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Why California is Winning the Electric Car Race

I'm more convinced than ever that a majority of the early EV action will be in California. The state has a bunch of natural advantages, including the best possible climate for battery cars, serious subsidies, and a receptive audience -- it's already the biggest U.S. market for hybrids. Nearly every EV company is targeting California in their initial launches, and Coda plans initially to sell its electric sedans nowhere else. Several federally supported programs will put free EV chargers in the state.

Now the California Energy Commission is adding to the mix with a $3.4 million grant to charging leader Coulomb Technologies to aid in wiring the state for EVs. Coulomb says that through matching funds and $5 million in federal funding it will now have a whopping $12 million to strategically locate 1,600 charging stations (half public, half home-based) in Los Angeles, Sacramento and the San Francisco/San Jose area.

"Most analysts say that California is leading in EV deployment," Coulomb President Praveen Mandal told me. "For one thing, on the west coast there's a lot of interest in saving the environment and getting off oil. There is also concern about how electric cars perform in cold climates, so it's more challenging in Chicago than in, say, Los Angeles."

Mandal also points out that California's $5,000 "Cash for Clunkers"-type state rebate is a big help. "Now we're talking about a Nissan Leaf battery car at less than $20,000," he said. "At that point it becomes a mass-market car."

Coulomb is based in California, but its federally supported $37 million ChargePoint program is not limited to that state. It targets nine regions of the U.S. to receive almost 5,000 EV stations at no cost to their municipal hosts.

I don't think it's necessary to have extensive public EV charging networks before the cars can take off, but it definitely helps. Some analysts estimate that up to 80 percent of charging will actually be done at home, with ancillary support at work. The public stations â€"- at Starbucks, Home Depot and other strategic locations -- are likely to be a distant third in rates of use. Why? Because most people will be able to drive to work and back home on a single 100-mile charge.

Mandal disputes some of this. He points to a federal study that says that America has 54 million garages and 247 million registered vehicles. He also says a third of garages are too full of junk to hold cars. "A lot of cars are not being garaged," he said. "In San Francisco, for instance, most cars are parked on the street, and so EVs will be recharged at the curb, at night."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the grant will mean "hundreds of networked charging stations" around LA. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a big fan of EVs when he isn't piloting his hydrogen Hummer, praised Coulomb for "creating jobs for California," though that remains to be seen. Green jobs are so far pretty thin on the ground, but if they go anywhere it will probably be the Golden State.

Electric cars have long been stymied by the classic chicken-and-egg problem: Nobody would build vehicles without charging stations, and the big capital costs related to such infrastructure was unlikely without major automaker commitment. But Shai Agassi and Better Place broke that logjam by going ahead and signing up municipalities (including San Francisco).

Coulomb is complementing Better Place's work. There are public Coulomb chargers in Amsterdam, in Houston apartment complexes and in Seattle apartment towers. Mandal said its chargers are now all over North America, and there are also 500 in Europe (including Holland, UK, Ireland, Germany and Turkey). But the leader among U.S. states? California, of course.

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Photo: Coulomb Technologies