Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Plugging in

Plans for electric vehicle charging stations take shape

Posted By on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 at 1:00 PM

Before Missoulian Glenn Kreisel could buy a Tesla Roadster, an electric car that costs $150,000, he had to get a driver’s license. He hadn’t driven in 23 years due to concerns about the environmental impact of conventional cars, but he and his wife had recently had a child and his bicycle was proving insufficient for his new parenting duties. Still, Kreisel was reluctant.

“I was waiting for a car that was U.S.-made, all electric, and it had to be super fast,” he says. “It had to break the paradigm of an electric car.”

Missoula Nissan’s Max Siebert charges a Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle that gets about 100 miles on a full battery, at the only EV charging station in town. With EV use on the rise, plans for two new public charging stations in Missoula are in the works.
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula Nissan’s Max Siebert charges a Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle that gets about 100 miles on a full battery, at the only EV charging station in town. With EV use on the rise, plans for two new public charging stations in Missoula are in the works.

When the San Francisco-based Tesla came out with a refined version of the Roadster in 2010, Kreisel saw it as a way to meet the immediate needs of his family, abide by his principles and contribute to the early success of a revolutionary company.

There was only one drawback: He couldn’t easily take the car long distances. The Roadster can only hold a charge for about 240 miles and takes about six hours to fully power up from the 220-volt outlet in Kreisel’s garage.

For the rapidly growing number of people who, like Kreisel, own Teslas and other EVs, the functionality of their vehicles is dependent, to varying degrees, on the availability of public charging stations. As the web of such stations grows to meet demand, Missoula appears to be on the cusp of adding a couple of its own. Tesla is close to opening a station near I-90 and the Missoula Parking Commission is discussing adding one downtown.

Kreisel and others argue that, as more people turn to EVs, these stations will be vital to the health of the area’s economy and environment. Jakki Mohr, a marketing professor at the University of Montana, owns a Chevy Volt, which runs on electricity for about 40 miles and then switches to a gas backup. She says the existence of public stations will likely increase convenience for EV owners and, thus, drive up sales in the area. According to Mohr, studies have shown “the effect of public visibility of charging infrastructure actually helps consumers feel safe making the purchase of an EV, even if they don’t necessarily have to use the public charging station.”
Some, however, are urging the city to exercise caution and consider how EVs fit into the broader energy and transportation picture.

Jenny Mish, director of the Missoula Sustainable Business Council, notes that “electricity production remains problematic—it is ultimately dependent on coal and other fossil fuels.” Instead of encouraging greater use of cars, Mish would like to see the city promote carpooling and alternative modes of transportation. Bob Giordano, director of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, agrees.

“Completing our bike system, our walk system and our transit system should probably be a higher priority than an electric system, although it’s given that lots of people are driving, so if we can improve the driving system, that seems to be a plus,” Giordano says.

Currently, Montana has only two public EV charging stations—fewer than any other state, except Alaska. In Missoula, the only existing charging station is a private one at Missoula Nissan, on Brooks Street. (Nissan manufactures the Leaf, an electric sedan that gets about 100 miles per charge.) The first public station will most likely be a Tesla Supercharger station located near I-90. Though a spokesperson with the company says the site “is not yet entirely confirmed,” Denise Alexander, the city’s permit and land use section manager, says Tesla has inquired about setting up charging stations at two different hotels on North Reserve Street.

A Tesla station in Missoula would fill a gap in a growing national network of free stations for the company’s customers. Just last month, Tesla opened a station in Billings, and the city of Bozeman approved a plan for another one.

Anne Guest, director of the Missoula Parking Commission, says she is also looking into the idea of adding a public charging station in the new Park Place garage, which was built with the necessary infrastructure. She adds, however, that she’s still far from determining if, when and how to implement one.

“Do we have a need at this point? I don’t know that,” she says. “So, I think there’s got be a lot of further investigation to say, ‘Are we ready for it? Is Missoula ready to have a charging station?’”

According to the Montana Motor Vehicle Division, of the more than 2 million registered vehicles in the state, only 674 are electric. Elsewhere, however, the prevalence of EVs and charging stations is much higher—and rising. A U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson says the number of public charging stations has risen from fewer than 500 in 2009 to more than 20,000 now. Late last month, Tesla announced plans to produce 100,000 cars a year by the end of 2015.

With the cost of EVs dropping, and sales and production increasing, Missoula might not have a choice except to accommodate these new vehicles, despite some reservations about what doing so might mean.

As Kreisel says, “It’s one of these inevitable waves that are coming.”

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