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Coulomb to Deploy 4,600 Electric Car Charge Spots, Thanks to DOE

Coulomb Technologies, a startup working on charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, has gained some big name backers in its quest to build out a massive network of charging stations. The company announced this morning that the Department of Energy has awarded a $15 million grant to support deployment of 4,600 Coulomb charging stations in nine regions around the country — a $37 million endeavor in all.

Working in partnership with Ford (s F), General Motors’ (s GM) Chevrolet brand, and Daimler’s (s DAI) Smart USA, Coulomb is launching a program to provide these charging stations for homes, businesses and public locations. Coulomb has committed to having 1,000 new public charging stations installed by December 2010, with the rest slated for installation by October 2011. About 2,000 of the stations are expected to be installed in electric car buyers’ homes.

A spokesperson for the company, Anne Smith, tells us customers will in most cases have to pay for installation, but will receive the equipment at no cost under this new program, dubbed ChargePoint America.

This buildout marks a major uptick from 3-year-old Coulomb’s current figures. The startup says it shipped more than 700 charging points to upwards of 130 customers last year. But the project is more modest than the government-backed electric vehicle infrastructure buildout in the works with charging stations supplied by ECOtality North America (s ECTY), previously named eTec.

The DOE awarded a $99.8 million grant last August to help ECOtality deploy 11,210 charging stations (starting this summer) in five states, including Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington, along with the rollout of 4,700 electric LEAF sedans from Nissan. ECOtality lists Coulomb among more than 40 strategic partners in this project, but Smith tells us that Coulomb’s “specific role has not yet been defined.”

Like ECOtality, Coulomb secured its grant under the Transportation Electrification section of a DOE stimulus program for U.S. battery and electric vehicle projects. The initiative is meant to support the creation of “development, demonstration, evaluation and education projects to accelerate the market introduction and penetration of advanced electric drive vehicles.”

Coulomb’s business model involves selling subscriptions for access to the charge points, and also charging retail stores, home and building owners, and other entities to install the equipment. Those customers can keep single-use fees to cover electricity costs (with more to spare), while Coulomb collects revenue from subscribers with pre-paid charging plans. The networked charge points use software to coordinate vehicle charging and discharging according to the power grid’s needs and user preferences. Drivers can unlock the charge point with the swipe of a key fob, and get an alert via text message when the car’s juiced up.

Smith told us on Wednesday that Coulomb applied for the DOE grant back in May 2009, received conditional approval in January 2010 and signed a contract for the funds in April. Data collected through the ChargePoint America project will be supplied to Idaho National Labs and Purdue University (another stimulus grant awardee) for analysis.

The automakers’ role in the Coulomb project involves mainly delivering plug-in vehicles to the markets where Coulomb will be providing these charging stations, including Austin, Tex., Orlando, Fla., Redmond, Wash., and Sacramento, Calif.,  as well as New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and the San Jose-San Francisco Bay Area. According to Coulomb, the Chevy Volt, Ford Transit Connect Electric commercial van, electric Ford Focus and Smart Fortwo electric drive models will roll out in the nine markets as part of the ChargePoint America project.

The number of charging stations going out to each city or region has not been determined at this point, but the two California markets in the program will reportedly garner nearly one third of the 4,600 stations.

Coulomb became a preferred supplier for charging stations for the electric Smart Fortwo in the U.S. back in September 2009 (in a deal with the exclusive U.S. distributor of the Fortwo). But the relationships with Ford and Chevrolet are new. Ford explains in a release about its new partnership with Coulomb this morning that at least some residents of the nine designated markets who buy a Ford Transit Connect vehicle, launching later this year, will be offered one of Coulomb’s ChargePoint Networked Charging Stations at no additional cost.

But installation of this equipment still doesn’t come cheap. “We’re going to have to focus on that cost piece, get in there and help offset the cost of those home installations,” GM’s electric vehicle infrastructure chief Britta Gross commented at an event last summer, adding that an average installation runs up to $1,500 and describing a goal for charger installations to become more like cable or Internet installations: cheap, quick and low maintenance.

Images courtesy of Coulomb and Daimler

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