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First Charging Stations Spring Up on California's 'Electric Highway'

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A California-based solar power company and a bank have unveiled the first “charging corridor” in the U.S. — and given its distance, perhaps in the world. The corridor is only five 240-volt charging stations strong at five locations along U.S. Highway 101 in California, but it still marks a significant first step for battery-powered vehicles.

The five quick-charge stations were provided by Tesla Motors with grants from the California Air Resources Board. They will be maintained by SolarCity and Rabobank, which is providing the electricity for free. The California stations can be found in Salinas, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Goleta; these smaller cities run along the corridor that connects San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Each station cost between $7,000 and $12,000 to install, and the Santa Maria station gets its juice from a 30-kilowatt solar array (SolarCity is working on bringing solar power to the other four sites). Right now, the stations use the Tesla high-powered charger, so only Tesla Roadster owners can plug in. SolarCity has said it will retrofit all five sites with the universal SAE J1772 plug as soon as the standard is adopted, which they expect to happen within six months.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of how practical it would be to drive the electric highway. The real issues are distance and charging time.

The Tesla Roadster’s 53-kilowatt-hour battery pack will take 3.5 hours to charge, which is a lengthy wait. The Mini E and Nissan Leaf with their smaller battery packs can collect a full charge in less than two hours, while the Chevrolet Volt with a 16-kwh battery will charge in just over an hour. For the smaller packs, you could easily sit down for a meal at a restaurant and be at or near a full charge when you return.

The greater problem is distance.

While some of the hops are short — Atascadero to San Luis Obispo is only 19.4 miles and San Luis Obispo to Santa Maria is less than 34 miles — most of the legs are more than 100 miles long. If you own a pure electric vehicle like the Mini E or Leaf, you’re not going to make it to the next charging before running out of juice. The Tesla has a longer range of 240 miles on a single charge.

However, range-extended vehicles — like the Volt — have gas-powered generators that can kick in until you can reach the next charging station, or you have the option to fill-up on gas anywhere. This demonstrates why early-adaptor vehicles like the Volt may have a leg up over the all-electric competition. Owning a Leaf becomes complicated if you want to take a trip as short as San Francisco to Salinas (106 miles, just over the Leaf’s 100-mile range), while the Volt maintains the range and fuel options of an old-fashioned gasoline car.

Expect the term “range anxiety” to pop up more and more as the country figures out how to adopt to the debut of plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles.

EV ‘Charging Corridor’ Links L.A. and San Francisco (Autopia)

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