Electric Cars Need "Corridors," Just Like the Big Cats

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 22, 2011

You know how they have “corridors” for big cats and other wildlife so they can make it safely from one patch of habitat to another? Well, exactly analogous to that is the need for electric car corridors so that EVs can travel longer distances. Remember, they have a range of about 100 miles, so you need to have charging stations spaced at that distance apart (or less) to make a corridor viable.

The I-5 West Coast Green Highway isn't done just yet. (West Coast Green Highway photo)
The I-5 West Coast Green Highway isn't done just yet. (West Coast Green Highway photo)

The West Coast Green Highway is supposed to extend through all 1,360 miles of I-5, but the California leg hasn’t been announced yet. There is a link of sorts with five locations between San Francisco and Los Angeles, installed privately by Rabobank , Tesla Motors and SolarCity in 2009. Thanks to SolarCity, the EV charging is photovoltaic-connected, which means a green energy charge.

Last month, the Oregon Department of Transportation said that it would install, by late this year, both 240-volt Level II and 480-volt fast chargers in a corridor along I-5. It’s part of the West Coast Green Highway project that will eventually install stations from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C. (both EV hotspots, by the way). There’s federal Recovery Act money in it, administered by the Department of Energy.  Kristen Helsel of AeroVironment's EV Solutions division told me, "We're going to put these stations where people will want to go. So we'll need to identify places where they can access other services while fast-charging their vehicles." That means, probably, restaurants and recreational facilities, not just highway rest stops. Helsel said that fast charging, even when done repeatedly, isn't going to hurt EVs. "It's very similar to the kind of charging you do with phones and computers," she said.  Now the second part of the I-5 (and U.S. 2) corridor is going into Washington State, again with AeroVironment as the installer. With a budget of $1 million, chargers are to be installed at nine locations 40 to 60 miles apart between Everett and Olympia, Washington (and between Everett and Leavenworth on U.S. 2). All of the stations will include 480-volt fast chargers that can put you back on the road in 30 minutes.  It’s happening fast. The nine stations will be in place by November 30.       

Through Envision Solar and others, solar EV is growing rapidly. Earlier this week, I visited a General Electric facility in Plainville, Connecticut, that includes a huge solar array that is easily able to recharge (without the grid’s help) the 10 Chevy Volts the company operates there.

The next challenge will be building similar corridors on the East Coast. Tom Sullivan is attempting to build a “hydrogen highway” from Maine to Florida, but plug-in activity is so far minimal. That’s largely because there are very few electric vehicles on the East Coast so far, just a few of the aforementioned Volts. Deployment of the Nissan Leaf (which is getting a special cold weather package to help it cope with snow-belt winters) won’t start until late in the year.

The rest of the country is virgin territory, also, though EV charging is getting a big head start in Texas thanks to the utility NRG Energy, which offers nicely incentivized monthly charging packages in several major cities.

Charging is coming. Earlier this week, Walgreens announced that, with partners, it will be installing EV chargers at a record 800 locations across the country by the end of this year. Other retailers getting involved include Cracker Barrel and Best Buy. Right now, there aren’t that many places to plug in, though California is getting wired fast. But the pace of charging announcements is accelerating rapidly, including these very helpful new corridors. The EV is becoming a long-distance traveler.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One