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Originally published September 30, 2009 at 3:22 PM | Page modified October 1, 2009 at 9:16 PM

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Guest columnist

Northwest is poised to lead in developing electric-car transition

Puget Sound and the Northwest is poised to be a leader in developing infrastructure to support electric vehicles, writes guest columnist Steve Marshall of the Cascadia Center. Such a transition will reduce carbon emissions while supporting goals of U.S. energy independence.

Special to The Times

CARS that run on electricity have made it to prime time. The new Jay Leno Show featured an all-electric Ford Focus in a challenge race. Drew Barrymore drove the battery-powered Ford around a track next to the NBC studio setting the pace for others to come.

For most viewers, this was the first time they saw an all-electric car in action. And instead of a tiny, underpowered car, they saw a normal-looking, five-passenger car speed through turns.

Leno has, in effect, made a public-service announcement: Cars that run on electricity are real and will help the economy, national security and the environment.

The Northwest is also getting ready to take a prime-time role in helping to accelerate and integrate this technology. Environmental and business leaders will gather next month in Redmond to think through the infrastructure needs to support it.

Last year the U.S. economy went into a tailspin, in part because we were spending over a billion dollars a day to buy foreign oil. Although the recession slashed oil prices, they are creeping back up. In August, the U.S. spent more than $25 billion to buy foreign oil.

In his first week in office, President Obama said, "America's dependence on oil is one of the most serious threats that our nation has faced. It bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation, and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism."

Replacing oil with electricity in transportation may be the best solution reasonably at hand.

In August, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $2.4 billion in grants for plug-in technologies. Most of the funding will go to advanced car-battery research. But some will also be heading to the Northwest in part because of some farsighted early efforts.

In 2007, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) partnered with several Puget Sound agencies to convert 17 Prius cars into plug-in cars. INL, part of the Energy Department, collected data to see if the technology had a future. It did.

Now eTec, a company that makes charging stations, and Nissan just won a $100 million federal grant with help from INL that will be used in five regions, including Seattle and Portland. In each region, eTec will install charging stations in the homes of a thousand buyers of the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Another 1,500 public charging stations will enable drivers to recharge at places such as park-and-ride lots.

The Puget Sound region also won a separate grant of $15 million for the Clean Cities petroleum-reduction project.

This and other federal funding can help establish the Northwest as a national leader in replacing foreign oil with domestic power. Experts and policymakers will discuss next steps at an Oct. 23-24 conference at Microsoft's Conference Center.

One such step is to transform park-and-ride lots into high-tech mobility hubs that can help reduce traffic congestion with advanced transportation options and help connect the plug-in cars to a smart power grid. A group called the Puget Sound New Energy Solutions and others are working with federal officials including Ron Sims, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to link these concepts to the federal Sustainable Communities Initiative.

One thing is clear: We need to move faster. Business as usual, as President Obama put it, means the United States will continue to borrow money from China to pay Saudi Arabia for fuel to move gas guzzlers down American roads.

Steve Marshall is a senior fellow at the Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute. For details on the Oct. 23-24 conference, see www.cascadiaproject.org

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