Bumper Crop of Electric Cars Makes Impressive Showing at PSE&G Plaza

More models to choose from, including a few capable of inducing sticker shock, but still no charging infrastructure in NJ

The all-electric BMW i3, priced at $41,350.
It was a lineup of cars almost unimaginable just a few years ago.

In the plaza outside Public Service Electric & Gas headquarters in Newark yesterday were parked more than a dozen electric vehicles. There was the Toyota Prius plug-in, Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Ford Fusion, to name just a few. There even was a $41,350 all electric-vehicle from BMW, which is expected to go on sale in the first half of next year.

The sticker prices vary as widely as their operating ranges, but the sheer variety of vehicles testified to the potential electric cars have in helping curb the nation’s reliance on petroleum-based fuel, as well as improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Three years ago, these cars wouldn’t be here. You couldn’t buy them,’’ said Wayne Wittman, director of corporate strategy for PSEG Services Corp., an affiliate of the utility. “This, in itself, is testimony to its potential.’’

It also reflected the auto industry’s willingness to invest in alternative-fueled vehicles, a difficult decision given the infrastructure needed to recharge the cars is nascent in most states, including New Jersey. There are roughly 230 electric charging stations in the state.

The state also is encouraging gas utilities to invest in building compressed natural gas fueling stations, a strategy endorsed by New Jersey Natural Gas and Elizabethtown Gas. Still, there are only five public natural gas refueling stations in the state, according to Rob Gibbs, manager of market strategies and development for PSEG.

It begs the question: why are auto manufacturers churning out electric cars and other alternative-fueled vehicles at a time when consumers still have range anxiety, concerns about just how far these new cars will take them.

But auto executives are optimistic .

“This is a car we are producing like any other BMW,’’ said Cliff Fietzek, manager of connected emobility for BMW in Woodcliff Lake, standing besides the company’s new BMW i3 vehicle in Newark.

The car, expected to be rolled out in the second quarter of 2014, can accelerate to 60 mph in 7 seconds, has an 80- to 100-mile range per charge, which takes about three hours.

“With all the [tax] incentives, it is probably the most affordable BMW on the market,’’ Fietzek said. “It’s really our first mass-market car.’’

Whether the public will buy the more expensive electric vehicles is also a question. Tesla, which had several of its electric vehicles — with a range of 300 miles — on display in Newark, offers a high-end car ranging from $62,000 to $100,000, according to Jessica Kuhn, assistant sales manager at a dealership at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus. In 2015, the company plans to mass market an electric vehicle selling at about $35,000, she said.

With advancements in battery technology happening more rapidly, Gibbs predicted it would be only a matter of three-to-five years that most electric vehicles will be cost-competitive with more conventional gasoline-powered cars.

However, how the infrastructure for those vehicles will be put in place remains uncertain. A number of bills have been proposed to establish incentives to build charging stations at malls, highway rest stops, and other areas, but no comprehensive effort has emerged to put together a robust recharging infrastructure.

The issue revolves around a debate as whether the private sector or public utilities like PSE&G should take the lead. Princeton-based NRG Energy is already building an infrastructure for plug-in vehicles in Texas and has announced plans to invest in a similar effort in California.

PSE&G also has expressed interest in helping the state develop an infrastructure for electric vehicles, but so far, its efforts have been confined to building charging stations for employees at its Newark headquarters and elsewhere.