Electric cars expected to charge into Palo Alto

With new models rolling out, residents prepare to buy electric vehicles and install chargers

Greg Bell is still waiting for his first electric vehicle, but when it arrives he won't have any trouble charging it up.

Bell is at the vanguard of what Palo Alto officials believe will be the next big trend for the city -- a push by residents to install charging systems in their homes. Last month, he became one of the first residents to receive a permit for a residential car charger. City officials believe he'll be far from the last.

Electric engines aren't new to Palo Alto, with fleets of Prius sedans constantly flowing through city streets, clusters of environmentalist engineers electrifying their conventional cars, and companies such as Tesla and Better Place leading the worldwide push to wean drivers off gasoline. The rollout of moderately priced sedans such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt in the next two months is expected to give this nascent field a major push and transform the niche market into a mainstream one.

Bell, who works as a website designer and shares his household with a wife, two children and a pair of traditional gas-powered cars, said he recently ordered a Leaf because he wanted an affordable and green option for short and mid-range drives. He noted that the Leaf would allow him to drive around for about 100 miles for just $3 or $4 in electric costs.

"People need to have an option other than depending on foreign oil, or any oil for that matter," Bell said. "I think electric cars are a great way for us to go green and get off oil."

Palo Alto officials expect their affluent and hyper-green city to be near the front of the pack and are bracing for an influx in applications for charging stations. Larry Perlin, the city's chief building official, said that while the city has received only a handful of applications thus far, the number of inquiries from the community has been picking up in recent weeks and said he expects the number of applications to start rising soon.

"There's no doubt that in Palo Alto electric cars will be in demand," Perlin said.

It also doesn't hurt that Palo Alto and its neighbors provide a home for legions of businesses and entrepreneurs specializing in electric vehicles and supporting technologies. Bell bought his vehicle charger -- a toaster-sized device that affixes to the wall and has a nozzle extending from its bottom, much like at a gas pump -- from Coulomb Technologies, a Campbell-based manufacturer of charging stations. For the permitting process, Bell drew on the expertise of Michael Mora, a Palo Alto resident who specializes in electric vehicles.

City officials hope its ongoing reforms will soon enable even laymen drivers with few connections in the high-tech world to get their residential chargers with ease. Perlin said the city is revising its applications to allow residents to get their permits after just one stop at the city's Development Center on Hamilton Avenue. Bell, as a test case, had a slightly more complex process and was forced to go back and forth a few times before he secured his permit.

The new application, Perlin said, would come with a handout that would tell residents exactly what type of information they will need to provide to receive their permits. The goal is to streamline the process and to remove the element of surprise.

"What we're trying to do is create a standardized, simple permit application form that could be downloaded and then all the information could be filled out and brought to the Development Center," Perlin said. "Ideally, for the residential charge stations we'd be able to review and approve those over the counter and people would be able to walk out the door with their permits at hand."

The simplified process would, however, only apply to basic Level 1 and Level 2 chargers -- which would enable residents to completely charge their vehicles in about eight to 10 hours (with Level 1, which is a basic wall outlet) or four to six hours (Level 2). Installing more powerful systems that could charge up a car in an hour or less would require additional hearings and reviews, Perlin said.

Bell, whose charger is Level 2, said it took him about two weeks to go through the process and get his charger installed. Now, he is on to the next step -- waiting for his new Leaf to arrive. With his son, David, about to turn 16, the timing for a new vehicle couldn't be better.

"I'm hoping he'll take his driving test in an electric car," Bell said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Leaf buyer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

Thank you for this article. I'm on the waiting list for a Leaf and was under the impression that the charger had to be purchased and installed by only one company. They came and gave me an estimate of over $2,000, which was discouraging since my electrical panel is right next to where I intend to install the 240v charger connection. Does anyone know if you can purchase the charger plug and have a regular electrician install it?

Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 12, 2010 at 11:41 am

Leaf buyer,

I have the same situation as you. I checked with Nissan, and they said that two companies, Coulomb Technologies (Web Link) and Ecotality (Web Link) are authorized EVSE providers. If you're able to figure out how to get them to do it cheaper than AeroEnvironment, please post something here. Some people are going to buy the equipment for $700-800, and pay an electrician to install it for a lot less than what Aeroenvironment is getting.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I heard on the radio a person in Redwood City will be the very first to receive a NISSAN Leaf.

Like this comment
Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 12, 2010 at 12:26 pm

But the future is where Best Place is:setting up a network where an electric vehicle will have its battery changed in about sixty seconds.

