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From gas to electric

Virginia prepares for surge in electric vehicle use

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Print this page by Catherine MacDonald

In the nationwide push for electric vehicles (EVs), those in the industry say Virginia is on the right track.

Business, state and educational entities are working together to promote and prepare for an expected increase in EVs.

According to Rebecca Hough, COO and co-founder of Evatran, a Wytheville-based developer of plugless charging pads for electric vehicles, Virginia already has taken the steps necessary to prepare for electric vehicles. Various local municipalities, the state and civil and commercial entities have been working together for more than 18 months to ready Virginia for the transition to more EVs, such as plans to install more charging stations. For example, prompted by air pollution controls in Northern Virginia, state lawmakers passed a bill that would allow retailers, like Kmart and Walmart, to offer charging stations for electric car drivers. Previously, only public utility companies could sell electricity. There are currently 35 completed and five planned public electric charging stations in Virginia (compared with none this time last year) with four to six being added each month.

Hough says Evatran soon will launch a field trial program to install plugless charging pad prototypes for a limited number of commercial partners, including at least one Virginia partner. The company’s first field trial installed prototypes at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Officials at Dominion Virginia Power believe the commonwealth could be one of the hottest markets for plug-in electric vehicles. Virginia has a relatively large number of first-generation hybrid vehicles; and Dominion officials predict there could be as many as 86,000 EVs here by 2020. If charged at peak times, these vehicles could lead to an increase in the amount of peak-demand electricity the company must supply that year by about 270 megawatts, which is the equivalent of powering 67,500 homes.

That’s why the company has implemented a pilot program designed to test whether EV owners will choose to recharge their vehicles during off-peak hours (typically at night) in exchange for lower rates. Since registration for the program began on Oct. 3, about 30 people have signed up. Dominion is partnering with car dealerships and charger installation vendors to build customer awareness. 

Virginia universities are jumping on the EV bandwagon as well. In October, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded a $2.9 million contract to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to develop and design magnets used in electric vehicle motors. The department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies program (REACT) handed out $31.6 million to 14 institutions nationwide. The contract provides for a three-year project to develop a magnet for a prototype electric motor. VCU chemistry professor Everett Carpenter helped conduct the research that led to the grant.

“The grant is designed to help identify new materials, optimize the synthesis, process the materials and prototype an electric motor.  We have a fantastic team working on this project,” Carpenter says. The team includes Moog Components in Blacksburg, which will assemble the final motor.

J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College received a DOE grant to develop automotive tech courses in electric vehicles, says Kelly Schwendeman, head of the automotive technology program at the school. The college even held a class for potential EV consumers.

“A lot of times, Americans are reluctant to embrace change,” Schwendeman says. “The class was established to provide an educational opportunity to the community at large on electric vehicles. There are a lot of misconceptions about EVs.”

Schwendeman says the greatest concern for potential consumers is usually “range anxiety.” “People say, ‘Well it only goes so far; I can’t own that,’ ” he says. “The range is right around 80 to 100 miles. Ninety-five percent of the American public commutes less than 100 miles a day. It does work for most people, they just don’t know it.”
At Evatran, Hough says the company has noticed the range anxiety phenomenon as well. “There is definitely a transition phase for switching to a pure electric vehicle like the Nissan Leaf. However, with a plug-in hybrid, like the Chevy Volt, the driver needs very little transition time. For a majority of drivers, 100 miles — the range of most pure electric vehicles — well exceeds their daily commutes,” she says.

Schwendeman says some potential EV owners cite the 1970s electric car that only reaches 40 mph and worry whether the vehicles will operate like other cars. “Yes it will,” he promises. “You can get on the interstate and go fast enough to get yourself thrown in jail.” 

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