for switching batteries, which it recently introduced in Tokyo, Japan.

"Most of these cars are getting in the 100-mile range, and if you have a ubiquity of charge spot coverage, most people will be able to 'top off,' or recharge enough to get to their destination," explains Better Place representative Julie Mullins. "Battery switching is really for the longer drive."

Better Place is led by Israeli businessman Shai Agassi. The company has evolved from a partnership it proposed with French automaker Renault. As a result of its alliance with Nissan, Renault is the world's fourth largest automaker. Israeli President Shimon Peres introduced Agassi to Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn. "The result is Better Place," says Agassi.

Renault now plans to build 100,000 electric cars, which it intends to sell in Israel and Denmark. Better Place will provide the necessary infrastructure. The first model will be a five-seat sedan called the Fluence. It will be launched in Israel next year.

Better Place is reportedly working with San Francisco to deploy battery swap stations. In the U.S., San Francisco, whose Mayor Gavin Newsom drives an electric car, has taken a leading role in paving the way for electric vehicles. Earlier this year, the city announced plans to revise  its building code to ensure all new homes and offices will be wired for electric chargers.

Better Place and the mayors of Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco announced in 2008 that the company would build charging stations throughout the Bay Area.

California has become the center of the next generation auto industry.

Mark Duvall is in charge of electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility industry think tank based in Palo Alto. When he graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1993, most of his classmates looking to work in the auto industry were compelled to relocate to Michigan.

"You had two choices: get a Ph.D in the midwest or work at an auto company in the midwest," Duvall said. "But now its possible to stay in California and work in automotive engineering. The electrification of the automobile has spurred a lot of interest in infrastructure, battery technology and IT. Silicon Valley is the place to study IT."

Anticipating the growth of the electric car market, Silicon Valley companies are ordering workplace charging stations. At the San Francisco headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric, utility executives are making contingency plans in the event of a power grid overload caused by electric cars.

"There is a huge moment here," says Andrew Tang, a PG&E executive.

Google has also taken a leading role in the electric car movement. The company wants automakers to use its PowerMeter energy management software. Some Google employees drive to work at the company's Mountain View headquarters in Tesla Roadsters. Google owns a fleet of modified Priuses. The corporate  campus has a carport covered with solar panels with 100 available charging stations. Google CEO Eric Schmidt is an investor in Menlo Park, start-up Amprius, which is developing next generation lithium-ion batteries.

Nearby, at Adobe Systems San Jose headquarters, the parking garage also has an ample supply of recently installed charging stations.

"No one wants to be left behind," says Coulomb CEO Richard Lowenthal.

Meanwhile, San Jose will host the "Plug-in 2010" electric transportation conference July 26-29.

A $100 million federal stimulus grant will fund the building of 11,000 charging stations across the country. The U.S. Department of Energy award will target infrastructure in California, Arizona, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.