St. Louis Moving Forward to Install Electric Car Charging Stations

Jeff Dale spent $16,000 converting his black 1987 BMW convertible from gas-powered to electric, but he rarely drives it from his Alton home to St. Louis — because he won’t come across a single charging station.

That holds true across the area, a desert for electric cars, with the closest charging station some 147 away in Champaign, Ill., according to the U.S. Department of Energy. So Dale — and anyone eying one of several emerging mass-produced models — have a case of so-called “range anxiety.”

But a cure may arrive soon: Although St. Louis remains behind many cities in planning for charging stations, that process appears to be gaining traction. At least two area companies — Novus International and French Gerlemen — will soon install charging stations, and a nonprofit hopes to work with more private businesses to get at least 50 charging stations open locally next year.

“We’re going to start concentrating on public facilities like movie theaters, malls and parking facilities where people spend a few hours,” said Kevin Herdler, executive director of St. Louis Regional Clean Cities, a nonprofit financed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Even one or two area charging stations could go a great distance in solving Dale’s dilemma. “I can make it to St. Louis, but I can’t make it back to Alton,” said Dale, 59, a real estate appraiser. He converted his car two years ago in response to the gas price spike, but still owns a gas-powered car. When Dale drives to St. Louis, he plugs in at a friend’s garage, an extra step that requires more advanced planning and time.

Clean Cities also is working with Ameren to determine where public charging stations could be installed in the region, with a report of findings due out in several months.

“We’re analyzing what we need to do and exploring adding electric vehicles to our fleet,” said Ameren spokeswoman Susan Gallagher.

The cost of installing recharging stations — which start at $2,000 and can exceed $6,000 — remains a major barrier. But the task force, formed a year ago, hopes ultimately to establish a charging corridor linking Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago. That cause could gain momentum soon as Chevrolet, Nissan and Ford each roll out new electric vehicles in the coming months.

Those models portend more than a dozen electric car models expected to hit the market by 2012. So the time has come, Herdler said, to install the infrastructure.

“As technology evolves, then I think people will be more comfortable using it,” he said. “Right now, we have a gas station on every corner, but you don’t know where to go to charge your electric car.”

Getting in the game

Two area companies are beginning to add charging stations on their own: Novus International, a nutritional supplement manufacturer, is adding three charging stations to its St. Charles office campus next month; and electrical distributor French Gerlemen will add one to its new Maryland Heights headquarters for employees and customers in December.

Most charging stations nationwide allow charging for free, with the cost borne by the municipality or business paying for electricity usage. Costs to charge an electric vehicle can range between 20 cents and a dollar, depending on the vehicle type, length of the charge and the price of electricity. A few cities, including San Francisco, have installed charging stations that assess a fee, payable by credit card.

Novus’ spokeswoman Adrienne Todd said the company was adding the chargers as part of larger efforts to make its business operations environmentally responsible. The company had already given plum parking spots to employees driving low-emission and fuel-efficient cars. “So these charging stations are a logical next step,” Todd said.

Novus’ employees and staff won’t pay a fee for charging their vehicles. The company’s headquarters has solar panels on its roof that were recently expanded to help offset the added electrical requirements for the charging stations.

At French Gerleman, the electrical distributor is installing an electric vehicle charging station next month at its new headquarters at 2023 Westport Center Drive to serve as a testing facility for its employees and for visitors. The company will pay for the cost of electricity.

French Gerleman is a distributor of ClipperCreek electric vehicle charging stations and recently added 60 charging stations to its inventory to meet the expected demand from contractors, companies and municipalities next year, said director of operations Adam Ruebsam.

St. Louis Community College’s Wildwood campus was the first in the area to add charging stations for electric vehicles when the campus was built in 2007. The school owns an electric car used for campus maintenance and added four charging stations with 16 outlets as part the property’s LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The certification assigns points for building materials and practices that promote energy savings.

The charging stations are for faculty, staff and visitors, and users aren’t charged a fee.

“The school was looking for what they thought will be needed in the future,” said spokeswoman Patricia Aumann.

Pent-up demand

The addition of charging stations in the region can’t come soon enough for the 80 members of the Gateway Electric Vehicle Association in St. Louis who own electric cars and rely on 110- or 220-volt outlets in their garages to power up their vehicles. Rob Erb, co-founder of the Gateway group, said St. Louis’ lack of progress in installing publicly accessible chargers had cost the city allotments of new and sought-after electric cars.

“That’s why we’re not going to get the Nissan Leafs until late next year,” he said. “They’re going to communities that have plug-in chargers.”

Same with the Chevrolet Volt: It will be rolled out in some markets this year, but a national rollout, including St. Louis, isn’t expected until 2012. The Leaf can run up to 100 miles on a full charge, and the Volt can be driven up to 50 miles on an electric charge before a gasoline generator kicks in to provide electricity.

Getting a critical mass of electric cars is the key to building momentum for charging infrastructure, but the reverse is true as well. St. Louis County-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car is buying 500 Nissan Leafs to add to its rental offerings — although none yet in St. Louis, because of its lack of charging stations. Enterprise’s Leafs are going to Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Nashville, Tenn.; San Diego; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle.

“Currently, St. Louis is not slated for the initial roll out, as those cities with the infrastructure for charging stations available will receive the first delivery,” said Enterprise spokeswoman Lisa Martini.

Other cities have made far more progress. A study last month by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants and the Rocky Mountain Institute that evaluated the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S. for their electric vehicle readiness found that the cities with the most charging stations are Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Riverside, Calif.; Sacramento; and San Francisco. Each of those cities has dozens of public charging stations, and Los Angeles has more than 400.

In the study, St. Louis isn’t ranked by number. But it is among 11 cities in the middle of the pack of the 50 largest metro areas that are considered ‘fast followers’ based on the current level of planning to increase the infrastructure for plug-in electric vehicles.

Matt Mattila, manager of the Colorado-based nonprofit Project Get Ready, an organization financed by the Rocky Mountain Institute, said municipalities and businesses were slated to add more than 20,000 charging stations in the nation next year.

Some cities such as Portland have set a goal of adding 500 public-use stations in 2011 to meet the expected demand next year when more electric cars are on the roadways, and San Francisco has set a target of adding 2,000.

Such infrastructure will probably come more slowly to St. Louis, but demand here has taken root, said Rick Hunter, principal of Clayton-based Microgrid Energy, which installs Coulomb electric charging stations. He has seen an uptick in calls from businesses and municipalities here about installing charging stations.

“I’ve gotten four or five calls in the last week,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a surge going into next year.”

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