Approval of charging stations highlights electric car demand

Kimberly Railey

When I-GO’s vision of solar car-charging stations in Evanston is fulfilled at the end of 2011, CEO Sharon Feigon said she won’t expect an overwhelming response – at least not immediately.

“I think they will become quite popular, but it’s going to take a little while,” Feigon said. “The manufacturers are just getting the (electric) cars out and then people need to get comfortable with their range.”

Last month, Evanston aldermen approved plans to install electric car-charging stations with solar car canopies at the city lots on Chicago Avenue, at Central Street and Stewart Avenue, and at Main Street and Hinman Avenue. But as the city begins securing construction permits, one uncertainty remains: Whether there is enough local demand for the still-evolving technology served by the charging stations.

An Oct. 17 article in The Wall Street Journal echoed the same worry on a larger scale.

“Across the U.S., such equipment is proliferating even though it is unclear whether plug-in cars will prove popular,” wrote authors James R. Hagerty and Mike Ramsey.

The number of electric cars in the Chicago area is likely to be lower than that of other cities that have developed infrastructure for charging stations sooner, said Samantha Bingham, environmental policy analyst for the Chicago Department of Environment.

However, Bingham noted there will “definitely be some use” of the charging stations in Evanston, adding her department has no statistic on how many residents currently use electric cars.

In late 2009, Bingham said Chicago committed to constructing public charging stations through the allocation of $2 million in state and federal funds, some of which I-GO absorbed.

I-GO received money to deploy 36 plug-in electric cars with solar charging canopies in the Chicago area, with the Evanston project costing more than $250,000 alone, according to a memo from an Evanston City Council meeting.

Over the next few years, Feigon said electric vehicles will become increasingly prevalent in the Evanston community.

“The battery technology is undergoing an amazing transformation, and there are going to be better and better batteries so the range for electric vehicles is going to increase,” she said.

That trend can already be seen in residents’ positive response to the all-electric Nissan Leaf, said Patrick Levy, Leaf specialist at the Autobarn Nissan of Evanston, 1012 Chicago Ave.

The first model of the car won’t arrive in Evanston until December, but high consumer demand has already sparked a three-month shortage in its availability for purchase, Levy said.

“It’s beyond popular,” Levy said. “The cars are not tangible, but they’re ordering it and paying for it like they can see it. We don’t have enough to sell it to all of the people.”

Chicago received the vehicles late from auto manufacturers because other cities – such as Seattle and Los Angeles – secured federal funding to deploy electric vehicles earlier, Bingham said.

The city needed to demonstrate its commitment to developing infrastructure for the vehicles if manufacturers had incentive to “make that investment and training for all of the dealerships,” Bingham said.

Some areas might have a greater demand for public infrastructure than others, but any charging station will resonate positively with electric car drivers, Bingham said.

“Drivers feel supported and know they can use the infrastructure because it’s there,” Bingham said.

Levy said once more charging stations in the community become available, electric cars could possibly outnumber all others in the area.

“When you’re pulling people away from relying on the gas pump, I can’t see why it wouldn’t expand,” he said. “The electric vehicle is something that will probably become a staple in America.”

The installation of the charging stations will conclude by the end of the year, although the canopies’ construction may not be finished by then, Feigon said.

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