Raleigh a national leader in promoting electric vehicles

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 23, 2012

By Kathy Chaffin
When it comes to electric vehicles, Raleigh is not only leading the state of North Carolina. It was one of three cities in the nation selected four years ago to set the trend in preparing for the new mode of transportation.
Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, Colo. approached city officials in Raleigh, Indianapolis, Ind., and Portland, Ore., four years ago to begin exploring and promoting electric vehicles (EVs), according to Paula Smith Thomas, sustainability manager for Raleigh. “We have a real strong commitment to electric vehicles,” she said, “because we believe so strongly as a city that it makes sense.”
So Raleigh and the two other cities selected for the “Get Ready Program” began developing policies and regulatory procedures to accommodate the 2011 roll-out of the electric Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Thomas, who was born and raised in Salisbury, said the development of the infrastructure for the EVs was the most important challenge facing the city.
“It was like, ‘OK, the cars are coming,’ ” she said, ” ‘but they’re not going to be embraced as a technology if people don’t feel comfortable and have a place to plug them in.’ “
Thomas said Raleigh officials began purchasing hybrids six or seven years ago in preparation for the evolution to alternative-fuel vehicles, including electric plug-ins.
Today, Raleigh has nine converted Toyota Prius cars, two EVs, one hybrid electric bucket truck, several hybrid electric buses and numerous Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. Donna-Maria Harris, communications coordinator, for the city’s Office of Sustainability, said there are plans to buy additional EVs as the need for replacement of conventional vehicles arises.
The city has 18 public charging stations with a total of 31 plugs, Harris said. Ten are Level 1 stations, which take 10-to-12 hours to charge a vehicle, and 21 are Level 2, which charge vehicles in three-to-six hours. Sixteen of the Level 2 stations are also upfitted with Level 1 plugs for vehicles which do not have to be charged as quickly. However, the public EV infrastructure is meant to “top off” the EV battery, not provide full charging. This is typically done at home.
The decision on where to install the charging stations was made as part of a collaboration between various city department heads, Harris said, with consideration given to visibility and usability of the stations as well as convenience to the general public. Though it is not open to the public, the city has one solar-powered charging station as part of a partnership with Progress Energy for the purpose of research, evaluation and development. 
Thomas said Progress Energy, the utilities provider for the city, also has EVs in its fleet as do several Raleigh businesses. Public charging stations are available at such locations as Whole Foods and North Hills Mall to accommodate customers with EVs.
The city uses a software system called Periscope to monitor the use of the EV charging stations. 
According to the information collected during the month of March, Raleigh’s 23 online EV charging stations delivered 371 kWh with a total CO2 offset of 0.21. The number of charges was 250, with an average charge time of one hour and 23 minutes.
Thomas said EV owners can locate available charging stations across the nation on their smart phones. “In some of the cars,” she said, “you can push a button and it tells you where the nearest stations are.”
In addition, she said EV owners who have private charging stations in their homes are helping the city by beginning to make them accessible to EV owners visiting the area. 
“Here’s the dilemma,” Thomas said. “People are writing us and letting us know that they come here to find a station and they can’t get plugged in because they’re all taken up. We didn’t expect or anticipate that this soon after the rollout.”
Public response to Raleigh being a national leader in EVs and charging stations has been overwhelmingly positive. “Our business community is quite supportive because they see it as a real amenity to the city and a statement that the city is progressive,” she said. 
Thomas said N.C. State administrators, faculty, staff and students have also been very supportive as well as the media. “I’m sure there are also folks that are kind of raising their eyebrows,” she said, “asking, ‘What’s this? Is this just a fad that’s going to fade out?’ “
What is happening with EVs now, Thomas said, can be compared to what happened when Ford introduced the first internal combustion engines. “There were no gas stations back then,” she said. “There were no roads. These cars displaced horses and buggies, and people were laughing at them, saying, ‘Those horseless carriages are never going to catch on.’
“That whole culture, that whole infrastructure developed on the change in transportation, the evolution and revolution of it back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, that’s what’s happening now.”