Electric vehicle hype bigger than investment

Electric vehicle hype bigger than investment

0910_ATS15
The nation's first high-speed charging station opened in Portland last month. // PHOTO COURTESY OF NISSAN

It was a glamorous press conference for an underground parking garage. Gov. Ted Kulongoski wore a pink tie and shared the stage at the August event with executives from Portland General Electric, Nissan and NEC to promote the nation’s first quick-charge station for electric vehicles, built by NEC underneath PGE’s Portland headquarters. Kulongoski praised the charger as “another critical step in the transition” from fossil fuels to EVs, and then zipped out for a test drive of the new Nissan Leaf.

With state support, PGE, Nissan and other businesses are building a network of charging stations from Portland to Eugene in preparation for a flurry of purchases once the latest EVs arrive. Oregon is also one of five states sharing in a $100 million federal grant to expand EV business and collect market data from drivers.

But there’s more to leading the transition to electric vehicles than buying the latest Nissan. Major local investments from Norwegian carmaker Think Global and Chinese battery giant BYD have fallen through, and EV startups from Portland to Eugene to Ashland are struggling to get rolling.

In Northwest Portland, Porteon CEO Ken Montler has a light prototype that maxes out at 35 mph for around-town trips. He hopes to manufacture in Portland once he secures funding. “There’s a whole lot of interest here in Oregon, but you need investors,” he says.

The same applies for Arcimoto, the Eugene-based designer of a three-wheeled EV called the Pulse. The nine-employee company has received a few dozen $500 deposits through its website but needs backing to crank out its first 500 cars in 2011 as planned. Arcimoto CEO Mark Frohnmayer is looking for “early-stage investors whose portfolio strategy includes doing well by saving the planet.”

Ambiente Motors founder Melissa Brandao has a similar pitch but a different plan. She’s trying to raise money for a design and marketing center in Ashland while a sister company in Brazil builds the vehicles — lightweight, nimble electric trucks for in-city commercial use.

Brandao, the only woman running an EV company in the world, has experience starting up businesses in foreign countries from Russia to Chile. She believes Brazil is an ideal market for EVs designed in Oregon because the economy is growing quickly there with a strong emphasis on green. She isn’t hiring yet, but she has five employees identified and ready to work — once the money comes through.

BEN JACKLET