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Solar, Utility Partnerships on the Horizon for Coulomb Technologies

When the economy hands out lemons, Coulomb Technologies expects to make lemonade — at least, if policy continues to swing in its favor. While the electric vehicle infrastructure startup has opted out of applying directly for stimulus funds, it is seeing new opportunities arise as the dollars filter down to states and municipalities that want to invest in charging stations for plug-in cars. That’s according to Coulomb’s new VP of business development, Scott Williams, who’s a week and a half into his job of building new business ventures, partnerships and alliances for the startup.

Williams compared the current environment for electric vehicle infrastructure startups like Coulomb to the early days of broadband for today’s tech giants and called the Obama administration’s commitment to cleantech “unprecedented.” But the only way the startup will grow to massive scale is through small, deliberate steps, he said. “We need to stick to our knitting, our space, don’t try to take too big a bite.”

That’s a message Coulomb has stuck with from its founding in 2007 — or at least since comparisons with Better Place became common. Better Place, which is working on not only charge points, but also a battery lease and swap scheme that has yet to win over many automakers, has been very effective at “letting the world know about the acute need for different forms of transportation,” Williams said.

Coulomb, meanwhile, is focusing on subscription-based charge point networks. So far, it has partnered mainly with utilities and municipalities, including San Francisco and San Jose in California, and Chicago, Ill. But Williams said today there’s also potential for solar partnerships. Last month the company unveiled a solar-powered charging station with an underground battery pack developed by All Cell Technologies and solar panels from Wanxiang America Corp., but Williams would not disclose details about specific solar companies or projects that might be on the horizon for Coulomb.

Williams did say that more utility alliances are also likely, since Coulomb’s technology provides “another level in granularity of knowledge in how the grid behaves” — the kind of data about vehicle charging patterns that utilities will need to manage the mass deployment of electric cars on a smart grid.

But as much as Coulomb is searching for the silver lining of the global economic downturn, its success is hardly guaranteed. It faces growing competition from direct partnerships between automakers and utilities, which are developing charging infrastructure and gathering data without a middle-man like Coulomb. And Coulomb is still a small, venture-backed startup, with charge points in the ground in only a handful of cities. If and when large municipalities and countries invest in a massive EV infrastructure buildout, they may be wary of going with such a young venture. Williams expects Coulomb to work its way up, growing right along with the industry. “Over time,” he said, “the opportunities are going to become bigger.”