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Feds revving up electric car fleet

Nov. 13, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
The Chevrolet Volt, shown above, is one of the contenders to fill GSA's solicitation for 100 electric vehicles.
The Chevrolet Volt, shown above, is one of the contenders to fill GSA's solicitation for 100 electric vehicles. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)

Agencies are laying the groundwork to purchase more all-electric cars and to build charging stations to fuel them.

The General Services Administration has a solicitation out for 100 electric vehicles and could decide on its purchases before the end of December. Contenders include the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf and the Wheego LiFe, all of which are just beginning production.

Federal managers can already purchase electric-vehicle charging equipment off the GSA schedule, a move the agency made in September.

And GSA currently is soliciting comments from across industry on how to best provide maintenance services to electric vehicles.

Agencies now use electric cars mostly for testing or in small, isolated groups. The military, for example, leases thousands of low-speed electric vehicles for use on bases and facilities. But with the cars on the GSA schedule, procurement managers can purchase them for everyday use.

Electric cars tend to have a higher cost, and can go only limited distances between charges, but they do not emit carbon dioxide and other gases while in use ideal for agencies trying to reach emission reduction targets laid out by President Obama.

Obama's goal is 1 million electric vehicles in use across America by 2015.

Setting up the charging infrastructure needs to happen simultaneously with vehicle purchases, said Dave Packard, president of ClipperCreek of Auburn, Calif. Its charging stations, manufactured in consultation with Thompson Engineering, sell for $2,720 each.

Electric cars can go only 80 to 200 miles before they need another charge, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes to overnight, depending on the charge of the station.

Packard said he has gotten interest from federal agencies and the military, and he said that interest will only grow once early adopters show how low the maintenance and operating costs can be.

The 100 cars GSA is soliciting would only be a small part of its more than 200,000 vehicle fleet, which it leases to other agencies. But industry hopes the government's early investment will increase the public's purchase of electric cars.

Genevieve Cullen, vice president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, said GSA's request for bids is an important step.

"It sends an important signal to consumers about the reliability and superior performance of these vehicles," she said.

The government is also supporting investment in electric cars and charging stations through the Recovery Act. About $330 million in funding in grants to cities, states and private corporations will put more than 13,000 electric vehicles and 20,000 chargers in 20 cities across the country.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is partnering with one of the stimulus recipients, Ecotality, to install solar-powered charging stations at 125 locations in Tennessee. Overall, Ecotality plans to install 2,500 chargers in commercial areas and in homes before the end of 2012, paid for with more than $100 million in government funding.

TVA has three electric vehicles of its own and plans to buy more for testing as the charging infrastructure expands, TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said.

The Energy Department is also pumping up its electric fleet from 110 hybrid electric vehicles in fiscal 2009 to 866 hybrid electric cars and trucks in fiscal 2010.

It has charging stations at its Washington headquarters and at its offices in nearby Germantown, Md., where employees can also charge their personal electric cars.

The U.S. Postal Service also has pushed to add electric vehicles to its 210,000-vehicle fleet, one of the largest in the country. It currently has 30 fully electric vans in operation in New York and has 914 hybrid electric cars across the country.

It operates about 12 smaller three-wheeled electric carts in California, Arizona and Florida. Sam Pulcrano, vice president of sustainability at the Postal Service, said these carts only cost 2 cents a mile to operate.

Now the Postal Service is building and testing a prototype electric vehicle to replace its mail trucks. It has contracted with five companies for five prototypes, which it hopes to begin testing early next year.

David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the federal government has a role to play in safety and other aspects of electric vehicles, including proper disposal of the lithium-ion batteries that propel them.

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