Eaton becoming a force in electric vehicle charging stations

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After the Mitsubishi subcompact carefully backed up to a tank at a station on Commonwealth Drive in Marshall, the driver jumped out and began to fuel the vehicle.

But he wasn't pumping gas. He was charging the all-electric car's battery before hopping back in for a spin on Route 19 through the busy Cranberry commercial corridor.

The driver, Dale Jones, works for Eaton Corp., which is testing electric car chargers at its Power Systems Experience Center. Eaton's electrical sector for the Americas region, based in Moon, designs and develops the technology for the chargers that are already powering electric vehicles for consumers in South Carolina, California and elsewhere.

Cleveland-based Eaton is among the businesses trying to get a piece of the ever-growing market surrounding electric cars. It has partnered with Mitsubishi Motors to make and demonstrate charging stations for the Japanese automaker's iMiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle), which is set to go on sale later this year in some western states; and also has developed demonstration and testing equipment for models including the Chevrolet Volt, an electric hybrid.

Other electrical companies developing the charger technology include industry giants Siemens, General Electric and Schneider Electric, while some automakers such as Toyota, which makes the Prius hybrid, are developing their own chargers.

Despite the competition, Eaton is confident it can win a sizable share of the market. The company projects there will be 400,000 electric vehicles on the roads of North America by 2020.

A major issue involved in getting all those vehicles on the highway, though, is how far they can travel before they power-down.

The Mitsubishi used in Eaton's tests can run for about 80 miles on one "tank" of electricity, said Dan Carnovale, manager of the Power Systems Experience Center at Eaton's Marshall site.

So while it might be an ideal energy saver for short trips around the neighborhood or even commuting to work, "You can't go long without chargers available," he said.

That's why Eaton's strategy includes working with state and municipal governments to come up with plans to integrate electric vehicle power stations into the infrastructure.

In South Carolina, for instance, it won a contract funded by the state's energy office that features Eaton electric vehicle chargers at municipal parking garages and retailers in eight cities.

In Raleigh, N.C., Eaton in December donated three charging stations to the city, which plans to roll out 30 public chargers by September.

It has collaborations in the private sector, too. Last October, it launched a testing project with the University of Notre Dame during the weekend of the University of Pittsburgh-Notre Dame football game. Notre Dame officials are testing Mitsubishi's vehicle to determine how electric vehicles might be integrated into the fleet at the school's campus in South Bend, Ind.

Perhaps its most high-profile partnership to date is with giant electronics retailer Best Buy. The chain's Geek Squad -- employees who specialize in computer repairs -- will manage residential electrical upgrades to accommodate Eaton chargers that Mitsubishi electric car owners can install at home. Some Geek Squads have been driving the Mitsubishi vehicles since 2009.

A home-based charger could be 120 volts and power a vehicle in eight to 12 hours -- or 240 volts with the capability to fully power a vehicle in four to six hours, Mr. Carnovale said.

Cost estimates for the 120-volt chargers that could be installed in homes range from $700 to $1,300. The next level, with 240 volts, could cost up to $2,500, Mr. Carnovale said.

The chargers at public stations have 480 volts and can power a vehicle in 15 to 30 minutes.

"Your vehicle would charge while you get lunch or coffee," said Mr. Carnovale.

At the South Carolina stations featuring Eaton equipment, it costs about $1.30 to fully charge the Mitsubishi vehicle, Mr. Carnovale said. The iMiEV is scheduled to go on sale to the public this fall in California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $30,000.

Eaton is working with Mitsubishi to provide chargers to its North American dealers by the time the cars are available.

Besides testing its chargers at the Marshall facility, Eaton uses the Power Systems Experience Center to test and demonstrate new and existing products, said Mr. Carnovale. The facility also houses engineering and equipment workers, and employs about 120 total.

At its Moon offices, the Cleveland-based corporation has about 750 employees. It operates a manufacturing and testing plant in Beaver County with 350 workers.

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580. First Published March 11, 2011 5:00 AM


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