With state-funded charging stations, Cuomo gives electric cars a modest push toward critical mass

An Oregon EV-charging station. (OregonDOT via Flickr)
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Electric-car drivers may be risk-taking early adopters, the sort of people for whom hybrids are old hat. But many of them are also afflicted by something called “range anxiety”: the fear of stranding by depleted battery, without a charging station in sight.

“All drivers are afraid of being stranded, even though it’s not actually happening,” said Roger Anderson, a senior research scholar in Columbia Engineering's Center for Computational Learning Systems.

AAA is tackling the issue with electric-vehicle charging trucks that can be dispatched to stranded drivers.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the federal government  recently took a small step toward making electric-car ownership in New York less frightening, and more feasible, with the funding of 325 new electric-vehicle charging stations statewide.

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That’s not a huge number. California has more than 1,200, according to the San-Francisco-based charger manufacturer ECOtality. So does Paris.

Nor, at an initial outlay of $4.4 million, is it a particularly large public commitment.

But it does represent the sort of infrastructure investment that’s going to be necessary to popularize electric cars, or at least make them more commercially feasible for manufacturers and, in turn, cheaper for consumers.

That's particularly true in the northeast, where electric cars have been slower to catch on than in what Colin Read, ECOtality's vice president for corporate development, calls the "Birkenstock Belt," from Oregon down the west coast to California, and then east through Texas to Florida.

ECOtality won more than $100 million in federal grants to manage the EV Project, which is deploying more than 12,000 chargers nationwide, none planned for New York.

"The more chargers you put out there, the more comfortable people are with driving their vehicles longer range," said Read.

But, he also said, "In reality we need cars on the road to justify putting chargers out there."

Today, most electric cars come with home charging stations. But their range is, obviously, limited, and most require more than six hours to recharge.

Which is why charging stations are generally located in places like parking garages and shopping malls.

Right now, there are about 200 charging stations in New York State, about 70 of them in the five boroughs. The Cuomo initiative will bring that up to more than 500.

Soon, his administration will begin a second round of funding, totaling $4 million.

“He’s taken away the obstacle of where do you charge up," said Lou Riccio, a professor at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. "And if you’re going to go distances, do you feel comfortable."