June 12, 2011

Tempe gets electric-vehicle recharging station

Tempe, electric-car charging station Carlos Chavez/The Arizona Republic Aparna Mohla of Arizona Smart Power takes a photo of the EV Blink charging station at Monti's La Casa Vieja steak house in Tempe. ECOtality, a California-based company, installed the charger through its EV Project.

It looks like a gas pump, but the state's first commercial electric-vehicle charger doesn't induce the kind of sticker shock many Valley residents complain of when filling up.

On Monday, electric-vehicle owners recharged their batteries for free at a gathering celebrating the rollout of a federal-stimulus-funded program that will place as many as 1,200 commercial chargers in metro Phoenix and Tucson.

The first was installed in downtown Tempe.

Clayton Saffell, 31, of Chandler, and Laura Winger, 26, of Mesa, got wind of the celebration and were there to show their enthusiasm for the program. While there, they hooked up their electric vehicles for a free recharge.

Saffell bought his Nissan Leaf, which operates solely on electric energy, early this year for $32,000. He boasts of the $7,500 federal income-tax credit he got for purchasing the car.

Saffell is an aerospace engineer, but he says the cash he's saving on gasoline thrills him more than his car's technology.

"I've driven 5,300 miles since I bought it January 8," he said, grinning. "I'm getting 2 cents per mile. How about that for a selling point?"

Saffell likes that Arizona utility companies have to maintain energy rates annually because it allows him to budget the cost of running his vehicle a year at a time.

"I know the utility companies can't change their rates every week, and they have to ask for permission to raise rates," he said. "Nobody has to ask permission to raise gas prices."

Winger said her concern for the environment fueled her purchase of a Chevy Volt, a hybrid vehicle that runs on electricity and has a small gasoline engine to power the battery until it can be recharged.

"I really believe in the cause," she said. "I wanted to show there was demand for the need to move toward electric and other alternative-fuel sources."

Still, Winger acknowledged that she also enjoys the fact that in a period of high gasoline prices, her cherry-red Volt draws as much attention as any sports car.

Her ASU-themed license plate reads "EVENVY."

ECOtality, a California-based company that markets electrical technologies to replace carbon-based fuels, is installing the chargers through its EV Project, a $230 million program funded half through federal grants and half through private-industry investments. The chargers will go in 18 major cities in six states and the District of Columbia.

ECOtality's Blink commercial charging stations are being installed for free at businesses in metro-area hubs and places that have large workforces, such as malls. Some Valley electric-vehicle owners already have received free ECOtality residential chargers.

The two Blink stations unveiled Monday were installed in downtown Tempe at Monti's La Casa Vieja. The landmark steak house on Mill Avenue was selected because of its central location and proximity to major entertainment and employment hubs.

Michael Monti, La Casa Vieja's co-owner, said providing a station at his restaurant makes good business sense.

"We're in a major urban zone . . . in the center of the Valley," he said. "The university (Arizona State) is nearby, we have the freeway and high-density urban development."

Litchfield Park Mayor Tom Schoaf, who attended the celebration with Tempe Vice Mayor Joel Navarro, called the opening "an important step to paving the road to sustainability in our Valley."

Garrett Beauregard, ECOtality's senior vice president of engineering, said the company will soon install a charger at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and at Westgate City Center and University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

The University of Arizona is one of the few public buildings so far to agree to host a charger.

The EV Project is part of a $400 million nationwide stimulus-funded effort to address rising gas prices, diminish America's dependence on foreign oil and reduce carbon emissions.

The U.S. Department of Energy expects to install 22,000 charging stations at residential, commercial and public buildings by December 2013. ECOtality and other companies installing the stations are providing data on customer usage to the government to study the best methods for expanding alternative-fuel technology.

That research also will help ECOtality.

"The government's only going to fund this for so long," Beauregard said. "This isn't just about the technology. We're trying to analyze the market demand and lessons learned that will help us develop a sustainable business model."

by Dianna M. Náñez The Arizona Republic Jun. 7, 2011 12:00 AM

Tempe gets electric-vehicle recharging station

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