Like this comment
Posted by Hybrids only
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Electric cars - baaa humbug!!! How do you suppose the electricity for electric cars is generated, with coal fired generating plants? More of these plants will have to be built as more and more cars rely on electricity only for power.

it is far more energy efficient to drive a hybrid which generates it's own electricity as you drive.

I am amazed that so many people have been drawn into this electric car lie, as coal producers take your money to the bank.

Like this comment
Posted by Leaf buyer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2010 at 5:51 pm


Can we buy the equipment and hire an electrician to put it in? That's what I want to do, but Nissan has not responded to my inquiry. Have you talked with either of the companies about just buying the $750 charging box? Putting in the electrical line is no different than putting a circuit in for an electric dryer, so it's ridiculous to pay $1,500 just for that.

Like this comment
Posted by 100mpg
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 12, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Why is the EPA giving these electric cars 100mpg efficiency ratings? Compare that to your oil burning car. Large scale power plants can be made much more efficient than a single-use gasoline engine. And the electric companies don't have to use coal if they don't want to.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2010 at 6:45 pm

@Hybrids only: true, the Leaf and other electrics burn energy which in many parts of the US is generated by burning oil, and so, in those places, electrics have a higher carbon footprint than hybrids do.
Apparently not so in California, though. A study in Scientific American, The Dirty Truth about Plug-in Hybrids (June 2010, and available online), asserts that given California's current and projected sources for electricity, all-electrics produce 26% less carbon, and use 100% less oil, than gas/electric hybrids do.
See: Web Link.
Very informative site about charger, including video of actual inspection: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2010 at 5:32 am

"Hybrids only" -- you need to do some more research on this. But hey, nothing wrong with hybrids either.

I'm excited for the new all-electric owners-- definitely one of the waves of the future. Perfect for two-car families with short or moderate commutes.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

10 PM to 6 AM is the optimum time to charge vehicles without imposing an extra burden on the system. In fact, some utilities offer reduced rate for time limited charging. I question any quick charge, but some vehicles might lend themselves to a quick change. 60 seconds ain't gonna happen, though.

Like this comment
Posted by Leaf Blower
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2010 at 4:13 pm

What will happen to your CPAU energy-use ranking when you charge up your Leaf at home? Big Brother is not going to be happy when your ranking falls (like a leaf).

Like this comment
Posted by RonF
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2010 at 5:36 pm

@Mike Alexander
"@Hybrids only: true, the Leaf and other electrics burn energy which in many parts of the US is generated by burning oil, and so, in those places, electrics have a higher carbon footprint than hybrids do."

Not even remotely close to a truism!
Very little electricity is generated by burning oil.
See Web Link

James Wollsey and Anne Korin wrote on pg 36:
The unique strategic importance of oil to the modern economy stems from the fact that oil has a virtual monopoly in the global economy’s very enabler—the transportation sector (contrary to popular belief, at present only 2 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from oil, and conversely only about 2 percent of U.S. oil
demand is due to electricity generation.)

You can thank Jimmy Carter for "getting that right" after the 1979 Arab embargo.


Like this comment
Posted by Kristine
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Want to really be green? get an electric bike or motorcycle or more crazy, a normal bike.

Like this comment
Posted by EVer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 4:34 pm

First of all, standard hybrid cars (not the new plug in types) burn gasoline to move the car and charge a very small battery as a byproduct. Their economy comes from the occasional battery only operation (under 30 mph) and engine shut off when the car is stopped.
I drive one and am impressed by the economy. I also drive an all electric production Toyota RAV4. Its battery size and range are very similar to the Nissan Leaf.

Regular Internal Combustion Engined (ICE) vehicles get approximately 10% of the available energy out of a gallon of gasoline for forward motion. The rest is lost as heat and partially oxidized hydrocarbons. Contrast an electric vehicle that uses about 60% of the electric energy it consumes for forward motion. In addition, most production EV's have regenerative braking which harvests about 10% of forward momentum for braking.

Our California energy mix is a combination of hydro, wind, natural gas, nuclear, solar, Ag and muni waste, and coal. This isn't West Virginia.

The cost of an Electric Vehicle charger installation is the cost of the equipment plus the conduit and wire and their installation by a qualified electrician. Add to that, the PAlo Alto Process; that Byzantine trial that makes everything more complex than it has to be. It should be no more complicated than installing a dryer circuit. Not in Palo Alto. Your electrician must provide a drawing of the installation, get a permit, do the installation, and wait for around 2-4 hours on inspection day for the inspector to show up. Also, the City Fire Marshall requires an auxiliary switch that is not required by the National Electrical Code.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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