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Plugging in: City tries to pave the way for electric vehicle use

By Tara Ramsey

The upcoming new year might usher in an acceleration of a movement in Charlotte toward electric vehicles.

First, beginning late this year, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf go on sale. The city of Charlotte and Duke Energy Corp. are planning to purchase several of the vehicles for their fleets.

Also next year, the city is planning to install 20 vehicle-charging stations.

Last week, Duke showed off a $120,000 electric car, the Tesla Motors Roadster, it is leasing.

And this year, a Mooresville company is launching new models of plug-in vehicles that are being designed and built locally.

It’s all part of what appears to be growing interest in the Greater Charlotte region to position the area as an electric-vehicle-friendly place.

Allison Billings, a transportation consultant for Charlotte Center City Partners, which promotes development of the city’s urban core, said Charlotte has been studying the issue of electric vehicles and where to put charging stations for about a year.

“We really want to position ourselves as a leader in Southeast,” Billings said.

Meanwhile, studies show that despite the “green” benefits of electric vehicles, it will take years before a large-number of such cars are on the road.

A study by the Washington, D.C.-based National Research Council says there will only be approximately 13 million electric vehicles on the road in the U.S. by 2030 because of their high cost, limited availability of places to plug in and market competition. That’s far below the 248 million nonelectric vehicles registered in the U.S. in 2008, according to the most recent figures from the Federal Highway Administration.

Despite that relatively low number of plug-in vehicles on the roadway, Charlotte is moving ahead with plans to install electric car infrastructure.

Charging stations

A portion of a $6.8 million federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block grant will be used to install approximately 20 charging stations throughout Charlotte. That number doubled after prices for the charging stations decreased since city leaders began planning for the stations in January, Billings said.

The city plans to spend $275,000 on the purchase of electric vehicles and the installation of charging stations.

Because of the amount of time it takes to charge the electric vehicles — up to eight hours — most charging is expected to be done at home. However, Duke says it is advising city government leaders on how to strategically locate public charging stations in the Charlotte area.

“In our view, public charging stations need to be developed strategically but only slightly ahead of the customer needs,” said Duke spokesman Greg Efthimiou. “Obviously, folks don’t want to feel they would get caught without adequate energy to get back home.”

Efthimiou said Duke might also install charging stations. Currently, Duke has charging stations in its Mint Street parking garage for its five Toyota Priuses that have been converted to electric.

Duke and the city of Charlotte are planning to replace some of their fleet vehicles with electric vehicles next year. Duke wants to purchase about 10 Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs each when they hit the market in the upcoming year.

Duke plans to put even more electric vehicles on the road in the next decade.

As part of the Clinton Global Initiative, Duke and Next Era Energy, headquartered in Juno Beach, Fla., have committed that as vehicle leases expire, every fleet vehicle the utilities buy or lease will be electric by 2020. That is a $600 million investment between the two companies, Efthimiou said.

‘Not necessary’

Despite the anticipated purchases and leases of electric vehicles between Duke and the city, at least one industry expert thinks installing charging stations before the need arises is unwise.

“I feel the electric market is very limited,” said Dick Lewis of the Charlotte Automobile Dealers Association. “Charging stations are not necessary at this time. Wait and see what the actual demand is and then perhaps make them available to a limited degree like handicapped parking areas.”

Lewis thinks there won’t be more than 500 new electric vehicles purchased each year in Charlotte.

The city will put the charging-station project out for bid after the specifications are finalized. Billings said the federal funds should be distributed by January to the company winning the bid, with the charging stations installed by March or April, when the Leaf and Volt will start becoming available.

The bidding companies will have to meet Underwriters Laboratories, or UL, certification requirements for the stations they install. UL, which develops safety standards and issues certifications on an international level, is studying electric-vehicle charging station infrastructure and has developed training programs for the installation of charging equipment.

Because the technology is so new, a California company will be installing charging stations in seven cities in South Carolina.

Plug In Carolina, a nonprofit organization sponsored by South Carolina’s major utilities and designed to promote the benefits of plug-in vehicles, announced in June that it will use Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment Inc. to install the network of charging stations.

James Poch, Plug In Carolina executive director, said that because the equipment is so new, most local companies do not have experience in installing it. He said most certified electricians can install the stations but many were hesitant to give a quote on the cost to do so because of a lack of experience with the technology.

“In our case, it was easier to go with AeroVironment,” Poch said. “My guess is that will change after we get a couple of these put in.”

David Bowles, president of EMCI,  headquartered in University Research Park, said his company, which provides electrician services, is interested in installing charging stations.

“There’s not much to putting one up other than just making sure it’s permitted and done properly with state electrical codes,” Bowles said.

Bowles, whose company owns a building in the research park, said he is planning on having a charging station there so his employees and other tenants will be able to use it.

BECO South, also at University Research Park, is planning on using electric vehicles, said Mercedes Merritt, the company’s director of leasing. The company has already purchased electric golf carts to use around its 12-building complex and plans to use to them to bring services to its tenants.

Merritt said the company is considering delivering food and dry cleaning to tenants.

The Li-ion

As electric cars are in the “green” spotlight nationwide, a Mooresville company is hoping to bring innovations to the industry.

Manufacturing and development for Las Vegas-based Li-ion Motors is done at the company’s Mooresville location, said Ron Cerven, project development engineer and program manager for Li-ion.

Li-ion is preparing to launch new vehicle designs, including its new sports car, the Inizio.

The company is the only U.S. automobile manufacturer to make the finals of the Progressive Insurance Automotive XPrize competition, which requires electric cars to meet a 100 mpg equivalent in their range, among other qualifications. The winner of the international competition will be announced in September.

“It was open to vehicles from all around world,” Cerven said. “We’re the only car from the U.S. still running.”

The Li-ion electric cars range in price from $39,900 to $139,000, he said, adding that there are probably 30 to 40 Li-ion vehicles on the road today. The company, which has about 25 employees in Mooresville, also converts gasoline-powered vehicles into electric at its Mooresville shop.

Cerven said the performance of electric vehicles is better than their gasoline-powered counterparts and it just takes one test drive to convert someone to electric.

“We take a lot of very hardcore gasoline people out who don’t have the faith in electric,” Cerven said about the plug-in vehicles. “It literally changes their mind instantly.”

Tara Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].

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