Portland company offers area's first solar car-charging station

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PORTLAND — At first glance, the slender, blue box lodged in the pavement at Phil Coupe’s Presumpscot Street office could be taken for an air pump, with its long, slithering hose.

But its purpose is not so mundane: Coupe hopes that this addition to the business he co-founded will do nothing short than spark a sea change in local transportation.

The contraption is a charging station for electric vehicles, and it is the only such station in the area to be completely solar powered (College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor installed a solar-powered car charger on a farm the school owns at the end of 2011).

Coupe and his company, ReVision Energy, installed their charging station in late June, and use it to charge a company-owned Chevrolet Volt, an electric-powered car that gets 40 miles on a full electric charge and will go few hundred more using a gas generator to power the vehicle’s electric drive.

This month, ReVision will open up charging station to the general public, offering a free charge to anyone who drives up in a vehicle that plugs in.

Maine currently ranks 43rd in the nation in number of charging stations, but as many as 2,300 drivers could choose electric vehicles within the next three years, Environment Maine said Tuesday.

The numbers are small, but they could be the start of a trend towards alternative-energy vehicles.

“I’m trying to foment a transportation revolution in Maine from gas-powered to solar-powered,” Coupe said. While he spoke he plugged in a car, the charger made a solid mechanical thunk as electricity began coursing through it, and the vehicle beeped to signal it had connected to the flow.

No doubt, Coupe is also trying to foment new business for his decade-old company, which specializes in installing solar water-heating and electricity systems, like one they built for Coffee By Design on Washington Avenue earlier this year. 

Reduced carbon emissions aside, he said solar power increasingly makes sense for those who willing to make the investment.

With no traditional fuel resources of its own, Maine has to import fossil fuels at high cost, he said – in 2007, when the Greater Portland Council of Governments released its energy use report, Cumberland County alone spent $1.3 billion on energy. Throughout the state, roughly half of energy costs are associated with transportation.

“I think that for any company or any business culture that cares about the environment, solar is the way to go right now,” said Steve Woods, the Yarmouth Town Council chairman, who is also an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate and owner of Falmouth-based Tidesmart Global, which includes an eco-marketing firm.

Woods has installed a solar array at his business campus on Route 1, and said he plans to install a solar charging station as soon as next month. The payback period on his investment will be three or four years, he said.

While Woods’ companies use virtually all of the power their solar generators produce during the week, their system pumps electricity back into the regional grid each weekend, earning utility bill credits.

While solar technology remains expensive – a residential charging station that would charge an electric vehicle in six to eight hours, like the one at ReVision, costs about $10,000 for the charger and the solar arrays to power it – installing solar energy systems also qualifies home owners for significant federal tax credits and rebates from Efficiency Maine.

But because the current costs of installing home charging stations are prohibitive, the responsibility for pushing the new technology lies with early adopters who lead the way, Coupe said. 

Alternative-energy experts tend to describe the spread of new technology in chicken-and-egg terms. “You need to have the (widespread charging station) infrastructure in order to justify the vehicles,” said Steve Linnell, director of transportation and energy services at GPCOG. “And you have to have the vehicles to justify having the infrastructure.”

The process remains an uphill battle, Coupe said Friday. Electric cars and charging stations are rare sights in Maine. But as car manufacturers increase their emphasis on the clean vehicles – Chevrolet, Nissan, and Honda all have plug-in cars in wide distribution this year – they will become more common, he said. ReVision has a dozen or so proposals out to build charging stations, and The College of the Atlantic plans to install another solar charger on its main campus soon, too.

“The technology is here and it’s working,” Coupe said. “I think people need to see it.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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ReVision Energy cofounder Phil Coupe stands with the company’s new solar-powered electric-vehicle charging station at 142 Presumpscot St., Portland. Coupe hopes his company will lead a revolution in electric-powered transportation in Maine.