Asked what distinguishes his company’s electric-vehicle (EV) charger, ECOtality CEO Jonathan Read said, “The most important thing is, we are the smarter charger.” Asked the same question, Read’s counterpart at Coulomb Technologies, Richard Lowenthal, said, “We invented smart charging.”
As Nissan rolls out its all-electric Leaf and GM its extended-range Chevy Volt in the coming months, these two Bay Area-based companies — much smaller than the car giants, but no less hopeful that Americans will embrace electric vehicles (EV) — are maneuvering to be the choice for people needing to plug in.
ECOtality and Coulomb are the leaders in the emerging EV-charging market. They convinced the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) they were well-equipped to put a charging infrastructure in place quickly and gather important driving and charging data for the department about early EV users. In turn, the feds showered ECOtality with a $115 million grant to install, at no cost, around 15,000 charging stations in homes and public locations through the EV Project; Coulomb, meanwhile, got $15 million for a 4,600-charger program called ChargePoint America.
These aren’t the only two companies making chargers. Nissan has partnered with AeroVironment to equip new Leaf buyers for $2,200, and GM hooked up with SPX Service Solutions, who will sell and install their charger for around the same price. And there are others. But why buy what you can get for free? If you have a garage or carport, with the EV Project and ChargePoint, free charging stations “should last through 2011, so it’ll be a good year to buy a vehicle,” Lowenthal said.
(It’s worth noting that “free” in this case applies to those whose homes have adequate electrical service — 200 amp or higher — for the 220-240 volt Level 2 chargers the companies are offering. Older homes might not, and will require upgrades. That could add costs running into the thousands, although tax credits and rebates at the federal, state and local levels could be available.)
The DOE-sponsored programs essentially divvy up most of the areas where the Leaf and Volt will be initially sold, with ECOtality’s EV Project available in metro areas in Arizona, Tennessee and Oregon, as well as Dallas-Fort Worth, and Coulomb’s ChargePoint the choice in Michigan, Florida, Northern California and Austin, Tex. In some areas — Southern California, Washington, D.C., and Washington State’s Puget Sound region—there’s overlap.