With its scheduled release in late 2010, the Chevy Volt is expected to be the first mass-produced all-electric vehicle in the U.S.
Courtesy GM With its scheduled release in late 2010, the Chevy Volt is expected to be the first mass-produced all-electric vehicle in the U.S.

While electric cars have been around for years, a number of circumstances—from evolving technology to conspiracy theories over “who killed” them—had cemented them as an early-adopter-only option. But GM’s recent announcement that the Chevy Volt will hit the showroom floor by the end of 2010 likely made many Americans sit up and take notice. With other major manufacturers working on similar initiatives—and fuel costs unstable—it looks like the electric car may finally be making its way into the mainstream. “The technology has matured, the environmental concerns have brought this to the forefront, and then there’s the ongoing question of energy availability,” confirms Bill Moore, editor-in-chief of EV World, an online publication covering policies and technologies surrounding sustainable transportation.

On full charge, the Chevy Volt will run for 40 miles on battery power, which means a typical commuter can travel all week to and from work without using any gas; when running on electric power, the car produces no tailpipe emissions. The vehicle’s extended-range mode utilizes gas to provide an additional 300 miles for longer trips. GM places the car’s MPG at 230 and estimates the Volt will consume 25 kWh—an estimated $2.75—for every 100 miles.

Not far behind, Ford plans to have its all-electric Focus available in 2011. Among the other major car makers, Nissan expects to release the Leaf, an all-electric model with 100 miles per charge, in late 2012. Toyota also is targeting 2012 for its plug-in model, and Honda is planning a 2015 launch, according to various news reports.

In anticipation of these mainstream rollouts and the vehicles’ likely popularity, a number of cities are developing or are already implementing plans for charging stations and buying incentives.

New-home builders should be planning ahead, as well, to ensure the garages of the houses they sell are ready if and when future occupants choose to go the plug-in route. Single-family builders will only need to make minor modifications, if any; multifamily developers have some heftier considerations. “If we’re not ready to get buildings outfitted today, there’s going to be a lot of incurred costs later on,” says Britta Gross, director of global energy systems and infrastructure commercialization for GM.

To make electric cars acceptable to mainstream users, ease of use is essential: The Volt simply plugs into a three-pronged outlet via an extension cord. According to Gross, the Volt charges in eight hours on a 120-volt/15-amp outlet or in about three hours on a 240-volt/30-amp outlet. Though most single-family garages already contain a 120-volt outlet, forward-thinking builders should consider installing a 240-volt outlet no more than 25 feet from cars and providing a dedicated circuit.

Like GM, Ford also recommends having a dedicated 240-volt line to the garage, with 80 to 100 amps to meet the needs of two cars at 40 amps apiece. Ford will require the installation of a “charge point,” a box that is hard-wired into the home that contains the cord and ensures the cord isn’t charged unless it’s plugged into the car. Ford says it is working to make it as easy as possible on the customer, including providing an option to have the box installed upon purchasing its plug-in Focus.

Architect Eric Hughes is one designer anticipating an electric-car craze; already committed to future-proofing his homes by prewiring for solar and incorporating barrier-free details, Hughes specifies plug-ins for each bay of his garages, with a center-mounted 240-volt and 120-volt outlet in case the requirements of future cars vary.

“I always try to think of the future with everything I do,” says Hughes, owner of Image Design in East Grand Rapids, Mich. “People pay me to design a home that will last, so it’s my job to show them all the future technologies and try to incorporate it now.”

The 250-unit Cosmo high rise in Vancouver, the first to include 20% of its parking outfitted for electric cars, is scheduled for completion in Fall 2011.
Courtesy Concord Pacific The 250-unit Cosmo high rise in Vancouver, the first to include 20% of its parking outfitted for electric cars, is scheduled for completion in Fall 2011.

For multifamily buildings with underground garages, Gross recommends installing a 240-volt outlet at each stall, along with appropriate upgraded transformers, or at least having some dedicated spaces that can be assigned to drivers of electric vehicles. “Multifamily residences last decades if not a century, so … getting these buildings ready is key because without it we’re going to stall or at least not motivate people to transition to electric vehicles,” she says. Determining how many parking spaces to accommodate is still a little difficult to determine. In Vancouver, the number stands at 20%, per a new building standard requiring new multifamily projects to include wiring for vehicle charging in a minimum of one in five parking stalls. Each building’s electrical capacity must be able to accommodate a load created if each of those stalls were in use simultaneously. “The incremental costs of doing it in the design stage is so much lower than having to retrofit,” says John Stonier, spokesperson for the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, which introduced the proposal to the city.

“Consumers … expect a plug for the dryer and stove, and in very short order, they’re going to expect an outlet in their garage,” says Stonier. “It’s not a big stretch to do this, and it doesn’t cost very much to do this.”

Vancouver developer Concord Pacific recently announced its Cosmo downtown high-rise will be the first in the city to outfit 20% of its parking stalls with charging stations. Of the 230 units sold so far, 18% have also purchased the upgraded parking stalls for $2,500; in stronger economic times, the spaces will likely be sold for around $4,500 to $5,000.

“We believed that it was going to become a requirement for Vancouver,” says Peter Webb, senior vice president of development for Concord Pacific. “And we believe it’s going to be an important aspect of marketing future projects.”

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.