At a conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, representatives of several electric-vehicle companies said fast-charging stations would be more successful in the United States than Project Better Place’s plan to exchange empty batteries for charged ones.

“With the ability to do rapid charge, we see that playing more of a role than stations to exchange them,” Bryon Bliss, vice president of sales and marketing at Phoenix Motorcars, said at a panel on electric vehicles at the Alternative Fuels and Vehicles conference. “There are a lot of complications [in exchanging the batteries].”

Bliss said Phoenix cars equipped with batteries made by Altair Nanotechnologies can recharge 95 percent in 10 minutes. He also said that charging
stations would give drivers the option to take trips that are longer than a vehicles’ range.

Richard Kasper, president of Chrysler’s Global Electric Motorcars, said the investment that battery-replacement stations would require would be “very significant.”

And Jeff Boyd, chief operating officer of Miles Electric Vehicles, said fast charging is good enough.

“Fast charging is here; it’s available,” Boyd said. “You can put a station at a Starbucks for a cost of $125,000. There’s no reason to wait [for something else].”

The discussion took place the same day Earth2Tech reported that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is negotiating the possibility of Project Better Place building the infrastructure for a fleet of plug-in cars in the city, including battery-replacement stations and charging stations at parking meters.

Project Better Place in January announced a partnership with Renault-Nissan to mass-produce electric cars – and build a network of battery-recharging and –replacing stations – in Israel (see Bumpy Road Ahead for Project Better Place?). The company, founded by former SAP executive Shai Agassi, also announced an eyebrow-raising $200 million in capital in October.

But while panelists said they favored rapid-charging battery stations, not everyone is a fan of that idea, either.

Utilities are skeptical because fast charging will contribute to peak demand as drivers charge up during the day, said Dean Taylor, a senior technical scientist at Southern California Edison. And critics have also said that because fast-charging stations use higher-voltage outlets to deliver more energy in a shorter amount of time than standard household outlets, they have the potential to strain the grid even more.

“It seems like fast charging is a very complicated business proposition,” Taylor said during the question-and-answer session at the end of the panel.

But Boyd said charging higher prices during peak hours could help solve the grid problem.

And Bliss said that most of the time people will still charge their cars at night when they are sleeping.

He also said one idea is to have charging stations that pull power from their own batteries and not directly from the grid. Batteries, such as those produced by Altair, could charge vehicle batteries, recharge themselves during off hours and help to deliver more power to the grid during peak times, he said, adding that more powerful batteries have made the idea more feasible.

One utility, AES, already is using Altair batteries to store excess electricity for later use during times of high demand (see AutoblogGreen post and Planet Ark story). Xcel Energy in February also announced it was using batteries from NGK Insulators for a test to store wind energy for the grid (see Batteries for the Grid).

It’s still unclear who would pay to build and maintain such stations, however, as batteries need regular maintenance and replacement – and still aren’t cheap.

For new stations, Bliss said putting in a bank of batteries could be cheaper than putting in a couple of fuel pumps. But retrofits could still prove challenging, and the number of gas stations in the United States has been decreasing for the last decade.

Bliss said utilities could subsidize the cost in exchange for the ability to store energy from off-hours and make it available during peak times.

“The technology solutions are realistic today,” he said. “The batteries can allow charging without relying on the grid, and can help [utilities] with peak load. But there’s the chicken-and-egg problem that if you’re charging at night, how often are you going to be using [fast-charging stations] and is it worth it? … It’s the problem of [building] the infrastructure.”