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The growth potential of electric vehicles is being hampered by a lack of charging stations nationwide, industry experts say.

Some analysts in the industry have noted that electric vehicle (EV) sales have been slower than anticipated since mass-produced electric vehicles debuted in Japan in 2009. However, such pessimism hasn’t deflated the hopes of those attending the Electric Vehicle and Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle Exhibition at Tokyo’s Big Sight, which was held from Wednesday to Friday.

“When (Toyota Motor Corp.’s hybrid) Prius debuted in 1997, it struggled to attract sales at first. Compared to how hybrid cars were doing after they appeared on the domestic market, I think EVs are doing a little better,” says Norikazu Ogino, who heads the next-generation car department at Next Generation Vehicle Promotion Center.

Hybrid car sales took several years to take off after the vehicle’s domestic launch. The vehicle’s have become so popular in recent years that more than half of Toyota’s car sales (excluding the company’s compact Kei type and business models) in Japan in the first half of the year were hybrid cars.

Next Generation Vehicle Promotion Center, a Tokyo-based association that promotes so-called next-generation cars such as electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and clean diesel cars, said that only 2,100 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids had been owned in Japan by the end of 2009. But the number had increased to 56,000 in 2012.

Government subsidies have made electric car prices more reasonable, but Ogino says the industry has yet to solve a number of obstacles. For a start, he says, more charging stations nationwide are needed. About 2,000 express stations are in operation nationwide, while about 3,000 regular stations are currently estimated to be available at public places. However, Ogino says, this figure pales in comparison to the 30,000-plus gas stations that are now open across the country.

“EVs need more charging stations so that drivers don’t worry about where they can charge their vehicles,” says Ogino, noting that electric vehicles cannot drive as far as gas vehicles on a single charge.

It takes about 30 minutes to charge an electric vehicle at an express charging station and several hours at a regular station.

Hirotsugu Maruyama, general manager of Global Government Affairs Development Environmental and Safety Technologies at Nissan Motor Co., says it is essential to increase the number of charging stations. More people typically buy electric vehicles in areas that have more charging stations available, Maruyama says.

Maruyama says that more regular charging stations should be installed at sites that are used often such as mansions.

The government, local municipalities and private companies are already taking steps to improve this situation.

Tokyo’s Koto Ward, for instance, has been asking developers of new mansions to install charging stations to cover at least 10 percent of all car parks available in a mansion. Although the request is not legally binding, about 20 percent of new mansions have met the target, a Koto Ward official says.

It is expensive to set up charging stations. Express stations, for example, can cost up to ¥9 million once construction fees are included. The central government, therefore, has been offering financial support to help set up charging stations, increasing the amount of subsidies to cover up to two-thirds of construction costs from March 2013.

On a private level, four automakers — Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mitsubishi — jointly established a company called Nippon Charge Service in May that compensates set-up costs and operating fees for firms and municipalities looking to build a charging station. In effect, this allows them to set up the station free of charge with assistance from government subsidies. Nippon Charge Service is looking to recoup its investment by charging fees from drivers of electric vehicle who use the stations.

Koichiro Yamada, director of the administrative department at Nippon Charge Service, says people often see charging stations installed at dealers, but there are not enough charging systems installed in convenient locations for users.

Even if stores invest a lot of money in setting up charging stations, “they don’t really get a lot of revenue from charging a fee,” Yamada says. Therefore, people aren’t motivated to set up the stations themselves.

In short, he says, “we want to reduce the financial burden (for those who want to install a charging station) as much as possible.”

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