The Power of the Plug:
EV charging stations sprout up in San Jose
by Shelly Hausman
Illustration by a Frank
You buy local produce. You take public transportation often. You even thought for a minute about buying an electric vehicle, if you knew where the heck to plug it in.
How about right here? San Jose is one of a handful of U.S. regions that are part of ChargePoint America, a nationwide network of charging stations created by Campbell-based Coulomb Technologies Inc. This $37 million dollar public-private partnership will provide nearly 5,000 free electrical vehicle charging stations. San Jose was Coulomb’s first customer in 2008 when the first public charger was installed on an East Santa Clara Street light pole, said Laura Stuchinsky, sustainability officer at City of San Jose’s Department of Transportation.
While the majority of chargers are being installed in downtown garages, street lights might serve as an electrical backbone for a distributed system of chargers. Long term, this might be a way to address the needs of residents living in multi-unit complexes who are unable to charge their vehicle at home, Stuchinsky said. Citizens are also plugging in on the street near City Hall and next year, when construction is completed, they will be able to plug in at the new San Jose Environmental Innovation Center. The city charges its one EV at Cureton Elementary as traffic compliance officers monitor school area traffic. San Jose plans to add more EVs to its fleet as the budget and grant funds allow, Stuchinsky said.
This is how it works.You begin by using a smart phone mobile application to locate an available charger. Once you are there, you plug in, swipe a credit card, and charge your vehicle.
EV consumers are expected to refuel while while relaxing at home, working or shopping which opens a need for retailers to integrate charging into their sales, explained Coulomb Technologies Inc. President & CEO Pasquale (Pat) Romano. He gives the example of a big box store that might offer EV charging as well as reward points for shopping.
There may be costs in charging your vehicle. Given that it provides free parking to those who buy or register their EV in San Jose, the city intends to switch from free chargers to requiring $1.50 an hour from users by spring. “We need to be revenue neutral. We will be charging to cover costs,” Stuchinsky said. “We don’t want to cause people pain to charge.” Romano points out that commercial power rates are much lower than the rates charged to citizens. By selling electricity through chargers, “the city can pass on value to citizens and even make a little profit,” he said. This might just be the year for EVs. “There is a confluence of peaking demand for liquid fuel, and technology suddenly being viable,” Romano said. “Every single auto OEM [original equipment manufacturer] has announced an EV that will be out in 2012 or 2013.” Additionally, battery technology has created a price point that is manageable for consumers.
The charging network is one of several prongs of the city’s Green Vision, an ambitious, 10-point plan to more than halve the city’s carbon footprint by 2022.“One of those goals is to convert the city’s entire fleet to alternative fuels.” said Stuchinsky. Under its demonstration policy, the city may suspend some of its cumbersome procurement procedures in order to participate in pilot programs. “We get to see a new technology and how it works, and the company gets to field test it in a real-life situation,” Stuchinsky said. “We work with technology that we’d otherwise not be able to afford.”
Approximately half of the chargers the city will be installing were funded with grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and California Energy Commission (CEC) secured by Coulomb. The other half was funded by the CEC through the Bay Area EV Corridor Project, a coalition of Bay Area cities working to create a regional charging network. The city is also working with 350Green, a private company, which secured funds through the Bay Area EV Project to install 19 fast chargers in the region. “The CEC will want to see the usage levels, the reduction of greenhouse gases and less reliance on gasoline. The city is interested in charger utilization rates and making sure we locate them in the right places to meet demand,” Stuchinsky said.
The darker side of new technology is that sometimes policies need to catch up. San Jose is essentially discouraging consumption of gas, while depending upon gas tax revenues to maintain its streets and roads. “The increase in EV use is simply accelerating the need to resolve this larger issue,” Stuchinsky said. “Even so, it makes sense to encourage the transition to electricity.”
“The conundrum is why put it out there when there is no demand currently,” Stuchinsky said. “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Why install chargers when there aren’t many people wanting to use them yet? But if we don’t install them, people won’t feel comfortable buying EVs. We are installing them in advance of demand because we want to see EVs purchased and used because it’s good for us and the planet.”