5 start-ups hoping to kickstart electric vehicle charging infrastructure

One of the biggest sticking points in the adoption of electric vehicles has been the availability of their "fuel" source: charging stations. To date, most of the charging has been done in individual garages.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

One of the biggest sticking points in the adoption of electric vehicles has been the availability of their "fuel" source: charging stations. To date, most of the charging has been done in individual garages. This problem is being tackled by all manner of start-ups and established automotive companies, of course, including the highly visible Better Place, founded and led by charismatic former SAP executive Shai Agassi.

Better Place, from Palo Alto, Calif., is testing charging stations, such as the one to the right below, which could be installed in parking lots. But, the company is also testing other approaches, such as the idea of switching out batteries, so you don't have to wait for a charge. The latter concept is part of a new trial with taxis in Japan.

But although it is a master at publicity, Better Place has plenty of competition, many of which are certain to vie for some of the electric vehicle charging infrastructure test projects that would be funded by the American Power Act if the legislation passes. Here are five OTHER companies to watch (in no particular order) when it comes to the great (maybe) electric vehicle infrastructure rollout.

1. Car Charging Group

Based out of Miami, Car Charging Group is a publicly traded company that seeks to establish a public electric charging infrastructure. Andy Kinard, the company's president, recently told me that under Car Charging Group's business model, the chargers are installed at no charge to the host, typically under a revenue-sharing arrangement. The idea is that having a charging infrastructure in place will attract potential customers.

Car Charging uses ChargePoint technology developed by Coulomb Technologies. One of the toughest challenges has been to figure out a fee structure, Kinard says: Does one charge by the kilowatt-hour or use a flat rate? The first three projects were supposed to be commissioned in late May, and Car Charging is targeting Florida and New York malls, condominium complexes, office parks, and public parking garages as potential service locations.

"The smart charger is the one that people can find," Kinard says. "A dumb charger is one that you would put in your own garage."

2. Coulomb Technologies

While we're at it, Coulomb, based in Campbell, Calif., is definitely a company that you should put on your RSS feeds, if you're keeping tabs on electric vehicle infrastructure. That's because the company is building a network of distributors across the United States that are using its networked charging technology. Just last week, in fact, the company said the first station to be installed as part of its $37 million ChargePoint America program is in Orlando, Fla., where hundreds of other private and public stations are planned. The company hopes to build out approximately 5,000 stations in nine major metropolitan areas as part of the program. Those areas are Austin, Texas; Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Sacramento, Calif.; San Jose, Calif.; the Bellevue and Redmond areas in Washington state; and Washington, D.C. One other thing that's kind of cool. Coulomb has a Web site where you can locate its charging stations, and it also has created an iPhone application. As of this week, Coulomb had shipped more than 700 charging units to more than 130 customers.

3. ECOtality North America (formerly eTec)

ECOtality of Tempe, Ariz.., claims to have installed more than 5,500 charging stations that are used for on-road electric vehicles, and in airline, marine and transit applications. It has roughly 400 charging stations for on-road vehicles (which I think is a fancy way of saying stations that are available to the public). Its big pitch is the fact that it offers several different levels of charging systems, some of which can charge an electric vehicle in as little as four hours. It also has a fast charger called the Minit-Charger that provides a charge in just 15 minutes, although current applications aren't focused on on-road usage.

4. SunPods

Another company to watch is SunPods, a San Jose, Calif., company that has developed what is essentially a portable (if you will) charging station that is powered by solar energy.

SunPods recently demoed its SP-300 Plug 'N Go Solar Charging station at Fort Bliss in Texas. The U.S. army is studying various options that would give the military flexibility far afield with off-road electric vehicles, hybrids and utility vehicles.

5. Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt

OK, so Nissan isn't exactly a start-up. Neither is Chevrolet. But both are set to make waves when it comes to the availability of affordable electric vehicles with the LEAF and Volt, respectively. That's because certain lucky owners of either vehicle might qualify for free charging stations being funded by the EV Project, an initiative backed by the likes of ECOtality (see above) and the U.S. Department of Energy. Nissan's "zero emission" LEAF is due in fall 2010, while the Chevy Volt is scheduled for a 2011 model year release.

I'll leave you with one other resource to read about electric vehicle infrastructure: an interview by one of my blogging colleagues at Smart Planet with Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Melanie Kaplan talks to Wynne about anticipated deployments over the next few years, and why we can't ignore China.

Editorial standards