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Boulder’s Electric Vehicle Future

Will charging infrastructure lead the way to success?
April Nowicki: May 30, 2013

Dave Thielen, a 12-year Boulder resident, turned in his BMW M3 for an all-electric car in 2012.

He no longer pays $3 or more per gallon for gasoline, and he charges his electric vehicle (EV) at home overnight, which he says was an easy habit to adapt to.

But as a consumer in a new, growing market, Thielen has little regard for the steps Boulder has taken so far to support electric cars. He has never used any of the city’s four public charging stations, which are located at the three outdoor recreation centers. He says that these chargers are misplaced.

“When you’re just driving around in town, you’re not going need it,” he says. “You’re going to need it when you’re driving some distance.”

And driving a long distance — farther than running errands around town or a daily commute — is something that EVs are not meant to do, yet. Thielen owns a Nissan LEAF, which has an EPA-approved driving range of about 75 miles on a fully charged battery, and that’s the next bridge this industry is trying to cross.

Running out of gas usually isn’t a problem — but running out of electricity in an electric vehicle is. When was the last time a trip to the gas station took more planning than a grocery store run? Gas stations are so ubiquitous that drivers rarely need to do an internet search for a nearby location, and if all the pumps are being used by other drivers, a five-minute wait will solve that problem.

“If you’re a one-car family, electric won’t work yet,” he says.

Instead of at the city recreation centers, Thielen says chargers should be placed along I-25 and I-70, and especially at Denver International Airport, for travelers.

Joe Castro, the City of Boulder’s fleet manager, says that the rec center chargers are a good starting place for public EV charging. He says that citizens using the parking lots are exposed to the devices when otherwise they might not know the chargers exist. The chargers were installed at the north, south and east Boulder recreation centers, thanks to a $500,000 federal grant awarded to the city in 2011.

Boulder initially expected about 40 EV charging stations by mid-2012. But, according to Castro, only five were installed for public use, including one station at the Alfalfa’s grocery store that is dedicated to a Nissan LEAF eGo CarShare vehicle. The city’s website shows a map of all chargers available, including those installed by other companies and organizations such as Walgreens, the Nissan dealership and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The costs to install the five public chargers, plus seven that are available only to the city’s fleet of plug-in electric and hybrid cars, ran much higher than expected. Castro says that in order to run electrical lines from the South Boulder Recreation Center to the desired charger location across the parking lot, more than 100 feet of concrete needed to be dug up and then replaced. The materials and labor for the concrete work cost more than $21,000, not including the cost of the charger itself, plus more for contracting assessments and project management.

This process jacked up the price of installations in more than one instance. For a location where the charger is located only 10 feet from the electrical panel, the shortest distance for all the city’s public chargers, the cost came down to about $11,000. The city is currently planning to install three additional chargers at the Boulder Reservoir north of town, at Chautauqua Park south of town and in a parking garage in downtown Boulder.

The city owns a fleet of alternative fuel vehicles, including 40 hybrid gasoline/electric cars and two fully electric vehicles. Castro anticipates obtaining more EVs in the coming months, including a brand new Chevy Volt to replace a hybrid Ford Escape, which broke down in 2012. The city EVs are used for travel to provide educational presentations at schools, for the parks and recreation staff and for building inspections.

Charging placement is a complicated issue for the city, as well as for travelers, companies selling EVs, and anyone considering the purchase or lease of an EV in order to reduce their carbon footprints. According to the EPA, a gallon of gasoline burned releases almost 20 pounds of greenhouse gases into earth’s atmosphere. The future of EVs may depend on how successfully the infrastructure of chargers is implemented. Choosing locations to place EV chargers is being addressed by companies such as Google, Facebook, Coca-Cola and General Electric, which have all joined the U.S. government’s EV Everywhere Workplace Charging Challenge. The question remains whether installations of public stations will initiate growth of EV driving, or if the costs associated with this infrastructure could be lost.

The nationwide pharmacy chain Walgreens began implementing its EV charging infrastructure three years ago and has since installed more than 800 chargers at locations across the country. One of the three Boulder Walgreens locations provides an EV charger for customers and employees, although a store representative stated that no employees currently own an EV.

Walgreens’ website states that a high-speed direct current (DC) charger (a 480-volt level 3 charger) can add 30 miles of driving distance to an EV in only 10 minutes. Slower chargers are also available in level 1, for 120 volts of power, and level 2 for 240 volts of power. The unit located at the Walgreens on 28th Street and Valmont in Boulder is a level 2 device and would require about an hour’s worth of charging to gain 25 miles of driving distance. A level 1 charger is ideal for overnight charging at home — it takes about one hour to add five miles of driving range.

In 2010, there were almost 58,000 all-electric vehicles on the roads in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Association, and that number is increasing each year. In 2011, an additional 10,000 EVs drove off dealership lots, and that number increased to almost 15,000 in 2012, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. More than 17,000 brand new EVs were sold between January and March of 2013, and Damian Herd, a Nissan EV infrastructure manager, says that Nissan has a company-wide goal of selling at least 20,000 LEAFs by the end of the year.


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