As automakers gear up to roll thousands of electric cars into showrooms and onto the open road, prospective buyers have to consider a basic question: When and where will I plug in? Car companies, charging station builders, utilities and other players in the electric vehicle game have long anticipated that early adopters will charge their vehicles at home. If and when plug-in cars gain acceptance on the broader market, however, it will become increasingly important for consumers to have charging options away from home. After all, it's only a fraction of motorists who park their vehicles in a garage at night. Most drivers park on the street, in a rented spot, a shared garage in a multi-unit building, in a driveway, or other locations where they may not have the authority or ability to get set up for electric car charging.

Fortunately, the wheels are already turning in regions around the country to demonstrate how public-access charging infrastructure might work. Charging equipment for electric vehicles can be thought of in several categories, including home and workplace installations, "destination" and "pathway" charging. A bank of charge points installed at a shopping center, museum or municipal parking lot would be an example of destination charging. Charging stations installed along major roadways, on the other hand, would be pathway charging.

According to John Gartner, an analyst with the green technology research firm Pike Research, most of the installations at malls, restaurants and other commercial destinations during the next year will happen because of a hefty stimulus grant awarded by the Department of Energy to a team led by charging infrastructure provider ECOtality.

"There have been very few commercial establishments willing to pay for charging stations so far," he explained, because it's unclear at this point how much revenue they'll be able to collect from these still-costly systems.

Exceptions are emerging across the country, however. ECOtality formed a partnership in October with electronics retail giant Best Buy to install its charge points at a dozen Best Buy stores in Tucson, Arizona, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle by March 2011, and depending on findings from this pilot program, the companies may expand the charging network to other Best Buy stores. A deal between ECOtality, its partners on the DOE-funded EV Project, and BP followed in short order, with the oil giant agreeing to install fast-charging stations (delivering very high voltage and current to let cars recharge in 30 minutes or less, rather than hours) at 45 ARCO and BP stations beginning in March 2011.

Pike Research, in a report that Gartner co-authored, forecasts that many retailers who install charging stations will let customers juice up for free. The idea is that a movie theater or restaurant, for example, could display advertising and interactive marketing on the device, and also benefit by having EV drivers visit their establishment more frequently.

Through the DOE grant -- a $114.8 million award matched dollar for dollar by private funds -- ECOtality and its partners are installing 15,000 charge points in 16 cities in Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.

Additional public funds are being invested in EV charging infrastructure at all levels of government. Most recently, in California, the San Francisco Bay Area's regional transit agency approved $14 million in federal transportation funds on Wednesday for projects related to electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. Among the awards are a $2.8 million grant for local government agencies to buy 90 electric vehicles and 90 public charging stations and $2.4 million for the development of a regional "EV Infrastructure Readiness Program."

The non-profit car sharing provider City CarShare, meanwhile, scored a $1.7 million grant to add at least 30 electric vehicles to its fleet and set up accompanying charge points that will be open to the public.

Pike Research anticipates that more than 3.1 million plug-in vehicles will be sold worldwide between 2010 and 2015, making up about 2.5 percent of all vehicle sales by 2015. These sales, according to Pike, will in turn spur the sale of 4.7 million units of charging equipment. Oliver Hazimeh, director and electric mobility analyst for management consultant firm PRTM, says that 1.3 charge points will be needed for every electric vehicle in the near term -- including one home charging station for every car, plus a publicly accessible spot for every three cars.

Pike forecasts that home charging equipment will dominate the North American market over the next five years, accounting for more than two-thirds of sales between 2010 and 2015. By contrast, "standalone" charging equipment -- the kind that you could see in shopping center parking lots, high-rise garages, or curbside --- is expected to make up a majority of sales in Europe and Asia, where a larger portion of the population lives in multi-unit buildings.

According to Hazimeh, fast charging will be a key enabler for public charging systems that would let drivers plug in for a quick top-off curbside as easily as you might grab a metered parking spot on city streets or fill up at a gas station today. At this early stage, he said, automakers are concerned about how batteries will hold up with frequent fast charging, but he expects we'll see more of it within five to six years as battery technology advances and data rolls in about how electric cars are performing in the consumer market.

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