A Car Charging Infrastructure Takes Shape

Having shipped hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations, and with repeat orders now coming in from Europe, Coulomb Technologies, a privately-held Silicon Valley company, expects to be profitable by the 2010 introduction of the Chevy Volt, according to its chief executive, Richard Lowenthal.

(Mr. Lowenthal appears in the video above, explaining the company’s ChargePoint Network.)

“Our plan was to sell a thousand stations, but we will probably double that,” he told Green Inc. last week after the company secured its third Bay Area order this year. “Our company is structured to be profitable based on early adopters.”

Founded in 2007, Coulomb is looking to crack the chicken-and-egg riddle that bedeviled the hydrogen fuel cell industry. Without a refueling infrastructure, consumers won’t buy vehicles. But no one invested in refueling stations without potential customers on the road.

“It is a very fundamental issue for the business,” Mr. Lowenthal said. “What do you do about the road trip?”

With electric vehicles, the additional problem is that in cities like San Francisco, where almost half of all vehicles park on the city’s streets, many potential buyers couldn’t recharge their cars overnight.

Mr. Lowenthal, a Cisco veteran who served as mayor of Cupertino, said that municipalities, parking companies and condo developers represent the first tranche of customers for charge points that will be deployed on city streets and in garages. They sell for $2,500 to $4,000 and can recharge an electric vehicle battery in four to ten hours.

In what might shape up to be the VHS/Betamax duel of the industry, a Coulomb rival, Better Place of Palo Alto, is looking to develop refueling stations where consumers on road trips can swap batteries in a matter of minutes. Still other companies are building rapid recharge points.

Outside the Bay Area, Coulomb has sold charge points in Boston and Chicago, as well as Florida, New York and Hawaii. Mr. Lowenthal said many municipalities have used grants from the $400 million in stimulus funding earmarked to help cities develop an electric vehicle infrastructure.

Coulomb’s European distributor is the 365 Energy Group, a German company that has sold hundreds of units in Amsterdam and Germany.

Mr. Lowenthal predicted the next three years would define the nascent charging station industry. By 2012, he said, the car industry will have an understanding of the early adoption rate for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

But 2012 is also the year London hosts the summer Olympics, by which pointMayor Boris Johnson has said he wants to be in the process of deploying up to 25,000 charge points around the city, offering a mix of recharging speeds.

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