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The Electric Company

Richard Lowenthal is familiar with the “chicken and egg” argument. Consumers might want to buy electric cars but if they don’t have a private garage, where can they charge them? Others might want to install electric car chargers, but without a fleet of electric cars on the road right now, why bother? But Lowenthal says he’s not worried – and his California-based company, Coulomb Technologies, plans to be on the ground floor to provide charging stations. “These cars are coming,” Lowenthal says. And if – or when – they come to New York City – someone will have to figure out where and how to charge them.

After seeing statistics that indicate there are about 247 million cars on the nation’s roads, Lowenthal also noted that there were only about 54 million private – not commercial – garages. The entrepreneur saw a need. After all, apartment owners can’t simply dangle electric cords out their windows and string them to their cars blocks away, so the solution would be to get charging stations inside the parking garages.

The charging stations, about the size of a parking meter, work like this: a private garage owner or a condo- or co-op-owned garage would buy the charging station for about $2,000. Electric car drivers purchase a subscription from Coulomb Technologies and get a key fob that activates the charging station when their vehicle is plugged in. (The charging stations have a charging cord and they also work with car models that have their own cords.) Lowenthal says drivers can get a range of subscriptions depending on their needs and usage, but it would average about $570 a year. Drivers have access to their account information online and can receive notifications such as when their charge is low, when their car is charged and when is the best time of day to charge. The charging station owner gets 80 percent of the subscription fees, while Coulomb takes the rest for administrative costs. He estimates that a return on investment in about five years. “It’s very much like a coin-operated laundry or a vending machine,” he says.

Where taxes are concerned, buying a charging station can make sense. The $789 billion stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in February provides a 50 percent tax credit for individuals or companies that purchase electric car chargers in 2009 and 2010. That means that the charging stations offered by companies like Coulomb are essentially half-off. “Obama says he wants a million electric cars on the road by 2015,” says Lowenthal. “That’s a very good thing for us.”

Coulomb has placed about 100 charging stations around the nation, including some on the streets in San Francisco and others in municipal garages in San Jose. The goal is to install 1,000 by the end of the year. None are up and running yet in New York City. Jerry Reich, the northeast regional distributors for Coulomb and also the owner of Green Power Technology, says he hopes to change that soon. Reich has been talking about putting in charging stations with several private garage owners and city agencies. He says it is too soon to say who or where.

“In the past three or four months, word is starting to generate that we really need to get away from this oil dependency,” Reich says. “People are starting to look at this technology and see that it will work.”

He has not inked a deal with any provider of charging stations but Hector Chevalier, senior vice president of Central Parking’s northeast division, says he’s excited about the prospect. The parking giant owns, leases, or manages about 300 garages in the five boroughs.

“I’d like for us to be the first company to get with the program,” Chevalier says. “I think this will definitely be a system that people are going to move to. Especially in midtown Manhattan I think a lot of our customers will want to use electric cars.”

Central Parking has already shown green tendencies. It allows owners of the tiny Smart Cars to park for half price because of their diminutive size. “We’re always looking for ways to think outside of the box,” he says. Chevalier says buying charging stations would be good for the company to be a good “green” citizen, but it also would be a good business decision to lure electric car drivers to its garages.

“There is always a way to make money and do the right thing,” he says.

Andrew Grossman is the vice president of GGMC Parking, which owns, leases or manages about 45 garages in New York City, most of which are for co-op or condo residential parking. He says he can see the value to the environment, but it is difficult to justify. “It is going to be an expense,” he says. Electric cars, “may not take off.”

Additionally, with gas prices currently pretty stable, many drivers are not as eager to switch to an electric model. Once electric cars are on the road, Grossman says, the company will have to respond. “We’ll have to adapt, otherwise they’ll take their cars elsewhere,” he says. “My feeling is that there has to be a demand there before we make a move.”

Part of the issue with charging electric cars is that it takes time. Unlike gasoline, which can be loaded into a tank in a matter of minutes, it takes between four to eight hours to get a full charge. That means the best charging will take place when drivers are at home for the night or at work. Lowenthal says it is usually not difficult to install a charging station inside a parking garage. Most of them are already wired for electricity with lighting. Installation charges are about $200.

Lowenthal understands that the changeover “is driven now more by policy than need,” he says, adding that auto industry experts estimate that almost every carmaker will have some type of electric or plug-in hybrid model on the market in 2009 through 2011. According to a Morgan Stanley report from March 2008, there will be a projected 5,000 plug-in models in the U.S in 2010 and 100,000 by 2012.

Despite a sour economy that is making everyone tight-fisted and despite the fact that many people are skittish about investing in tomorrow’s technology, Lowenthal says he remains positive. “We are totally delusionally optimistic,” jokes Lowenthal.

He was a general manager for the software giant Cisco Systems and then spent about 10 years in local politics in his hometown. The company name comes from an 18th Century French physicist who developed what became known as “Coulomb’s law” – the definition of the electrostatic force of attraction and repulsion. (That’s the fancy term for the reason why a balloon will stick to your hair if you rub it on your head.)

“We’re the classic Silicon Valley start-up where we think we’re going to save the world and fix the economy,” he says. “The American consumer is switching from consumption as a way to measure success to conservation as a way to measure success. We feel like we’re right in the sweet spot.”

Maybe there are just some condos and co-ops out there who will feel the same way, too.

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