Midwest cities planning for electric vehicles

A solar-powered EV charging station, prior to its unveiling, at Como Park in St. Paul. (Photo by Michael Hicks via Creative Commons)

Independence, Missouri, is the kind of place where when someone buys an electric car it’s unusual enough that the local newspaper writes a story about it.

Stan Adkins of Cable-Dahmer Chevrolet sold a second Chevy Volt last month.

Adkins is a big believer in the car, but he doesn’t expect many sales in this Kansas City suburb until residents are more confident they’ll be able to plug them in when and where they need a charge.

“If you see public charging stations beginning to appear, it’s going to minimize some fear or reluctance that people might have in considering electric vehicles,” Adkins said.

Over the winter, Adkins helped start Electrify Independence, a civic committee focused on bringing the first public charging station to Independence by the end of the year.

Independence is among several cities and counties in the Midwest that are starting to plan new policies and infrastructure to support the growth of electric vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded electric vehicle “community readiness” grants last fall to projects in Ohio, Michigan and the Kansas City area.

Other metros, including the Twin Cities, are moving ahead without federal funding.

What they have in common is questions about where to put charging stations, how to handle zoning and permits, and how to create a consistent experience for users.

Where to put charging stations?

A conversation is underway in Independence and elsewhere about the best places to put electric vehicle charging stations.

Adkins’ short list includes places like the local hospital, hockey arena, shopping mall and genealogy center.

“Those are high-profile places that are high traffic, destination locations,” Adkins said. “People drive there from far away.”

Electrify Independence has support from the city’s municipal utility. Ideally, the first charging station will be installed where there is another partner to help pay for it.

It’s also important that the city’s first public charging station be in a place where it gets used, said Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence Economic Development Council.

“The last thing you want is a charging station in front of city hall and it takes up a prime parking spot and it isn’t getting used by someone with an electric vehicle,” Lesnak said.

The work happening in Independence is being supported by a broader, regional program called Electrify Heartland, which received a $441,178 DOE grant in September.

Grant manager Ruth Redenbaugh said various committees are working on government, infrastructure, utility grid, and public education issues.

Red tape, fine print

In Auburn Hills, Michigan, the city council passed an electric vehicle ordinance last summer that, among other things, encourages developers to plan for charging stations.

“Being the home of Chrysler, we wanted to lead in preparing for this particular industry,” said Steve Cohen, Auburn Hills’ community development director.

The ordinance asks developers of new parking lots or structures to include electrical conduits for future charging stations at 2 percent of their parking spaces.

Including the conduit isn’t mandatory, but all 12 developments built since the ordinance have included the conduit, and two installed charging stations, Cohen said.

Adding the extra electrical conduit during construction adds only pennies to a project’s cost, whereas ripping up concrete later would cost hundreds, he said.

The same ordinance also clarified and simplified the permitting requirements for charging stations, which weren’t specifically addressed previously.

The Auburn Hills work is being supported in part by the Clean Energy Coalition, which received a $500,000 DOE grant to develop a statewide plan for electric vehicles in Michigan.

Project Manager Heather Seyfarth said they’ve learned many cities don’t have specific language for electric vehicles in the permitting, zoning or planing rules.

She said it’s unclear whether cities can require developers to install conduits for charging stations, but Auburn Hills offers a model for encouraging that infrastructure.

Creating a consistent experience

Minneapolis-St. Paul wasn’t one of the regions chosen for a DOE grant, but it’s gone ahead anyway with a regional EV planning effort called Drive Electric Minnesota.

The committee includes representatives from city, county and state governments, as well as major employers like Best Buy, and the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy. It also includes Fresh Energy, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Among the priorities: coming up with consistent signs and education materials to be used across the Twin Cities metro area.

“We wanted to have a seamless experience, so if someone was coming to downtown St. Paul to go to a Wild game at the Xcel Center, their experience is going to be similar to going to a Twins game or going to the metropolitan airport,” says Anne Hunt, environmental policy director for the city of St. Paul.

St. Paul came up with signs that other entities are being encouraged to use, too. They consist of the familiar “P” for parking, but with an electrical plug incorporated into the letter.

“We’re sharing information when we meet every couple of months,” said Fran Crotty of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “That’s been really valuable as we move ahead.”

Sharing information

Sharing information is one of the goals of the Energy Department’s Clean Cities program, which awarded $8.5 million in grants to 16 regions last fall.

A requirement for all of the awardees is to prepare a report and presentation.

“We want other cities to be able to use their best ideas,” said Linda Bluestein, national co-director of the DOE’s Clean Cities program.

Bluestein compares the planning effort to the work that went into getting ready for E85 ethanol. There’s a big need for education and infrastructure, she said.

The Energy Department grants are in support of President Obama’s goal to have 1 million alternative technology vehicles on the road by 2015.

If those cars are distributed evenly by population, Independence could expect to see another 360 electric cars over the next few years, according to Redenbaugh.

That’s a rough forecast, but Electrify Independence is sure of one thing, said Lesnak:

“There’s going to be more electric cars, not less.”

One thought on “Midwest cities planning for electric vehicles

  1. Bluestein’s comparison of EV infrastructure and E85 is apt. Like flex fuel vehicles, electric vehicles are not going to replace all of their petroleum-fueled cousins overnight, but they can fill an important niche.