The Trouble With Electric Cars 

Plug-in vehicles may remain little more than a novelty until cities begin making it easier for motorists to recharge their batteries at home.

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The stations operate on smart, networked technology that eliminates the need for assigned parking spaces in apartment garages and lots. That's because anyone can use the stations as long as they have a Coulomb smart card, which is similar to the FasTrak pass used on Bay Area bridges, explained company co-founder Praveen Mandal.

Each smart card turns on the charging station and every card is unique to each motorist. That way, no one can steal electricity. And if some thief were to swipe your card, it automatically sends your cell phone a text message letting you know exactly where your card is being used. Then, at end of each month, Coulomb sends you a bill. "From our perspective, if you don't have a charging station, you're not going to have an incentive to buy an electric car," Mandal said.

Because electricity is a heavily regulated commodity, Coulomb, which is named after an 18th-century French physicist, doesn't actually sell the electricity. Likewise, apartment owners who purchase the stations also are prohibited from actually selling the electricity to their tenants. Instead, they can do what Coulomb does — charge for using the equipment, making sure to set a price that also covers their own electrical bills.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to award full approval to Coulomb's technology soon. Currently, the company's charging stations are operating in a sort of gray area of the law. The company markets both 110/120-volt and 220/240-volt charging stations. However, the higher-voltage device presents many of the same wiring issues faced by homeowners. Older apartment buildings may need significant electrical upgrades to accommodate the 220/240-volt stations.

Plug-in advocates, meanwhile, want cities to not only devise permitting processes for apartment and condo charging stations, but also to require that new buildings accommodate the needed wiring — once the real estate market rebounds. "It's really a pretty cheap thing to do," said Mattila of "When you have it in your plans, it's just laying wire."

Coulomb also recently introduced what's known as a Level Three station — which can recharge an electric car's battery to 80 percent of capacity in about 15 minutes. Because the stations operate on the equivalent of about 480 volts, they're not suitable for homes without significant electrical upgrades. Currently, they're designed for private or city-owned parking lots, or ultimately, in large, standalone facilities that resemble gas stations. Coulomb's single charging stations in Walnut Creek are at 1350 Locust Street, 1625 North Locust Street, 1390 North Broadway, and 2700 Mitchell Drive. In Pleasant Hill, they're at 100 Gregory Lane and 310 Civic Drive.

Nissan also recently won a $100 million federal grant with eTec, an Arizona-based company, to develop larger standalone facilities around the nation. However, the test markets do not include the Bay Area.

So where does that leave people like Mary Goulart who have to park on the street? At this point it makes no sense for them to buy plug-in cars until they can juice up at large charging stations, or until cities find a way to let them do it on the street in front of their homes.

And the solution may not be that difficult. For one, cities could require that curbside outlet boxes include lockable covers. In addition, they could require homeowners to indemnify cities if someone were to break into the box and be injured or start a fire. "We have a lot of smart people in Berkeley, we should be able to figure it out," Councilwoman Wengraf said.

As for Goulart, she hasn't given up on being green. After tearing out the parking pad and outlet box, she decided to run an orange electrical cord from her home, over her front fence, and through a city-owned tree next to the curb, so she can plug in her converted Prius each night. So far, city inspectors have turned a blind eye to it, and she hopes they will continue to do so. "I just have a bug up my butt about my carbon footprint," she said.

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