City underwrites effort to expand electric car chargers

Susan Elliott, Charlottesville’s climate protection program coordinator, shows off an existing electric car charger at Mayer Electric Supply in the Ix complex. Photo: Christian Hommel. Susan Elliott, Charlottesville’s climate protection program coordinator, shows off an existing electric car charger at Mayer Electric Supply in the Ix complex. Photo: Christian Hommel.

Charlottesville is giving a shot in the arm to its nascent electric car scene, something officials believe will be good for the local environment—and the local economy.

The city is now accepting applications for a new mini-grant program that will steer $50,000 from an existing public green initiatives fund to businesses that install charging stations, giving preference to those close to big retail areas. The idea: Let electric car owners charge while they shop.

“There’s really a case for investing the community in the process, and not just having the city say, ‘We’re going to put a station here,’” said Susan Elliott, the city’s climate protection program coordinator.

Roger Voisinet, a local realtor, part owner of the Main Street Arena, and long a supporter of alternative energy ventures in the city, helped provide the impetus for the program when he asked City Councilor Dave Norris to consider helping fund a charging station Downtown.

“I proposed that to Dave, who said, ‘Great, but let’s think even bigger,’” Voisinet said.

The incentive program, approved by the City Council last month, allows people to apply for up to five reimbursement grants of $3,000 or a third of the total cost of the station—whichever number is lower—with a maximum of two grants per property. Those looking to install faster-charging but pricier DC current stations can get up to $7,000. The first application deadline is December 15, though Elliott said there will be future rounds.

There are some stipulations: The stations must be available to the public and within walking distance of shops and restaurants, and if they choose to charge electric car owners for “fueling” up, they have to pledge to keep the price low.

Elliott said staff and elected officials have been monitoring the development of electric charging networks in other cities, and learning from those efforts. She said they know, for instance, that electric car owners don’t follow the “gas pump model” of waiting until they run low to fuel up. Instead, they seek out spots where they can kill two birds with one stone—charge their battery and pick up groceries—even if it means they’re only plugged in for 10 minutes here or half an hour there.

And that’s where the opportunity for economic development comes in. “Early adopters of electric vehicles tend to have some disposable income,” she said, so catering to them could allow businesses more access to their buying power.

Voisinet said adding more charging stations will also help put Charlottesville on the map as a destination for electric car owners around the region, who tend to plot their out-of-town excursions based on where they can recharge.

And ultimately, he said, beefing up a local network will help solve the chicken-or-egg conundrum that has dampened the popularity of plug-ins. If people see it’s easy to get around Virginia in electric cars, more people will consider buying them.

“It’ll get easier for some to say yes when they feel comfortable they can go from Richmond to Charlottesville and charge somewhere in a convenient public place,” Voisinet said. He’s glad to see his city stepping up to help get the movement going. “It’s almost like building the first gas stations. We’re at the beginning.”

Got a business? Want to apply for one of the city’s charging station grants? Get an application at charlottesville.org/cityEVnetwork.

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