San Francisco Prepare for Life With the Electric Car

The San Francisco building code will soon be revised to require that new structures be wired for electric car chargers. Across the street from City Hall, some drivers are already plugging converted hybrids into a row of charging stations.

Speaking in his latest address on YouTube city mayor Gavin Newsom, who himself drives an electric car, confirmed that the authorities will launch a ‘sustainable financing programme’ next month, allowing residents to borrow money at an attractive rate to pay for the installation of electric car chargers in their homes.

‘If you want to put an electric charging station in your home in anticipation of all these electric vehicles, you can do it through this green financing programme,’ he said.

In nearby Silicon Valley, companies are ordering workplace charging stations in the belief that their employees will be first in line when electric cars begin arriving in showrooms. And at the headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric, utility executives are preparing heat maps of neighborhoods that they fear may overload the power grid in their exuberance for electric cars.

There is a huge momentum here, said Andrew Tang, an executive at P.G.& E. As automakers prepare to introduce the first mass-market electric cars late this year, it is increasingly evident that the cars will get their most serious tryout in just a handful of places. In cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and San Diego, a combination of green consciousness and enthusiasm for new technology seems to be stirring public interest in the cars.

The first wave of electric car buying is expected to begin around December, when Nissan introduces the Leaf, a five-passenger electric car that will have a range of 100 miles on a fully charged battery and be priced for middle-class families.

Several thousand Leafs made in Japan will be delivered to metropolitan areas in California, Arizona, Washington state, Oregon and Tennessee. Around the same time, General Motors will introduce the Chevrolet Volt, a vehicle able to go 40 miles on electricity before its small gasoline engine kicks in.

This is the game-changer for our industry, said Carlos Ghosn, Nissans president and chief executive. He predicted that 10 percent of the cars sold would be electric vehicles by 2020.

Utilities are gearing up to cooperate with the automakers, a first for the two industries, and governments on the West Coast are focusing intently on the coming issues. Price and tax incentives need to be worked out. Locations must be found for charging stations. And local electrical grids may need reinforcement.

The California Public Utilities Commission, whose headquarters are in San Francisco, has brought together utilities, automakers and charging station companies in an urgent effort to write the new rules of the road.

Much of the attention on electric cars has been on the vehicles design, cost and performance. But success or failure could turn on more mundane matters, like the time it takes car buyers to navigate a municipal bureaucracy to have charging stations installed in their homes.

When the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Michael R. Peevey, leased an electric Mini Cooper, he said, it took six weeks of visits by installers and inspectors before he could plug in his new car at home.

It was really drawn out and frustrating and certainly is not workable on a mass basis, Mr. Peevey said. Such issues are being hashed out here first. The San Francisco area is home not only to a population of early technology adopters but to companies like Coulomb Technologies and Better Place that are developing the networks and software to allow utilities to manage how cars are charged.

Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley company that makes electric cars, says it has already sold 150 of its $109,000 Roadsters in the Bay Area. One customer bought the sleek sports car on the spot after a test drive.

Robert Hayden, the clean transportation adviser for San Francisco, said the city hopes to have 60 charging stations installed in public garages by years end, with a thousand more available across the Bay Area in 2011. And in Oregon, an advisory group is working on charging stations and related issues.

To avoid problems in areas with high car concentrations, utility executives said they would encourage people to charge their vehicles at night or to use smarter electric meters that help control demand.

We are trying to be proactive about how to make sure that the transformers that serve these homes and neighborhoods are robust enough, said Doug Kim, an executive at Southern California Edison, which serves Los Angeles.

Mr. Kim said the popularity of electric vehicles will be a function of a lot of different things: the state of the economy, how many people can actually afford to buy the cars and the price of gasoline how high does it have to be?

Some transportation experts are skeptical that electric vehicles will catch on anywhere in the country, in large part because the batteries and the installation of home recharging units are expensive.

Dan Sperling, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, estimated that a typical electric car battery would cost the automaker $12,000, and a 240-volt charging unit would cost a household at least $1,500.

Without huge subsidies, the reality is, these electric vehicles are not going to sweep the industry and become a major share of the market for a very long time, Mr. Sperling said.