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June 13, 2013

Annual Electric Vehicle Symposium Highlights Early Success

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For electric vehicles, it's only the beginning.

That was the takeaway at last week's third annual EV symposium in Palo Alto, hosted by SAP and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. More than 250 people attended, and plug-in vehicles of several models filled the parking lot outside, including a Ford Fusion, Tesla Model S, and the Mini E. (A Honda Fit EV was supposed to be there, too, but it was sold that morning!)

Palo Alto is a suitable location for this event. Mayor Greg Scharff heaped praise on his city, saying that alternative fuel vehicles have helped the city decrease emissions by more than 20 percent in 2012. "Within a two-block radius of my house, there are five Teslas. Leafs, Volts, and Teslas are everywhere here," he said. California in particular is leading the charge, so to speak. The state adopted a goal of 1.5 million plug-ins on the road by 2025, which is projected to reduce carbon emissions by 1 million metric tons.

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Since last year's event, the plug-in industry has grown healthily. Last month, U.S. sales of hybrids and plug-ins jumped 30 percent from May 2012. Tesla recently announced it is tripling its Supercharger network. And with so many models available, auto companies are responding to the demand and competition by making them more affordable than ever, especially when considering monthly lease and/or fueling costs. "For the first time, electric vehicles are penciling out cheaper than their gas-powered counterparts," reported the Los Angeles Times.

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But speakers at the event said that EVs -- and the technology, such as vehicle-to-grid connectivity -- have a long way to go. Mike Calise, a director with Schneider Electric, said that the EV industry is in the second inning of a nine-inning ball game. When asked what the next big benchmark for plug-in success will be, he answered that it’ll happen when workers start asking their employers for accommodations. "The next stepping stone will be when a lot of people will show up to work asking, 'Why aren't you letting me charge here?'"

Workplace charging was the topic of one of the panels. There are several incentives for employers to provide chargers: they accommodate long-distance commuters, add flexibility for workers who take side trips, contribute to infrastructure, encourage more workers to adopt EVs, promote a green image for company, and, of course, reduce climate-changing emissions.

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Maeanna Glenn, a projects manager with startup company Evernote, detailed how her office partnered with Nissan and ECOtality in providing chargers and perks for employees who drive plug-ins for their commute. She maintains a Google group with her office's EV drivers and coordinates a "charging calendar."

Fleet managers were also at the event. Richard Battersby, who heads the fleet for UC Davis and coordinates the East Bay Clean Cities Coalition, said re-sale rates are a big incentive, especially when considering total cost of ownership. Rick Teebay manages a fleet of 14,000 for the county of Los Angeles that uses 14 million gallons of gas a year. He said he discovered that the commute for county employees averages 24 miles one way.

"As important as our fleet is, I think it's equally important to realize what’s driving our emissions," he said. "If we can put in infrastructure, they will drive electric miles and drastically reduce emissions. Enabling employees to plug in is critical."

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Because of the industry's promising outlook, panel speakers and attendees seemed as excited as ever. The symposium reinforced the fact that green fleets and transportation is not just a winner for the planet, but also for the economy. Electric vehicles generate jobs, save money for consumers, and drastically reduce the country's dependence on oil. Future gatherings of car innovators and EV early adopters will no doubt continue to focus on how to catalyze the momentum and propel the industry into the mainstream.  

-- Brian Foley

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