Plugging In: Juice Bars and Charging Farms for Urban EVs

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 19, 2010

Mayor Bloomberg (the guy on the left) plugs in a Smart car in Manhattan. (New York Mayor's Office)I got a call from the BBC, which wanted to interview me in New York City about electric cars, and it wanted to use an EV charging station as a backdrop. "Can you find us one?" asked the producer. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.

I found a New York Times story about some apartment building-based chargers, but when I called I found that a lot of them are not set up yet. New York just didn't seem to be EV-friendly, at least not yet. I finally found one way downtown, at the very green Solaire complex in Battery Park, and we were able to film the segment--with a friendly visit from a Parks Department battery-powered GEM vehicle.

OK, electric cars are just getting underway in big cities like New York and Car Talk's hometown of Boston. In a lot of ways, they're urban vehicles. After all, the range of early cars will be about 100 miles, and that's not suitable for long trips on the Interstate. But the paradox is that cities also present the biggest challenge for them. Let's say you live in an apartment building, and work in a downtown office tower like one that houses our favorite radio program (contrary to popular belief, it is not broadcast from the garage). Where are you going to charge? Certainly not on the street!

This is a big issue, one we need to resolve before the EV Revolution can really gather force. The general assumption is that urban EV warriors will plug in at their friendly neighborhood parking garage. Already, a few of those are offering "juice bars," and Pro Park has put one of those in Boston's Charles Hotel, not far from Car Talk Plaza. Plug in free, and if you're driving a small car you get reduced rates!

GE's neat WattStation, debuting this week, is also an urban animal. (General Electric photo)But not everybody with an EV is going to be able to afford a parking garage, and you aren't likely to have a home garage unless you're in the outer boroughs or the suburbs. It may take a while to get a lot of people wired. I was thinking about this conundrum earlier this week, when I attended the opening of the first public ChargePoint America station in an Edison parking lot in Manhattan. That one, made by Coulomb Technologies, has got free juice, too, at least for 30 days.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was master of ceremonies, and he offered an engaging speech. The city's sustainability effort, PlaNYC, issued a report this year on urban EV charging in conjunction with McKinsey and Company. Bloomberg commented, "We released our report in January. One of its main findings recommended that we establish a targeted network of charging stations located in centralized public locations to help drive demand for these vehicles. And that's exactly what we're now doing."

Fair enough, but when I read the report, it seemed to be saying something rather different. "Early adopters do not appear to need a high-density public charging network," the report says. "While the availability of charging at retail and curbside locations may be reassuring to the average driver concerned about range limitations, the study suggests that the earliest consumers will be willing to change their driving behavior and parking location, given their strong desire to purchase EVs. Thus, a dense public charging network will not be a strong priority for early adopters."

I found this hard to resolve. Does New York need, at least initially, public charging stations like the one at the Edison lot? Or not? I sought counsel from Jason Post, the mayor's first deputy press secretary. He admitted it looked contradictory. "But after looking at the report more closely I see that the issue is how we talk about 'home' charging vs. 'public' charging," he said. "In the report, 'public' charging means curbside (on-street) chargers whereas 'home' charging means a charger at your personal garage or driveway, or at a commercial garage. Our study found that consumers do not need a dense network of on-street chargers--they need home chargers."

Maybe a suburbanite like me thinks of home as, well, home. I still think the idea of a "personal garage" in a city like New York is something reserved for the very rich. The rent would equal the external debt of many Third World countries. Unless Tom and Ray raise my pay, I certainly don't fit the category. We don't want all of our EV early adopters to be Donald Trumps.

I agree, though, that if everybody in New York, or Boston, or Los Angeles, has a "home garage," then we don't need a public charging network. But c'mon, is that practical? One of the reasons both state governments and the feds are subsidizing them is to make them more affordable for you and me.

We need to put great minds to work on this problem, like maybe the brainiacs at MIT who had these incredible ideas for urban EVs:

Maybe they could turn to the charging issue next. Here's an idea. Cities (Detroit especially) are plagued by vacant lots, so why not transform a few of them to downtown charging farms? Free parking, and free charging, all fueled by solar panels (that part is optional)! I guarantee the combination of the two will get EVs to take off quickly in the urban corridor.

And when that happens, Car Talk callers will be asking about that funny noise coming from the general vicinity of the battery pack.

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