Almanac

News - October 26, 2011

Portola Valley: Electric cars to recharge at Town Center

by Dave Boyce

Roadside fuel stations are coming to Portola Valley. They stand about the height of a parking meter and have the aura of a gasoline pump, which is appropriate since the electric cars that pull up to them will have to stay for while. And when they leave, it will usually be with the equivalent of a full tank.

Brandi de Garmeaux, the town's environmental programs coordinator, is recommending that the town collect $2 an hour for using one of the four electric-vehicle charging stations to be installed at Town Center at 765 Portola Road within the next 60 days and at no cost to the town.

The Town Council originally committed to four charging stations when it applied for green building certification for the new library, Town Hall and community hall complex. The U.S. Green Building Association gave the town a platinum award in 2008, its highest recognition.

Having stations installed "is a chance for the town to become part of the electric vehicle charging infrastructure and for the council to show its continued support for greenhouse gas emissions reductions," Ms. de Garmeaux wrote in staff report.

Over the last year, at least five Portola Valley households have installed charging stations at home, Ms. de Garmeaux said in a phone interview.

The California Energy Commission is kicking in a grant of $15,000 to install the stations in Portola Valley, said Michael Jones, director of the western region for Coulomb Technologies Inc., a Campbell-based start-up that manufactures the stations in South San Jose. The council approved a plan to put two stations behind the library near the creek and two at the southern end of the parking lot in front of the Historic Schoolhouse.

A Department of Energy grant will, through December 2013, pay Portola Valley's subscriptions of $230 per station per year to connect the stations in a network with others in the Bay Area, including in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Altos Hills, Palo Alto and Redwood City, Mr. Jones said.

Networked stations

Drivers of electric cars, when they're running low on electrons, will be immersed in a mesh of factors, including:

• Charge availability. Drivers will need maps to find the nearest charging stations, whether they're in use, when one will become available and what the rates are.

• Electricity supply. On a hot day in a peak demand period, a station operator may raise the rate or offer a partial charge, or a discount for waiting until later when the demand is not so great.

• User demand. As the number of all-electric vehicles grows, demand will be mobile, not fixed. Charging stations may have to be "smart" to keep operators informed, and may have to act in concert to protect the grid from an overload in an area.

All of this requires software, servers and a network infrastructure supported by subscriptions, the prices of which will be determined by market forces, Mr. Jones said.

The town will have to take over subscription payments from the DOE in January 2014. The payments do not cover maintenance, but the charging stations are supposed to be maintenance-free for 10 years, Mr. Jones said. When the time comes, market forces will determine whether there is a viable business in maintaining these devices, he added.

The manufacturer of the charging stations, Coulomb Technologies, is about four years old, is privately held, and is operating some 4,000 to 5,000 charging stations in 14 countries, Mr. Jones said.

"We're doing pretty good," he said when asked. "From technological and market positions, we're probably a leader."

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