Are E-Car Charging Stations The Next Must-have Amenity?

Could recharging stations for electric cars be the next must-have accessory in upscale housing, now that wine cellars and bathrooms the size of some apartments are out of vogue?

Could be. Electric cars are all the rage at this week's auto show in Detroit. Manufacturers plan to roll out three models in the next three years.

Beyond the Motor City, the Obama administration seems serious about getting a million of these things on the road in the next five years. A McKinsey and Co. study announced this week by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg predicts that up to 15 percent of new cars in the Big Apple might be electric in that same time frame.

Problem is, all of those electric car batteries need to be recharged, and that requires infrastructure, in the form of a network of charging stations.
Tesla Motors, an early leader in making electric cars in the US, and competitor Better Place are investing heavily in battery-swapping and charging stations to tap electricity. So, will widespread adoption just add another income stream to gas station owners who diversify? Maybe not. The McKinsey study said consumers might well see freedom from gas stations as a reason to shell out for an early model. Moreover, ease of use and the economics of electricity both favor widely scattered sites for charging e-cars.

In London (pictured), they recharge cars at public stations that sit curbside. Onion Flats, a Philadelphia architect-developer included on-street charging stations in sketches for projects now underway in the firm's home city. Presuming that the early adopters will be the most status-conscious and deep-pocketed consumers (remember all those Hollywood celebs scooping up Hybrid SUVs?) one can imagine a time not far off when developers make access to charging stations a selling point when marketing high end condos and co-ops in New York, San Francisco and other well-heeled, progressive cities.

But think even more widely scattered than that: Tesla stresses how easy it is to juice up one of its cars at home. It compares a car to a cellphone or a clothes dryer. Moreover, alternative energy makes sense for powering electric cars-it feeds into the eco-orientation early buyers will likely have and mitigates the added stress that e-cars will put on the power grid. Alternative energy can come from alternative places – like homes.

Eventually battery technology will evolve, prices will drop and the trend will trickle out to the suburbs, where people increasingly like small, fuel-efficient cars for commuting and running errands. And where they have roomy driveways and garages for experimenting with things like solar panels.

SolarCity, which sells home charging stations for the Tesla, reckons a solar installation for an entire house would cost $16,500 after government rebates. Presumably, an array that only powers a car would cost much less, say around $5,000. If you figure that the average American drives 12,000 miles per year, spends $2.60 per gallon and get 20 miles to the gallon, then the owner of an electric car starts pocketing what he would be spending on gas in less than four years. And if homeowners want to pay for the prestige of an e-car, it stands to reason that they would pay for the privacy and eco-cred of being able to charge it up with alternative energy tied to their houses.

We're probably a long way a way from homeowners forfeiting sale value if they don't have e-car charging station in their driveway, but not as far away as you might think from the day that having such a power source adds value – or at least saleability. It's easy to see forward-thinking developers adding this feature as a perk to distinguish their housing cluster from the one down the road.

It's not as sexy as an oversize Jacuzzi tub, but it's way more useful -- and kinda cool.

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