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Tampa Bay leaders rally around promise of electric vehicles

Lamenting the impact of the BP gulf oil spill and calling for cuts in the U.S. dependence on oil, Tampa Bay political and electric utility leaders, auto executives and energy advocates gathered Tuesday to offer up a metrowide Kumbaya for the coming wave of electric vehicles.

The event, held outside Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, was a largely symbolic promise that Tampa Bay aims to rank among metro areas best prepared to provide a viable infrastructure for electric cars and trucks. That includes enlightened government permitting, installation of public charging stations for electric vehicles, and smart-grid technology from area electric utilities to handle the coming increase in electricity demand for recharging the batteries of electric vehicles.

Among many speakers, Progress Energy Florida chief Vinny Dolan best summed up why fast-tracking electric vehicles makes sense.

In time, they will lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

They will run on more stable and lower fuel costs.

And overall, they will improve air quality.

"It's a triple win," Dolan concluded. It's probably a quadruple win because the greater the market for electric vehicles, the larger the demand for electricity from St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Florida, Tampa's TECO Energy and Miami's Florida Power & Light. That's one reason all three companies appeared at this celebration of the electric vehicle.

Tuesday's event was part of Project Get Ready Tampa Bay, a regional collaboration of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, local government, the three big utilities and the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado group promoting efficient and sustainable energy sources.

"Tampa Bay is among leaders in the country such as Houston, Kansas City, Raleigh and Indianapolis that are debunking the myth that plug-in electric vehicles will be ushered in only by densely populated cities or on the West Coast," said Project Get Ready manager Matt Mattila, who spoke at the event. Some experts expect electric vehicles to be 10 percent of the global car market by 2020.

Mainstreaming electric vehicles here will be a tough task. "We have never transitioned this country to an alternative fuel," warned General Motors' Britta Gross, manager of hydrogen and electrical infrastructure development, who brought along a Chevy Volt.

Electric utilities must prepare for rising electricity demand, not only at night when most electric cars will recharge. TECO already is exploring what happens if recharging overlaps with morning peaks in electricity demand.

And then there are the car companies themselves. Two mass-market cars, in particular, will soon be available.

Gross called the Chevy Volt on hand GM's "best shot" at an electric vehicle. She indicated the Volt (first 40 miles run on electric battery, then a gas engine helps for the next 260 miles per tank) goes on sale late this year; though, when asked for details, she said the Volt will appear only in three markets at first. None are in Florida. Bare-bones price? About $40,000.

The all-electric Nissan Leaf (can travel 100 miles, priced as low as $25,000 with government incentives) is the most affordable mass-production electric vehicle to date. It first hits the market in December in five states, though Florida must wait until early 2011. A $99 deposit puts you on the Leaf reservation list, with 14,000 reserved so far in this country.

It's among the first mass-made cars that first requires an electrician to visit your home and make sure your electrical system is up to snuff to handle a recharge.

More than three quarters of drivers travel fewer than 40 miles a day. That's a distance already within reach of today's electric vehicles.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay leaders rally around promise of electric vehicles 06/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 8:23pm]
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