General Motors may have killed the electric car, but Santa Rosa hopes to give it a new lease on life.
A city program to install electric vehicle charging stations aims to ensure that when all-electric cars hit the market again this fall, the city has the infrastructure to help them live up to their potential.
"Ten years ago, when they first started selling electric cars, the chargers were kind of an afterthought," said Jon Merian, the city's fleet superintendent. "Now they're getting the infrastructure in place first."
City electricians have spent several weeks installing 13 charging stations at city facilities around town, many of which will be available for public use. The stations were funded by a $100,000 federal grant backed by stimulus funds.
Eight are in easily accessible locations. Two were installed at City Hall last week. Five others have been put in downtown city garages, and another is planned for a parking area near Railroad Square.
"For this to work, it has to be convenient for users," Merian said.
Several government agencies in Sonoma County have had charging stations over the years for their own small fleets of electric vehicles. But the new stations have one key feature past ones have lacked -- they'll charge you to charge.
Made by Coulomb Technologies of San Jose, the ChargePoint stations are designed to charge customers for the electricity they use to reenergize their batteries. The city hasn't yet decided the cost, but expects to work that out soon.
The stations now are only equipped with 110-volt plugs, which means it would take as long as eight hours to fully charge a Nissan Leaf. But upgrades to Level 2 charging, which uses 220 volts and will cut charging times substantially, are around the corner, Merian said.
Chris Jones, an electrical engineer at Agilent and an electric vehicle buff, said he was thrilled to learn the city is making the stations accessible to the public.
"I'm ecstatic, elated," Jones said. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time."
Public charging stations solve a key gap in the electric vehicle infrastructure, he said. All-electric vehicle owners will charge primarily at their homes, but to be practical for longer trips, the vehicles need convenient places to be recharged.
"Our club has 60 members throughout Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, and I regularly get asked, 'I want to come to Santa Rosa, where can I charge?' And I say, 'Well, you can charge at my house,' " said Jones, who converted his 1966 Ford Mustang to an all-electric vehicle that gets 45 miles to a charge.
One of the features of the 5,000 ChargePoint stations planned for across the nation is that they would be networked together, allowing customers to check availability from the Internet.
The units are locked when not in use, and open when an account holder waves a key card in front of them. The card holder is charged for the electricity used, and the company reimburses the city 80 percent, keeping the remainder for administrative costs, Merian said.
Sonoma County government also has installed several such stations around its administration center, primarily for its own fleet.
The Sonoma County Water Agency was spearheading a push last year to win a grant that would have covered all nine cities, but that effort didn't pan out. Santa Rosa kept at it, and snared a different grant for itself.