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United States: lessons from four EV hotspots

- By Mary Catherine O’Connor

This is linked to an exhibition in Michigan scheduled for December 2012: More details here

How does the US transition to adoption of electric vehicles? In his State of the Union speech in January 2011, President Obama said the United States would be the first to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. (There are currently around 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads today.) With public concern about so-called range anxiety and the higher initial cost of these vehicles, such a target appears unlikely right now. Just as some states and cities are preparing infrastructure for recharging stations, it may well need deliberate policies by environmentally-conscious local governments to signal progress.

Indeed, many consumers are looking to federal and state incentives to help them take the financial and lifestyle leap from owning gas-powered car to purchasing an EV. But city-level government is an often-overlooked part of the incentives and infrastructure discussions.

The Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) recently produced a webinar in which it highlighted four communities that have emerged as EV hotspots. If the Washington DC- based industry body was looking for places that are as diverse as possible from each other, it has found them. The communities they highlight range from the metropolis of Los Angeles and the arts, and tech-minded Austin, Texas, to the college town of Normal, Illinois, and the commuter city of Mercer Island, near Seattle. Rebates and tax breaks are important tools, but those are mostly made possible through federal or state governments. Individual communities have to look for other resources for encouraging EV adoption. Despite the diversity of the four selected communities, they are all bound in their commitment to promoting EV adoption. And throughout the webinar, a number of approaches, some common to all four of the communities, others unique to just one or two, emerged.

Promote local benefits.  During the webinar, Karl Popham, emerging technologies and electric vehicles manager at Austin Energy in Austin, Texas, described how the city encourages builders to include EV chargers in their plans by linking them with points in the city’s Austin Energy Green Building rating system. Builders who install charging stations can earn points in the city’s green building rating system, which boosts their company profiles and environmental credibility.

Scott Briasco, manager of fleet environment compliance and electric transportation at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), said that one of the incentives the utility offers to LA residents is a reduced electricity rate for charging their EVs at night. “We provide a 2.5 cent per kilowatt hour discount to customers that charge during off-peak times,” he said. By comparison, he said, “that is equivalent to about a dollar per gallon of gasoline”.

The utility also provides a rebate to ratepayers for installing a home charger. The benefits of doing so work both ways. In addition to lowering the ratepayer’s cost, the utility gets access to data showing when and for how long ratepayers are charging their cars. This information will help LADWP better prepare the city’s power grid to respond to the growth of EVs. “It’ll help us in planning upgrades to the distribution system and really enable us to help prioritize transformer replacements, as more customers purchase electric vehicles and install the charging station technologies”, Briasco said.

Be cheerleaders. The force behind Normal, Illinois’ momentum toward EV adoption is Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America, which is located there. The carmaker is just starting to roll out its first EV, the iMiEV, in select US markets, but Normal has already purchased six iMiEVs for its municipal fleet. The city has formed an EV task force, comprised of local city officials, business leaders and the local Mitsubishi dealer, which is working to drum up awareness of electric transportation. The task force staged two showings of the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car to sold-out audiences. Its strategy is to associate town pride with EV pride, leveraging the presence of the Mitsubishi plant and its contribution to the local economy.

Tying efforts into the city’s infrastructure is an imperative. This might seem obvious, but it entails more than just installing chargers on city streets and in parking lots. Mercer Island is located in Lake Washington, just a couple miles from the city of Seattle. But the commute into the city, via Highway 90, can be a nightmare. “The average commute for us is about 20 miles”, said Mike Grady, City Councilman from Mercer Island. “But not unlike the commute in Los Angeles, that 20 miles could take an hour and a half to drive”. Transitioning to EVs will help lower emissions, but it won’t ease this congestion. Buses link the island to the city, but many islanders drive to the bus depot, which offers very little parking. This means they need to spend precious time hunting for a spot to park. This is a disincentive to taking the bus and it also robs the island’s downtown area of parking for non- commuters. In an effort to ease congestion both on the island and on the highway, Mercer Island wants to work with its transit system to make it easier for residents to get to the bus depot. This would likely include offering residents the use of a fleet of community-owned electric vehicles. As Grady concluded: “I think there are opportunities for the electric car not just for commercial fleets, government fleets, and residential, but also on the transit side.” 

Mary Catherine O’Connor (www.mcoconnor.com) is an independent journalist, covering transportation and other energy-related topics. For More Information on implementing a workable EV Infrastructure, see: EV Business Models & Planning USA 2012



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