SONOMA COUNTY, CA – An ambitious plan to bring 1,000 electric-powered vehicles to the county starting next year could get rolling as early as this summer if the many moving components mesh, according to North County Business Journal

Local governments in Sonoma County are still in talks with Nissan Motor Co. about receiving all-electric cars as early as 2010 as part of a two-year Bay Area market test of a longer-range vehicle. However, infrastructure needed to electrify businesses and the public into greater use of electric vehicles could start showing up around the county this year.

The county of Sonoma is expecting to know by May whether it has won up to $3 million in state and U.S. Energy Department grants to install charging stations and convert existing fuel-electric hybrid vehicles to plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs, to allow longer driving on all-electric power, according to a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Water Agency, one of the key players in the electric-car effort.

Automakers are planning to release PHEVs in coming years, and local governments are looking for ways to cover the $11,000 or so required per existing hybrid vehicle to convert them.In monthly meetings on the market test between Nissan and local government officials, the Japanese automaker has been offering insight on where charging stations should be located to foster a “critical mass” of electric-car users, according to Amy Bolten of the water agency.

All the governments in the county except Cloverdale have issued letters of support for the grant efforts and have expressed interest in acquiring a total of 150 electric cars from Nissan, according to Bolten. In addition to chargers potentially supplied with each vehicle, the goal is to obtain funding for each city to have at least one public station. Santa Rosa would like to have at least 10 chargers dispersed around the city, according to Jon Merian, superintendent of Santa Rosa’s fleets. County officials are reaching out to large organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, Agilent Technologies, Santa Rosa Junior College, and Sonoma State University about integrating electric cars into their fleets, some of which already have hybrid vehicles, and installing charging stations, according to North County Business Journal.

A few companies are releasing public charging systems with pay-per-charge mechanisms, but the options have been limited because the Society of Automotive Engineers has been developing standards for safe charger and plug configurations as automakers prepare to release all-electric and PHEVs in the next few years, according to Cordel Stillman, capital project manager for the water agency.

One public charger the county is considering is the Smartlet computer-networked stations made by Campbell-based Coulomb Technologies, a dozen of whose stations just came online in San Jose. The units cost $2,500 each, but the total cost can go up to $9,000, depending on how much work must go into extending wiring to the charger. Local government officials are exploring ways to pay for the chargers, including grants, in-kind labor and leveraging the real estate value of the chargers, according to Bolten. The county is seeking $200,000 to $1 million in federal grants for charger installations countywide.

“It is clear that no cities are going to be laying out money for this,” she said. That’s why Coulomb and other manufacturers are designing stations to be mounted to light poles, which can have electrical conduits with enough space for additional wires. Concerns about the drain on the electrical grid from the charging stations also is being factored into the planning. Coulomb has an option for utilities to monitor power usage, and Pacific Gas & Electric is being consulted for a time when electric-powered cars start numbering a few thousand.It is thought that Sonoma County would need to have interest in at least 1,000 electric vehicles to reach the “critical mass” sought for the countywide campaign to lower emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2025, according to Bolten.

The Santa Rosa-based Climate Action Campaign reported that vehicle emissions accounted for 60 percent of the 4.5 million tons of greenhouse gases emitted in 2007.Concurrent with the effort to install a network of charging stations is a water agency effort to work with governments in the county on greater use of in-home chargers for electric or plug-in hybrid cars, according to Bolten. Half the grant money the county is seeking for electric vehicles would come from programs put in place by Assembly Bill 118 of 2007. However, the state’s current budget crisis has some alternative-energy industry analysts skeptical whether the $200 million supposed to be available for grants annually through 2015 will be available this year.