Solar-powered Charging Stations Installed in North Carolina

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 14, 2012

By Kathy Chaffin
As rising gas prices and concern about harmful fuel emissions lead more and more people to purchase plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, the need for accessible charging stations increases.
Four solar-powered charging stations installed in the Asheville metropolitan area in December and January will help to meet that need. The project is a collaborative effort by BioWheels Responsible Transportation Solutions (RTS), the North Carolina Green Business Fund, Advanced Energy, City of Asheville, Buncombe County, the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the Land of Sky Regional Council of Governments, which serves Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.
Keith Bamberger, information and communications specialist for the N.C. Division of Air Quality’s regional office in Asheville, said the solar integrated stations – called “Brightfields” – annually collect enough energy to offset 90,000 miles of gasoline-powered vehicle travel by generating the electricity and sending it back to the grid. 
The four solar stations will be among six in North Carolina. Though not available for public use, two solar stations installed in Raleigh in December will power vehicle fleets for the city and Progress Energy as part of a two-year research project with Advanced Energy, which will evaluate the stations’ effectiveness and how they work with the electrical grid.
Reduces Air Pollution
Bamberger described the four solar stations in the Asheville area as a “double win” because they reduce reliance on the two biggest sources of air pollution in the region: vehicle emissions from internal combustion engines and electrical generation, “in that order.”
“That’s pretty much true statewide,” he said, “so this really kind of solves two problems at once.”
The Land of Sky Regional Council Brightfield solar station can charge up to four vehicles at one time with one Level 1 charging cord and three Level 2 charging cords, according to Bill Eaker, environmental services manager for the Land of Sky Regional Council of Governments. The 110-volt, Level 1 cord takes 10-to-12 hours to charge a vehicle while the Level 2 cords charge vehicles in three-to-six hours from empty to full.
A Direct Current (DC) Fast Charger, which he said will be the next wave of chargers to be installed around the country once national standards are finalized, will be able to recharge an electric vehicle battery in about 30 minutes.
Stan Cross, cofounder and principal of BioWheels RTS along with Matt Johnson and Patrick Sherwin, said the solar-driven company started “with a group of us here in Asheville just trying to figure out a solution to our oil addiction.”
Cross said the quest became more urgent when Hurricane Rita struck the Galveston area, shutting down the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies western North Carolina. “There was no gasoline in town for a couple of weeks,” he said. “It really brought to light just how insecure our region is when it comes to transportation fuel.”
In addition, Land of Sky calculated that $3.2 billion is spent annually to import energy to western North Carolina. “We don’t have any coal here,” Cross said. “We don’t have any natural gas, and we don’t have any oil, so we import all those raw materials for our energy.”
By integrating solar power production with break-through developments being made in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, he said, BioWheels cofounders were able to develop the Brightfield solar-powered charging stations. The Brightfields are grid-tied meaning that electricity generated by the solar panels is put onto the grid whenever the sun shines while electricity consumed by the electric vehicles is pulled off the grid rain or shine, day or night.
20,000 EVs in State by 2015
Of the million electric vehicles (EVs) projected to be on American roads and highways by 2015, Cross said 2,000 are expected in the five-county Asheville metropolitan area. “There’s forecasted to be about 20,000 EVs statewide,” he said, “so we’re stepping up and demonstrating with our Brightfield installations that we can charge that entire emerging vehicle fleet in the state with solar power.
“When you’re taking solar energy and using it to fuel an EV instead of gasoline in an internal combustion engine, you get a significant return on your investment.”
BioWheels RTS received a $376,000 grant from the N.C. Green Business Fund to help with the project. Cross said the grant money was used to develop BioWheels cofounders’ vision as a model of renewable energy for other cities in the state to follow.
The solar charging stations generate solar power whenever the sun is shining, Bamberger explained, and because of the current electricity market and legislation aimed at reducing pollutants, solar energy is more valuable than electric energy generated by coal. 
What makes the project even more beneficial is that BioWheels RTS is based in Asheville and the Brightfields are designed and manufactured there with American-made materials. In addition, BioWheels RTS provided job training to Green Opportunities participants.
Green Opportunities offers job training to high school- and college-age students who have limited incomes or are receiving some sort of public assistance.
“So they’re getting sustainable job skills,” Bamberger said. “There are so many pluses here.”
Information on the charging stations will be announced in three public service announcements starting next month on local cable stations, media, websites and even in movie theaters.
BioWheels RTS’s website – – contains more information.