As General Motors Co. begins its limited rollout this month of the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. readies for the December launch of its all-electric Leaf, alternate-energy insiders tell Ward’s California, one of the few introductory markets for both cars, is as ready as it gets for the coming influx of EVs.

“The energy grid is where we expected it to be,” says Britta Gross, director of global energy systems and infrastructure for GM. She’s seconded by Russell Vare, EV regional manager for Nissan North America Inc., who asserts the state’s electric power network is “adequately prepared to launch vehicles.”

Los Angeles came in first as three other California locales – San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento – rounded out the six most EV-ready cities in the U.S., according to a list compiled earlier this year by Detroit-based market-research company ASG Renaissance.

The study, sponsored by electric car maker Think Global AS, not only considered the number of charging stations in an area, but also purchase and usage incentives, such as access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes and infrastructure support, hybrid sales, traffic congestion and air quality.

Power utility Southern California Edison Co., which supplies energy to about 14 million people through 4.9 million customer accounts in a geographic service area that’s roughly the size of Alabama and stretches across California’s southern, central and coastal regions, estimates more than 400,000 plug-in vehicles will be operating in its territory, alone, by the start of 2017.

Regulators have decreed by next year at least one of every 10 vehicles sold in the Golden State must be a zero-emissions vehicle. By 2016, one in six vehicles will be expected to qualify as a ZEV.

State leaders two months ago bested President Obama’s call for 1 million EV and plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015 with a mandate of their own: 1 million battery-electric and plug-in hybrids plying California roadways by 2020.

Vare and Gross say much of the state’s EV readiness grew from collaborations their companies and other auto makers developed with local and regional governments and especially the state’s electric utilities.

“Our relationship with them has been excellent,” Vare says.

Many of those cooperative contacts were forged through the Electric Power Research Institute, whose members represent more than 90% of the electric power generated and delivered in the U.S. With a focus on emerging technologies, the nonprofit studies science, policy and economic conditions in support of long-range research and planning.

Gross says when GM joined the EPRI, as the push for mass-produced EVs began ramping up in earnest, “we found ourselves among the most progressive utilities.”

Gross’ development team had the chance to take “important issues and questions directly to the utilities. We picked their brains and they showed us how the smart grid is evolving,” she says. “We think what we have now is much more acceptable and adaptable to American consumers.”

In other words, says Vare, developers have created “the best possible customer experience,” aimed at making vehicle charging “easy and simple.”

The auto-utility collaboration has explored new ways to reign in power costs through government tax breaks and other energy-saving programs and educate the public about the EV market and how user fees are calculated.

One of the power industry’s most significant advances in the last few years has been so-called smart-grid technology, an intelligent operating system that monitors the electricity needs of individual appliances, such as cars, and manages the flow of power accordingly. Researchers are developing ways now in which energy stored by an EV’s battery could be used to power other appliances.

In 2006, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which claims a majority of Central and Northern California power customers and services 15 million people through 5.3 million accounts over a 7,000 sq.-mile (sq.-km) territory, pioneered the use of “smart” power meters. Data about an individual account’s usage is relayed to a collection agency – in this case by wireless signal to the company.

In addition, SCE recently unveiled its Plug-in Car Rate Assistant power consumption monitoring tool, an online application that allows site visitors to learn about the electric power industry, compare types of electric vehicles and usage plans and calculate potential electricity costs based on their individual driving needs.

“This is a whole new way of thinking about how you get around, a paradigm shift,” Vare says.

Nissan and GM predict first-year deliveries in California of a few thousand cars each. That’s in addition to the 1,000 Leafs and 2,600 Volts placed with select owners in Los Angeles and San Diego, respectively, through the federally subsidized “EV Project,” which provides participants with free home-charging units.

Russell Garwacki, a research and design manager for SCE, says the utility expects upwards of 90% of EV owners in the company’s service area will utilize home charging systems, which will use either a 120V “Level 1” charger or 240V “Level 2” unit.

Exactly how many public chargers will be installed throughout California remains unclear, he contends, subject to need and administered through various federal and state initiatives.

Even at SCE’s current levels of electric generation capacity, “there’s not an issue for us in terms of off-peak charging for several hundred thousand vehicles,” says Garwacki.

San Diego Gas & Electric, serving 1.4 million electric meters in a 4,200 sq.-mile (sq.-km) area that covers the Greater San Diego region and a small portion of Orange County, expects 80% of all EVs to be charged at home, says Joel Pointon, manager of the power company’s electric transportation program.

Pointon anticipates upwards of 3,000 Leafs on the road in the San Diego region through 2011, rising to tens of thousands of new EVs through 2016. He notes about 1,400 public charging facilities currently are under development in his service area; sixty of those are high-speed chargers.

No matter which utility EV owners use, two-way communication will be key to making sure the charging process runs smoothly, says SCE’s Garwacki. As long as power customers tell their utilities when they’ve brought a new EV home, there likely won’t be any capacity problems.

However, if customers don’t report their purchases to utilities, there’s a heightened risk the power infrastructure could “fail at the local level,” Garwacki says.

“I believe the utilities have shown they’re supportive of (EV) development,” says Nancy Gioia, director-global electrification for Ford Motor Co., which plans over the next two years to roll out five new electric and hybrid models, including the Ford Focus Electric passenger car in late 2011. “We have everyone aligned to make this thing work in year one.”

But, she adds, “this is going to be a 50-year journey (and) we expect conditions to change through time at home, change with the public charging depots.”

There no doubt will be at least a few glitches in the system as the market grows and changes and improves itself, says Gioia. However, “cell phones didn’t work perfectly the first time out (either).”

No matter how eager consumers are to welcome the coming wave of mass-produced EVs, people need to remember “this is all new to us, ‘man-on-the-moon’ terrain,” Gioia says.

So patience may be required, she adds. “It’s an evolution.”