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.”