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Council Unplugs Car Charging Station Plan

Despite supporting the concept, councilmembers suggest electric car industry is still evolving, better solutions are emerging and demand for electric cars is still unclear.

Mill Valley resident Jim Bitter thought he was merely shouting into the wind over a fait accompli.

In addressing the Mill Valley City Council Monday night as it considered a proposal to install a two-space electric car charging station downtown, Bitter admonished its four members in attendance, saying they hadn’t done their homework and were sure to approve a plan that made no sense.

“These cars only exist because of federal subsidies, and you’re enabling the federal government to get involved in something that just plain doesn’t work,” Bitter said. “It’s another Solyndra happening and when you raise your hand, you’re sending a signal to Washington that this is a good idea. I fully expect that you will.”

Minutes later, each councilmember expressed their support for electric cars in concept and then rattled off their respective reasons for believing that the proposal in front of them was half-baked, including unclear demand, an ongoing cost to the city and an ever-changing electric car industry. The council voted unanimously, with Andy Berman absent, to reject the plan to install an electric car charging station either near the or in the parking lot behind .

“Before we dedicate two of our precious parking spaces in our downtown area, I would like to know with a reasonable likelihood that they are going to be used,” Mayor Ken Wachtel said. “We don’t know that yet.”

The proposal came on the heels on successful efforts to find grant funding to pay for the charging station equipment and part of its installation, according to Dan Hughes, the city’s senior civil engineer.

The plan originated from a deal struck in October 2010 between Marin Clean Energy and Coulomb Technologies, which received federal stimulus money for its $37 million program called ChargePoint America. The deal called for the eight cities participating in Marin Clean Energy, of which Mill Valley is one, to receive free electric charging stations supplied by Coulomb.

San Rafael was the first city to jump on the ChargePoint program, installing two charging stations in the public parking garage between B and C Streets in downtown.

City of Mill Valley officials identified a few possible locations for the charging stations, including two in and around Depot Plaza and one in the parking lot behind City Hall. The costs to install the stations varied, depending on the proximity to electricity, from $10,000 to $17,000, according to Hughes.

City officials also garnered approximately $4,000 from the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) to pay for part of the installation, and Hughes told the council his department had identified an additional possible funding source to pay for the rest of the installation.

But Hughes did note that there were ongoing costs to the city associated with operating the stations. He estimated the electricity costs for the two spots would be approximately $800 per year, and the city would also need to pay $230 per year to subscribe to the ChargePoint system.

Those costs troubled among councilmembers, particularly because the city didn’t have any data on the number of registered electric cars in Marin County to indicate how much use the stations would get.

A spokesperson with the California Department of Motor Vehicles was unable to provide registered electric vehicle data for Marin County, but noted that 104,262 of the more than 22 million registered vehicles in California are electric. When extrapolated against the 186,593 registered electric cars in Marin County in 2010, there are less than 1,000 electric cars in Marin County.

“The grant opportunity for installation is not high enough to offset the long term expenses with this,” said councilmember Shawn Marshall. “If we could get this to a cost neutral point, that would work. Right now it’s a good idea but not all the pieces are there yet.”

Councilmember Stephanie Moulton-Peters, a TAM board member, recommended inviting the Golden Gate Electric Vehicle Association to work with city staff to explore other options.

“This is a good start, but there are other options out there,” she said. “This industry is moving very quickly.” 

Nicholas Littlejohn September 21, 2011 at 03:34 AM
That was shortsighted. Go drive one and see why they are our future.
Lonnie Fogel September 21, 2011 at 05:46 PM
I think most of us would like to see large-scale usage of electric cars. But, for now, Council made the right decision given our town's budget constraints in this difficult economy and with so many other projects already going wanting for funds
Rico September 22, 2011 at 04:44 PM
Those level 2 charging stations are a waste of money, it takes 8 to 10 hours to charge a small electric vehicle with a level 2 charger that needs a 30 amp 240 volt new electrical circuit and meter enclosure cabinet mounted somewhere. The cost of running the power feed underground, including trenching the sidewalk, curb and gutter and street is very expensive. They might as well install a level 3 charger that can charge a car in about an hours. That would require a 480 volt 3 phase 60 amp circuit, and the level 3 chargers themselves cost $60,000 plus they need 480 3 phase power, not easily available in most areas, 480 is mainly in urban industrial areas. Thank you City Council for being smart about this proposal and turning it down. Oh, and this extrapolation of 1000 pure electric vehicles in Marin, I most seriously doubt that there are that many. I estimate the number to be more like 100.
Alfredino September 24, 2011 at 06:44 PM
Most cities in the Bay Area have installed charging stations for EVs or are going to in the near future. Ecotality and Chargepoint are subsidizing a good part of these. I don't see why Mill Valley couldn't make a deal with Coulomb to keep some of the revenue of an hourly charging fee, to make this a break even or possibly profitable venture. To say that they don't think there is enough demand right now lacks vision. I believe things will be very different in a year as far as new EV's on the road. Nissan has already delivered over 6000 Leafs, mostly in California, GM over 3,000 Volts. Several new EV's will be debuting in 2012. The question is, will there be any subsidies available when Mill Valley revisits this? An hour of charging with a Level 2 charging station will give around 13 miles of driving, it's unlikely that most people parking in an EV charging space would need a full charge. I prefer my city leadership to show some vision, not just look at the status quo.

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