Road Worrier

Raleigh opens 2 car charging stations

Staff WriterNovember 30, 2010 

On the West Hargett Street sidewalk, next to parking spaces 101 and 102, are two reassuring signs that Raleigh will be ready for a new wave of mass-market cars that can run without a drop of petroleum.

The electric-car charging stations were installed there last week, in front of the Raleigh Municipal Building. Each one looks like a little gas-station pump, its fat electric plug holstered at the end of a 9-foot power cord.

A third car charger will power up this week on Lenoir Street at the Raleigh Convention Center, to be followed in the coming year by a few dozen at city parks and parking decks and on Fayetteville and Hillsborough streets.

And just in time. We don't need these things yet - but we will.

General Motors and Nissan will start selling the electric Leaf and the electric-and-gas Chevy Volt next month in a few U.S. cities, with combined nationwide sales of 30,000 expected over the coming year.

And Ford picked Raleigh as one of 19 launch markets for the electric Focus, which will hit the streets in late 2011.

"That's because we've demonstrated our commitment to preparing this city for the rollout of those vehicles," said Paula Thomas, who runs the city's sustainability office.

"It's a chicken and egg," Thomas said. "You can't have the cars if you don't have the infrastructure. And why would you have the infrastructure, if you don't have the cars to use it?"

For most folks who buy an electric car or a plug-in hybrid, the infrastructure will be a home power outlet.

The public chargers to be installed by the city - and by employers and merchants - will be more like security blankets for drivers nervous about straying too far from home.

Depending on your car model, and how fully depleted your battery is, you'll be able to recharge it in eight to 16 hours at home, from a basic 120-volt outlet. In the lingo that will become familiar to consumers, that's a Level I station.

Many of us will get a Level II charger with 240 volts, the power used for electric dryers and other heavy appliances. Charging time is four to six hours.

The industrial-strength Level III charger, pumping 440 volts, will serve vehicle fleets and perhaps public stations - where folks might pay a premium for a relatively quick 30-minute charge.

Thirty minutes? Who calls that quick?

Even at busy gas stations, where you wait your turn at the pump, you can tank up and get going in a few minutes.

That's why electric car owners will prefer to do their charging overnight, at home.

The Level II, 240-volt charging stations on Hargett Street (and at N.C. State University) are for somebody running on empty - and afraid of running out.

"They're meant to provide some security, so you don't necessarily have to get home before you recharge," Mayor Charles Meeker said.

On average, he said, the cost of powering an electric car will be about one-third the price of filling a gas tank. Meeker likened it to paying 75 cents a gallon for gas.

As a practical matter, City Hall might not be a convenient place to charge your Leaf, Volt or Focus Electric.

The charging stations are first-come, first-served. The car ahead of yours might be there for an hour or two.

Parking spaces 101 and 102 might be taken by old-fashioned gasoline burners, blocking the charging stations.

For the first several months, the city and Progress Energy will provide the electricity free of charge. But you'll have to feed the meter to avoid getting a parking ticket.

Paula Thomas recalled the early 20th century, when the first automobile drivers found their way around without the security of a gas station on every corner.

"There's going to be an evolution of this entire transportation system, and this is just the beginning," Thomas said. "We'll see what the market needs. A lot of these practical issues, as they present themselves, will be overcome."

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