More EV chargers, but few cars to use them

The activation this week of two charging stations in Connecticut underscores the limited, even haphazard infrastructure available to the early owners of electric vehicles, an evolving market whose needs the utilities are trying to anticipate.

To great fanfare, a single charger opened in one of the Westport train station parking lots on Monday and another is due to open Friday in front of Torrington City Hall. They are the first two EV charging stations in an EV research project by Connecticut Light & Power.

“It’s an emerging EV market and we have customers who need to be recharged. What we’re trying to do is find the best way to meet their needs,” said CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross. “It might be stations around the state. It might be with municipal and business customers. Or will most people be charging their cars at home at night? This is a huge unknown.”

The failure of EV infrastructure legislation this past session has left Connecticut with several different initiatives and independent efforts hoping to catch the EV wave when — and if — it hits.

Meanwhile, there is little pressure from consumers to quickly establish a charging system. The roll out in this area of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, the early contenders for mass-market electric vehicles, has been slower than expected.

Still, the experimental phase in providing accessibility to charging is seen by supporters as an important step.

“It’s more symbolic at this point. What you’re seeing here is some flags being planted,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a member of the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee.

He supported the EV infrastructure bill because of the state’s well-traveled interstates and large commuter culture in the lower part of the state, where people drive short distances to train stations. “I’d suggest that maybe we missed the opportunity to be out front,” Steinberg said.

Even though the Clean Energy Finance and investment Authority, whcih was created from the old Clean Energy Fund, has been given the power to create programs pertaining to alternative fuel vehicles, how to proceed on electric vehicles is left to individual efforts and programs like CL&P’s research project.

Designed to run about 18 months, the project provides free, 240-volt, level two (of three – making it medium power) chargers that can fully charge a vehicle in about four hours, to communities and businesses that then install and maintain them. The chargers cost the utility about $3,000.

Westport will have free charging for a month. The price after that is not set, but will probably start at $3 for every two hours and will include a payment mechanism through a Smartphone app,  believed to be one of the first of its kind.

“I just want to cover costs,” said Stephen Smith, of Westport’s building department, who’s handling the project. “This is something new. We don’t know what it’s going to cost.”

Smith said he’s not concerned that there will be competition for the one space or that one electric vehicle owner might hog it. “If I was worried about that, I would love it,” he said. “There’s not a lot of electric vehicles, so we’re doing everything we can to encourage it. We’re probably not going to put on limits.”

In return, CL&P gets data — who’s using the chargers, when and for how long – so the company can figure out electric needs as EV use increases.

Gross said Mansfield is planning to install a charger and discussions are underway with West Hartford and with UBS in Stamford.

United Illuminating has had a similar pilot project underway since May with two chargers  in Fairfield and three in New Haven. UI is picking up all costs, including the charging — again, in return for information.

“We have to gather the data,” said UI spokesman Michael West. “As the market is penetrated more, we’re trying to make sure we’re ahead of the curve a bit.”

But finding any curve at all could be difficult. UI declined to reveal usage data so far, but others have.

“As far as I know, no one’s actually used it,” said Dave Friezo of Lydian Asset Management, which installed a free public solar-powered charger at its offices in Westport in June.

Fairfield officials said neither charger has been used, while Norwalk reports limited patronage of its chargers.

“There’s some usage but it’s not like the demand is very high,” said Kathy Hebert, who runs the city’s parking authority. Norwalk has installed three chargers, provided to them for free, since January, two in parking structures and one at the train station. “It’s not the technology that’s not working, it’s that the demand’s not there for people to buy those vehicles.”

But Hebert has no plans to remove the chargers.

“I think eventually they will make sense,” she said.

So the question remains: Would the EV situation be better served with legislation that systemically designs infrastructure to help people feel more comfortable with electric vehicles’ short driving distance capability – known as range anxiety? Or is it better to wait for increased car sales before investing in infrastructure?

Steinberg felt an opportunity had been missed, but he didn’t necessarily believe it was gone for good. “Give us another year plus,” he said. “By then we’ll have a lot more experience on the ground here in Connecticut. It could really inform a much more pragmatic approach.”

Gross of CL&P said he would have preferred having a statewide plan. “If there was something on the books, it may have possibly put some of our customers minds at ease,” he said. “Customers may have been willing to move a little more quickly.”

Leo Karl III, whose Chevrolet dealership in New Canaan has delivered about a dozen Volts and has another dozen on backorder, said EVs are poised to become a bigger piece of the transportation landscape. But, he said: “Without a coherent long-term national energy policy, it’s daunting for anyone to envision what it’s going to be like in five, 10 15 years.”

Others said legislation was not necessary yet, and the EV programs, disjointed as they might be, were meeting the early, limited need.

“I think we’re about right to be honest with you,” said Lee Grannis of the Greater New Haven Clean Cities Coalition. “I think the best thing is what the state is doing. Instead of doing a push scenario, it’s doing a pull scenario.”