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Wednesday, May 4,2011

Growing pains

As electric vehicles gain popularity, where to charge them? MSU says not on campus as it develops a system.

by Brian Bienkowski

To say Matt Stehouwer is proud of his car would be an understatement.  


Stehouwer, a technology manager at the
College of Natural Sciences at Michigan State University, owns a new
Chevrolet Volt, General Motors’ plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.  He
started a website — www.VoltFanSite.com — and even made trading cards
for his Volt, complete with “stats.” (Color: Viridian Joule Tricoat;
Hometown: Hamtramck, Mich.; Engine: 1.4L.)


“I’ve always been fascinated with new
technology, and now with this car, not only is it cool, but I’m only
spending $30 on gas a month,” Stehouwer said.


But what has allowed the savings in gas
also presents a problem for Stehouwer: Places to charge up are not
readily available around the Lansing area.


While at work, Stehouwer was charging on a 120-volt outlet at MSU this winter, but the university told him to stop. 


“After about a week I got a call that I
had to stop charging because it was stealing power from the government,”
Stehouwer wrote in a letter to the Lansing State Journal in February.
He added that he offered to pay MSU for the power — which was “about
$0.47/day” — but MSU wouldn’t budge.


It takes Stehouwer approximately eight
hours to get a full charge on a 120-V outlet and four hours on a 220-V
outlet. He can still drive his Volt to and from campus because of a
short commute. But what about others who may not live so close? 


“I know some professors who drive an hour
into work everyday,” Stehouwer said in an interview. “These folks would
definitely need a charger.”  


MSU is in the process of addressing a
future with more electric-vehicle drivers. Instead of creating an “elite
parking space for each individual electric vehicle,” the university
wants to integrate them into the existing, fee-based parking system,
said Lynda Boomer, energy and environmental engineer with the MSU
Physical Plant, in an e-mail. 


“Parking is not free on campus and the
installation and maintenance of electric vehicle charging stations will
be a cost to the university over time,” Boomer said.


The planned charging stations will
operate like parking meters. The stations will collect a fee for the
“privilege of parking in the space for a certain amount of time,” Boomer
said.  


The Lansing Board of Water & Light
also is studying how to accommodate more electric vehicles with its
Plug-In Electric Vehicle Community Project. MSU is working through
“contract issues” with the BWL and hopes to take part in the program,
Boomer said.  


The project, funded by the U.S.
Department of Energy, is an effort to both encourage alternative fuels
and give BWL data on how the introduction of electric vehicles to the
Lansing area will affect energy transmission. Twenty-seven BWL
customers, including Stehouwer, have agreed to provide the board with
three years’ worth of data to measure the impact of electric vehicles on
the area’s electric usage.


“Our goal is to gauge what this
(introduction of electric vehicles) would do to our electric
distribution system,” said George Stojic, executive director of planning
and strategic development for BWL.


Electric vehicle owners receive a $7,500
discount off the price of the vehicle and a $7,500 federal tax credit.
BWL also will install a charging station at participants’ homes and one
at their place of work for no charge. BWL estimates it costs an average
of $1.20 a day to operate an electric vehicle and has plans for
Stehouwer’s charging station in the works.


Peter Lark, BWL’s general manager, bought
his Chevy Volt in mid-February and has put about 1,500 miles on it, he
said. Lark is a little surprised about MSU’s position on charging on
campus right now.


“It’s the first time I’ve heard of an entity not being supportive,” he said.


Lark said he charges his Volt at work,
his home and at the Public Service Commission building in south Lansing
near the Cedar Street and Pennsylvania Avenue intersection.


“The stance MSU is taking is that once
these proliferate, companies won’t want to give (electricity) to
electric vehicles. But we’re talking about pennies (now),” Lark said.
“You would think one of the leading institutions in the world would want
to be a leader. But ultimately, when you have thousands (of electric
vehicles), obviously a change has to be made.”


As MSU’s first Volt owner, Stehouwer said
the university has been working with him and is amenable to his input.
However, he remains unconvinced that a dollar-per-hour cost on campus
charging stations is the right approach. He fears that a dollar-per-hour
rate at a charging station would diminish one of the main benefits of
electric vehicle ownership: money saved on gas.


Charging stations in general are a mix of
pay-per-use and free, Stojic said. Some vendors and commercial
establishments aren’t charging. Meijer, for instance, has three charging
stations in Michigan — Warren, Allen Park and Holland — and does not
charge customers to use them.


BWL will look at a variety of payment
systems and collected usage data in determining what the best
infrastructure is, Stojic said.


How charging stations will be integrated
into Lansing remains to be seen. But for MSU, Stehouwer and at least one
professor feel the university isn’t living up to its environmentally
progressive image.


“The funny thing is — MSU promotes going
green, but the politics are getting in the way of installing the
chargers,” Stehouwer wrote in his letter to the LSJ.


Michael Nelson, an associate professor of
environmental ethics and philosophy at MSU, thinks the university needs
to make a more concerted effort to advance the conversation on electric
charging stations and sustainability on a broader level.


“There needs to be serious conversations
about MSU supporting things like electric vehicles,” Nelson said. “We
preach sustainability be we really haven’t answered some questions, like
whether we’ll be leading this (electric vehicle integration). We’re
just not there yet.”


Andy Balaskovitz contributed to this story.

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