Road Worrier

Road Worrier: NCDOT pulls plug on car chargers after taxpayers run a $44 tab

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.comJune 3, 2013 

“History was made today,” the state Department of Transportation proclaimed on Jan. 11, 2012, when it installed charging stations for plug-in electric cars at four interstate highway rest stops in Johnston and Alamance counties.

Fourteen months later, the chargers were history.

DOT quietly pulled them out of the ground and trucked them to a warehouse. In their place today are four blue signs memorializing the end Feb. 28 of an “EV charging station pilot project.”

The chargers were inspired by a civic zeal for jump-starting new things. They were doomed by a civic reluctance to give some things away for free.

In this case, a tiny trickle of free electricity.

The 240-volt car chargers, built like little gas pumps, were provided with a federal grant routed through the state Commerce Department’s Green Business Fund. The idea was to offer a bit of security for the first Americans who buy Nissan Leafs and other electric-only cars, and Chevy Volts and other plug-in hybrids that also have gas tanks.

Plug-in drivers usually recharge their big batteries at home overnight, but most of these cars travel less than 100 miles on a full charge. While it’s easy to find a gas station when the needle is pointing to EMPTY, the nation has no equivalent network of e-fueling stations for its fledgling fleet of electric cars.

“I’m sure someone faced the same dilemma with Henry Ford’s early vehicles – there probably weren’t a lot of gas stations around,” said Michael S. Fox of Greensboro, a former state Board of Transportation member, who snipped the ribbon at a January 2012 ceremony for an I-85 rest-stop charger near Burlington. “Eventually the free market took care of it.”

Speaking of free, that’s what these charging stations were. The average user plugged in for 47 minutes, according to DOT records, and there was no charge for the charge.

“Within days I heard DOT was getting complaints from the public about that,” recalled Anne Tazewell, who runs the N.C. Solar Center’s Clean Transportation Program.

This effort by the Democratic administration of then-Gov. Bev Perdue was not popular with the Republican leaders of the General Assembly. With Democratic support, they passed a law in June 2012 directing DOT to make plug-in drivers pay for the electricity they consume at highway rest stops.

DOT officials could not figure out a way to do that. Vending machines are the only exception allowed under a federal law that bars sales at North Carolina’s interstate rest stops. So the charging stations were removed before the 2012 law took effect in March.

Don Lee, who heads DOT’s roadside environmental unit, said DOT leaders had always intended to provide the free plug-in charges for a short period only.

“We wouldn’t want to leave them in and continuously have the state of North Carolina pay for the power,” Lee said. “Our pilot was to put them up and see what kind of use they get, and then to take them out.”

They were not heavily used. In 14 months, only 146 vehicles plugged into the four chargers, most of them at the twin Alamance County stops flanking I-85. The other two were on I-40 near Benson.

These 146 cars sucked up 446.9 kilowatt-hours of electricity. They soaked North Carolina taxpayers for a grand total of $44.69.

Lee doesn’t have the final tally, but he confirms that DOT spent more than that to make those pilot-project signs and install them.

Bill McCalla of Cary was sorry to see the new blue signs. He made use of a DOT charging station one day last fall when he parked his plug-in Prius at the verdant, shaded rest stop on I-85.

“It was only for a few minutes,” McCalla said. “I was able to plug the car in while I used the facilities. It was a nice feature to have.”

Tazewell said the state should not have pulled the plug so quickly.

“That to me is a waste of government money,” Tazewell said. “I think it sends the wrong signal to have something put in and then taken out because of a concern it was costing taxpayers money for the electricity.”

Raleigh taxpayers are paying for car charging stations, too. These chargers are getting more use in an urban setting than DOT’s did at the rural rest stops.

The city has nearly 30 stations that have provided 8,973 charges since the first units went online in the fall of 2010. That’s more than 30,000 kWh of electricity, costing somewhere in the range of $3,000.

As plug-in cars grow more popular, Raleigh officials say they’ll start thinking this year about new ways to pay for the electric charges.

Fox said it would have been better to let DOT provide the free charging stations for two or three years.

“I think there’s a lot of value in trying to figure out how to make these alternatives work, and sometimes we can give it a kick start,” Fox said. “At least it wasn’t a whole lot of money.”

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