Charging electric cars about to get easier

In this northern New Jersey suburb alone, four public stations are slated to open in municipal parking lots by the end of November. Last month, New Jersey signed a pledge with nine other states and the District of Columbia to create a regional network of charging stations for electric vehicles so drivers can eventually travel the eastern seaboard from Maine to Maryland and recharge anywhere along the way.

"It will mean the world to electric cars," said Chuck Feinberg, chairman of New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, a non-profit group affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Northeast Electric Vehicle Network grew out of President Barack Obama’s Transport and Climate Initiative that promises to put 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. About 200,000 of those vehicles will be within the network’s region, which also includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Supporters of a regional charging network envision stations at malls, train stations, parking lots, rest stops and movie theaters.

Transportation accounts for about 30 percent of all greenhouse gases in the region, according to the Georgetown Climate Center.

Critics of electric vehicles point out that generating electricity also pollutes the air by burning coal, for example. Advocates of electric vehicles insist that electricity is still cleaner because it comes from a variety of sources including nuclear, solar and wind power.

By 2017, the New York Metro area will lead the nation in electric vehicle sales, according to Pike Research, an environmental research group.

But its infrastructure has a long way to go to support that demand. With the new Montclair stations, New Jersey has only about 20 charging stations. New York State has 70, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

A minuscule number of the vehicles on the road today are plug-in electric, and finding one to buy is not easy. Many models are sold in limited quantities.

The Nissan Leaf, an all-electric model, is only available in a handful of states. Until recently, buyers could not even reserve one in New Jersey and it still is not sold in the state.

Ford will sell a limited number of its all-electric Focus beginning next year. And the Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid on the road, will begin selling its plug-in model next year in 14 states, including New Jersey.

Logistics also are difficult. Drivers of electric vehicles who want to travel further than their battery allows — the Leaf can drive about 80 to 100 miles on a single charge — need a station.

It takes about 8 hours to fully charge a Leaf with the kind of equipment available in Montclair. The technology for rapid chargers, which could recharge a battery in a matter of minutes, is not commercially available yet.

Funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the network will spend next year deciding where to put the stations and how many are needed.

"Having the infrastructure in place is critical for driving demand," said Andrea Friedman, a policy analyst at the New Jersey Department of Energy.

New Jersey does not plan to invest its own money in the program. It will rely on the private sector to build the stations, which cost about $5,000. Montclair paid for its stations with a $25,000 grant from Sustainable Jersey.

Drivers pulling up to the charging station will pay by credit card or a monthly subscription, with rates determined by the market. In Montclair, drivers will pay $2 or $3 an hour to charge their vehicles compared to the 30 cents they would pay at home for the same amount of electricity, according to Plug-In America, an advocacy group.