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Originally published Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 3:23 PM

First electric-car charging stations go online in Seattle

Electric-car charging stations debuted Thursday at Qwest Field. The four parking-lot chargers are the first of 1,000 commercial chargers that will be installed in the Puget Sound area by the end of the year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Heidi Bray's trip to Seattle Thursday morning was well-planned — she had to be in the city for at least five hours, or she wouldn't be able to make it back to Olympia.

The electric-car owner's 120-mile round trip just became possible, and it's about to get a whole lot easier.

Her car was one of many charging up in the parking lot of Qwest Field on Thursday at the debut of commercial chargers in Seattle. About 2,000 chargers will be installed in the Puget Sound area by the end of the year through a federally funded initiative called the EV Project.

Half of those chargers will be in homes, and the others in public hubs, such as the stadium or Fred Meyer parking lots.

"The need to drive and the demand for driving is going to remain, but we need to give people more efficient options and better options for clean energy," Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said at a news conference. "We'll do all we can to make sure Seattle is eco-ready."

Washington is one of six states participating in the EV Project, which will set up 14,000 chargers nationwide.

Most of the machines will be on the West Coast, and high-speed chargers will soon dot Interstate 5. While an hour of charging at the Qwest Field machines will net a driver between 11 and 22 miles of travel, preparing for that same distance would take only about 20 minutes at the high-speed devices. Bray said that would be just enough time for her to grab a cup of coffee.

New, blue signs featuring a picture of the charger and the letters "EV" will start appearing along I-5, said Washington state Department of Traffic spokeswoman Tonia Buell, who showcased the sign at Thursday's event.

The EV Project started in 2009, when the U.S. Department of Energy gave ECOtality, a renewable-energy-focused company, $99.8 million. Since then, other grants and donations have been added to bring the project's total budget to $230 million.

Funding has covered the cost of chargers — which have a $3,000 retail price — and most installation fees.

For customers, fueling up is free — at least for now. By the end of the year a small fee will be added, so plugging in for an hour or two at Qwest Field will cost a couple of dollars, said Rich Feldman, ECOtality's regional manager in the Northwest.

The Chevrolet Volt, Tesla Roadster and Nissan Leaf are the most common vehicles using the stations, but the chargers meet an industry standard and will be compatible as other companies roll out electric vehicles, he said.

The Leaf, which Bray owns, costs about $30,000. Bray, a nurse practitioner, got rid of her SUV after she purchased the Leaf. The move to electric was spurred by health concerns and a love of the environment, she said.

Bray recalled hiking to the top of Mount Ellinoras as a child and looking over a "beautiful, clear Puget Sound."

"Today, when I'm at the top of Crystal Mountain or at the top of Mount Ellinor, on a clear day I look down into a Puget Sound that's a little bit murky looking. It's brown, and there's a haze that sits over our community," she said.

She's one of 8,300 vehicle owners nationally who are receiving a free charger at their home through the EV Project. Four hundred already have been installed in Seattle.

The city has the third largest electric-car market after San Francisco and Los Angeles, Feldman said.

The EV Project workers will collect data from the charging stations to see how they work in different areas and climates, with the hope of setting up another 5 million stations.

Jessie Van Berkel: 206-464-3192 or jvanberkel@seattletimes.com

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