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Charging stations move electric cars out of city

Charging stations that can fill up the batteries of an electric car in 30 minutes or faster are moving from the city to the country.

The Oregon Department of Transportation announced Thursday that a $2 million federal stimulus grant will finance 22 fast-charging stations to be built next year in smaller cities in the northwestern corner of the state that will allow electric car owners to go on vacation to the coast or the mountains and home again without having to stop overnight to charge up. This comes on top of plans to build fast-charging stations along Interstate 5 the length of Oregon and Washington by the end of this year.

"Electric cars are often seen as city vehicles," said Kristen Helsel, vice president of EV solutions for AeroVironment, Inc., the Monrovia, Calif. company that is building the fast-charging stations. "What this does is it extends the range so you can go from one corridor to another. It completely changes how EVs can be used."

Oregon is the first state to get this kind of grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, said spokesman Bill Adams.

So far, there are only two fast-chargers in the state, both in Portland. Eight more are slated to go online by the end of October along Interstate 5 between Eugene and the California border. The stations are gathering key data on how people use their electric cars, to plan for the future.

This new group of fast-charging stations will cover an area radiating out from Portland, Ore., stretching 80 miles to the northwest, 50 miles to the east, and 120 miles south. Stations will be no more than 50 miles apart, well within the 70-mile to 100 mile range of the Nissan Leaf.

Each station will be located at a place offering rest rooms and a convenience store. They will be able to handle only one car at a time. But with just an estimated 800 electric cars of various stripes spread among the nearly 4 million people in Oregon, the prospect for waiting lines is small for now.

Analysts expect the numbers of electric vehicles to grow quickly as the charging infrastructure expands, making the technology more convenient.

"I think we are either idling at the green light or just breaking off the starting line in this grand enterprise," said George Beard, a Portland State University instructor who works on electric car issues. "Oregon is arguably at the front of the wave."

Level 1 car chargers use 110 volts, like a regular home outlet, and will charge a vehicle overnight. Level 2 uses 240 volts, like a home dryer or range, and will charge a car in three or four hours. Level 3 uses 480 volts and can take a Nissan Leaf's 45 kilowatt battery from a 20 percent charge to 80 percent in under 30 minutes.

Pat Davis, who heads the vehicle technologies program for the U.S. Department of Energy, said current plans by car manufacturers for ramping up production of electric vehicles put the nation on track to top President Obama's goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

"It's clear that by 2025, to meet the new fuel (efficiency) requirements, that we are going to see more electrification than we have now," he said. "That is going to take the form of everything from micro-hybrids to full hybridization plug-ins to electric drive. But they will not be the only thing on the road. You will probably see more natural gas vehicles than you have today. And vehicles with downsized engines and lighter vehicles than today."

Davis said there are very few fast-charging stations operating, but more than 4,000 Level 2 medium-fast chargers in private homes and public places. That number is growing by 1,000 a month in a program designed to build a total of 22,000.

Justin Denley is an information technology specialist for a credit union in Medford, Ore.

He and his wife traded in a four-wheel drive pickup truck and bought a Nissan Leaf this year to cut their spending on gasoline. He mostly uses it to commute about 4 miles to work, but recently piled the family in for the 125-mile drive to the coast to show the car off to relatives. To make what is a 3-hour trip in a conventional car, they had to stop overnight at an RV park, where they slept in a teepee while the car charged overnight.

He can't wait for the fast-charging stations to go online along Interstate 5 this fall.

"That's a key thing that has to happen for most people who want to adopt this technology," he said. "Range anxiety (the fear of getting stranded) is a real thing.

"People want to be able to go farther."