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Nonprofit basks in ability to use sun to power electric vehicles

CEO of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland realizing a 3-year dream with solar panels and charging stations
June 28, 2013|By Julie Wernau, Chicago Tribune reporter

Sharon Feigon, CEO of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland, stands beneath solar panels at a charging station at Uncommon Ground in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

Sharon Feigon, CEO of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland, stands beneath solar panels at a charging station at Uncommon Ground in the Rogers Park neighborhood. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

Dwarfed by solar panels that rise like giant wings above Uncommon Ground’s parking lot in Rogers Park, Melissa Pierce unplugged the electric vehicle from its charging station Monday and prepared to take her children to swimming lessons.

In that moment, Sharon Feigon, chief executive of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland, witnessed the scene she imagined three years ago: Chicagoans driving electric vehicles powered by the sun.

The stations and panels, paid for with about $1.5 million in grants, were unveiled this week. They are a response to opponents of electric vehicles who have long argued that the pollution created by electricity production can make these “green” alternatives dirtier than gas guzzlers.

For example, in a state like West Virginia, where 97 percent of electricity comes from coal-burning generating plants, charging electric vehicles would mean burning more coal, a dirtier fuel than gasoline.

“Electric power is good, but it depends where it comes from,” Feigon said. Her nonprofit owns eight charging stations, and when an Oak Park solar canopy is completed in September, there will be 10.

The project was initiated when Feigon was running I-GO, a car-sharing service that last month became a unit of St. Louis-based car rental company Enterprise Holdings.

The four solar locations each include one charging station for public use and one for I-GO. When the charging stations aren’t in use, Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland sells its power to the electric grid.

Getting to this point was no easy task.

I-GO’s project was nearly derailed when the city of Chicago merged it into its larger plans for electric vehicle charging stations and California-based 350Green was tasked with the responsibility for installing the solar stations. In April, the city severed ties with 350Green amid a backlog of unpaid bills.

Afterward, Feigon said she discovered that 350Green had purchased the solar panels, but they were in the possession of contractors who were seeking payment. Some tried to collect from I-GO; others filed liens against companies that had agreed to host charging stations. As a result, some of those companies backed out of the project, yet another setback.

At the same time, I-GO suddenly found itself owning more electric vehicles than there were places to charge them. Car manufacturers took some back. But to keep its remaining electric vehicles in service, I-GO was forced to rent pricey downtown parking spots where private charging stations are located, Feigon said.

Feigon’s key move was persuading the Chicago Department of Transportation, the agency overseeing the city’s stalled charging project, to alter a grant agreement so Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland could tap money to finish the solar charging stations. Feigon credited the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which she said worked tirelessly with her nonprofit and the federal government to get the project completed.

And when property owners who promised to host some stations backed out, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the Bucktown neighborhood-based group that originally incubated the nonprofit behind I-GO, agreed to host two charging stations. Kathryn Tholin, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s chief executive, said the solar canopies are an example of how cities can solve bigger economic and environmental challenges.


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