Electric cars have been a part of the U.S. car market since the early 1990s, but nearly two decades later few are found cruising the streets of Pittsburgh. And while the automotive industry accounts for between 4 and 5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, according to selectusa.commerce.gov, electric vehicles make up only a small portion of that market.
So why aren't more Americans buying electric cars? For one thing, charging stations are sparse.
Even as companies like Chevy and Tesla tout new electric models, owners and prospective buyers may find the biggest challenge to be recharging their vehicles when they are away from home. But some, such as Rick Price, executive director of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Regional Clean Cities, are looking to change that.
"It's not rocket science. This is a great technology," said Mr. Price, who has worked to bring dozens of electric plug-in vehicle charging stations to Pittsburgh for nearly 15 years.
The number of charging stations in the region isn't entirely clear, with the mix of public and private stations, along with plenty of proposed sites either currently searching for funding or under construction. Mr. Price estimates there are at least 81 in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, compared to 592 gas stations in that same region, according to YellowPages.com.
Electric charging stations come in three types: Level 1, Level 2 and the DC chargers, better known as quick chargers.
Level I chargers come standard with the purchase of an EPV and look like "an extension cord with a special end on it," according to Dan Carnovale, who runs the Power Systems Experience Center in Warrendale for Eaton Corp., a Cleveland-based energy company that focuses on electrical, hydraulic and mechanical power.
This form of electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) uses 120 volts of AC current electricity and can take up to 20 hours to charge some models, although the Chevy Volt charges in roughly eight hours using a Level 1 EVSE.
"We're all used to plugging in our smartphones every night ... to plug [a car] in at night to get you through the next day is a reasonable expectation, or to plug it in while you're at work," said Mr. Carnovale, referencing the Level II electric vehicle supply equipment sites found around the city that can be used to charge cars throughout the day.
Level II EVSE's, the most common charging stations in the region, use twice as many volts of electricity as a Level I -- 240 volts of AC current electricity -- and charge twice as fast. The Chevy Volt, for example, can recharge in just four hours using a Level II station, which is roughly 18 inches tall by 12 inches wide by 6 inches deep.
The third type of charging station, the DC Quick Charge, uses the more powerful DC current to charge cars at a speed closer to what drivers are used to getting when they visit the pump. In 15 to 30 minutes, the typical gas station pumping station-sized DC Quick Charge can completely recharge an electric plug-in vehicle.
Having charging stations available around the city bolsters such vehicles' reputation as efficient for city dwellers, since drivers can recharge their cars while running errands without hurting their wallets at the pump.
Many companies, including O'Hara-based grocer Giant Eagle, even offer charging for free. The grocer has stations at its Market District stores in Robinson and Pine, and at its Monroeville store.
When payment is needed, most charging stations work in a standard gas station setup. ChargePoint, based in Campbell, Calif., has established itself as one of the leading electric vehicle charging infrastructures, allowing consumers to use various charging stations for a one-time $25 activation fee, along with the additional cost of electricity. "[Chargepoint] can't charge for electricity, they can only charge for a connection fee," said Mr. Price.
Although electricity is less expensive than gasoline -- an "eGallon" now costs an average of $1.14 across the U.S., compared to the $3.57 national average for regular unleaded gasoline this week, according to GasBuddy.com -- the cost of installing the charging stations themselves isn't cheap. Level II commercial chargers cost between $1,500 and $3,000; DC Quick Chargers cost between $20,000 and $60,000, a price too steep for most individuals. So far, charging stations have been primarily installed through money from government grants.
In 2010, Pittsburgh Regional Clean Cities partnering with Eaton used a $46,000 grant from the Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant program to bring nine charging stations to the region as part of the "Energy 376 Corridor" project. The goal is to eventually install 45 charging stations along Interstate 376 and surrounding areas.
By the end of the project's first phase, there were two stations at the Eaton facility at Cherrington in Moon; two stations at the Eaton facility in Warrendale; one charging station at Bayer's Building 15 in Robinson; and two charging stations each in the garages of UPMC Montefiore and UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.
Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities and Eaton have taken on Phase II of the Energy 376 Corridor program, along with 19 other partners. Phase II involves the installation of 44 Level II chargers and one DC Quick Charger, and is working with a $238,467 alternative fuels grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
According to a press release, Phase II "is expected to displace an estimated 79,463 gallons of fuel per year and provide annual emissions reductions of 916,046 pounds of greenhouse gases, 1,306 pounds of volatile organic compounds, 10,363 pounds of carbon monoxide, 1,571 pounds of nitrous oxide and 1,026 pounds of particulate matter."
Of the slated 45 charging stations, 26 have been installed. The grant runs through June of next year.
The Level II chargers can be found at: the Pittsburgh Zoo; two in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center parking garage; Bayer Building 1; four at West Hills Nissan in Moon; the Carnegie Museum in Oakland; two at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland; Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC; two additional chargers at UPMC Presbyterian; three at UPMC Shadyside; two at UPMC East in Monroeville; two at FedEx Ground in Moon; Consol Energy in Southpointe; one at Bieber garage in Oakdale; one at Adam Solar Resources offices in Bridgeville; and Baum Boulevard Automotive. There is a DC Quick Charger at Eaton's Warrendale facility.
Work is also being done on setting up charging stations so those headed a little further from home will have a place to refuel their electric vehicles.
The Miami-based Car Charging Group, which promotes alternative fuels, has received a $1 million Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant from the Pennsylvania DEP, which is working with the Pennsylvania Turnpike to install charging stations. The Car Charging Group has agreed to match the $1 million grant.
The electric vehicle charging station company is set to bring 17 electric vehicle charging stations to the turnpike, one for each of its service plazas. Four of the charging stations will be operational this summer, including stations in Oakmont and in New Stanton, as well as in Lancaster County's Bowmansville plaza and Montgomery County's King of Prussia plaza.
Andrew Gretchko: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @Andrew_Gretchko. First Published July 10, 2013 4:00 AM