Electric-car owners should soon be able to cruise around Surprise without worrying about their batteries running out of juice — a charging station will likely be nearby.
ECOtality Inc., a Calif.-based green technology company, is partnering with Surprise and private businesses to install electric-vehicle charging stations around the city. A station was installed in the parking garage at City Hall this week and seven others are likely to open during the first half of 2012.
The stations look like small gas pumps, except the hose carries a 240-volt electric current, not gasoline. It is designed to recharge new cars like the Nissan Leaf or Mitsubishi i-MiEV that run solely on electricity as well as hybrid models.
Surprise is among other cities receiving the stations through a $230 million federal stimulus-funded program; about 14,000 chargers are being installed in 18 major cities and metro areas using money from the stimulus and private partners. Other cities in Arizona include Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, Peoria and Tucson.
Terry Lowe, who heads the city’s Sustainability Division, called the project an exciting “opportunity to get in front of the electric-vehicle movement that the federal government has been pushing.”
Last fall, the City Council approved an agreement with ECOtality to have three stations installed on public property at no cost to the city. In addition to City Hall, stations will be installed at the Northwest Regional Library and AZ TechCelerator (the city’s business incubator.)
Marc Sobelman, ECOtality’s Arizona manager, said he is in negotiations with several retail businesses and shopping centers in Surprise to install more stations. He said the company has made deals with Kohl’s and Rio Salado College.
“We believe that the more infrastructure out there, the more confidence people have,” he said. “We believe more infrastructure, more (electric) cars.”
Sobelman said the company aims to place the stations near highly-trafficked areas, such as government buildings, where people are going to be for 45 minutes or longer. The type of stations being installed in Surprise take four to six hours to fully recharge a vehicle.
Eventually, the company plans to install fast-charging stations along the Valley’s major freeways, including Loop 101, to help drivers making longer trips. Such stations fully recharge vehicles in 30 minutes or less.
Jim Stack, president of the Phoenix Chapter of the Electric Auto Association, a non-profit group that promotes electric vehicles, said building a network of charging stations in the Valley will eliminate some of the anxiety consumers have about electric cars.
“It just gives you that comfort feeling that there’s a charging port,” he said, adding that most daily commuters only need to plug-in their vehicles at home overnight. “”Everybody loves having (charging stations) just in case.”
The business model for electric-vehicle stations is evolving. ECOtality will operate the new stations through the end of this year. Then, site owners can decide to cover the cost of electricity and maintenance or have the stations removed.
Drivers can plug-in their vehicles for free, at least for now; businesses and governments might eventually require a fee. Commercial stations charge from $1 to $2 an hour, according to ECOtality’s website.
“It’s a new concept,” Surprise Public Works Director Bob Beckley told council members in September. “It’s more in promotion — just getting these things out there to give consumers an idea ‘well, there will be an infrastructure if I buy a Leaf or whatever.’”
Sobelman said the nationwide project is intended to help ECOtality analyze the market for electric vehicles. The company has provided thousands of owners with home chargers that gather data, including the amount of energy used and duration of charge.
“The EV project is about information gathering,” he said.
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