Sunday, August 28, 2011
Portland Plans for Transit All Powered by Electricity
Hans van der Meer
PORTLAND, Ore. To drivers passing by on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the structure rising above the parking lot is mostly unremarkable. But to the eco-elites who gathered in this green-leaning city in June for its unveiling, it represented a blueprint for the filling station of the future.
The roof of the 12-foot-tall steel canopy, built by EV4 Oregon, is covered with solar cells that generate power for a pair of ECOtality Blink Level 2 electric-vehicle chargers at the base. The facility is connected to the electrical grid, so any excess electricity from the solar cells can be sent to the local utility.
The canopy is more than just a sunny-day design: other installations will include an underground bank of batteries to store electricity for distribution after dark. As the electric vehicle population grows, more canopies can be added to create a covered parking lot.
“This is the future, my friends, and it will make a difference,” said Jeff Cogen, chairman of the Multnomah County Commission and one of several dignitaries to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Hopefully, in 20 years, we can look back and say, ‘I remember when these were introduced.’ ”
With major automakers like General Motors and Nissan now selling plug-in vehicles, charging stations like this one are seen as a vital element in persuading drivers to adopt zero-pollution cars. Without a convenient place to replenish batteries away from home, electric cars would be a hard sell for consumers.
And finally coming online after years of false starts and schedule delays — even in a city that presents itself as a hub for all things electric — these chargers are a welcome sign that the logjams holding back the acceptance of electric cars may at last be breaking up.
Rather than just promote electric vehicles and the installation of charging spots, a coalition of government officials, carmakers, academics and local utilities is trying to integrate all forms of electric transportation into the city.
“Electric vehicles are just a part of the way we’re going to make cities smarter and more efficient,” said Deena Platman, a transportation planner at Metro, the regional planning agency. “It’s the next evolution in sustainability in the city.”
In many ways, electric vehicles are a good fit in Portland. The city is compact enough that the average day’s driving of most households, about 20 miles, is easily covered on a single battery charge. Three-quarters of the state’s residents live along the Interstate 5 corridor between Portland and Eugene, two hours south. Oregon also relies heavily on hydroelectric power, which produces no direct carbon emissions.
Portland has a dense street-car and light-rail network, and the city has the country’s highest per-capita ownership of Toyota Prius hybrids, according to George Beard, a manager in the Office of Research and Strategic Partnerships at Portland State University.
Portland’s embrace of all things electric is one reason why Toyota chose it as one of the cities where it is testing its new plug-in hybrid Prius, which is expected to be introduced in 2012. Green Lite, a local start-up, is creating a plug-in hybrid prototype that it says gets 100 miles per gallon. Eaton, an automotive supplier and infrastructure company, plans to build fast chargers at its plant in Wilsonville, south of Portland.
“Eaton Corporation is working to expand the electric vehicle charging infrastructure and ensure that drivers of these vehicles have the peace of mind they need when commuting,” said Tom Schafer, vice president and general manager of Eaton’s Commercial Distribution Products Division.
These and other companies in Oregon are trying to tackle a key challenge to the electrification of the vehicle fleet: how to install enough chargers so drivers can get past their concerns of finding charging stations away from home.
Installing a charger in a homeowner’s garage is relatively straightforward. Putting chargers on public property is more complex. Who, for example, will install and maintain the chargers? How much will the electricity cost? Who is responsible if pedestrians trip over electric cords? How much should electric vehicles pay to park at chargers?
“The issues are insane,” said Mark Gregory, an associate vice president of finance and administration at Portland State University, which is part of the coalition studying various issues. “In two years, we hope to answer these questions.”
One laboratory for exploring these issues is a short walk from Mr. Gregory’s office. A one-block stretch of downtown, nicknamed Electric Avenue, was conceived as an oasis for all types of electric vehicles, and a vision of how these vehicles can fit into a broader transportation system. Indeed, the avenue runs adjacent to a transit mall on Sixth Avenue where buses, street cars and the light-rail network converge, making it a vibrant hub for residents on their way to work, class or a shop or restaurant.
Electric Avenue’s power lines, buried under the street, will provide the electricity for eight chargers made by seven different companies. Drivers pay normal parking rates, and the electricity for their vehicles is free, subsidized for two years by Portland State University. In all, the installation cost about $80,000.
“We are trying to figure out how to meld it into the urban landscape,” said Mr. Beard of Portland State, which spearheaded the Electric Avenue project with the city and Portland General Electric, the local utility. “We want to capture data on vehicles and chargers and gauge the public’s interest.”
The findings from the Electric Avenue study will complement a $100 million federally financed project to install 1,100 public chargers around the state. About 100 of the chargers have been installed, though the project is about a year behind schedule.
The ultimate goal, though, is to make available more of the direct-current fast chargers that will replenish a battery in half an hour or less. A handful already exist in Portland, and the Oregon Department of Transportation has chosen AeroVironment, of Monrovia, Calif., to install another 22 of these fast chargers. But because there is not yet a uniform standard for their plugs, their introduction has been slower.
At least in Portland, where the appetite for electric vehicles is strong, the fast chargers cannot come soon enough.
“We’re idled at the green light of opportunity,” Mr. Beard said.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 28, 2011, on page AU2 of the New York edition with the headline: Portland Plans for Transit All Powered by Electricity.