SOUTH PORTLAND — The city will add its fourth electric vehicle charging station this month and will likely add a third EV to its fleet in 2015.
Yet even as South Portland carves its own path toward environmental sustainability, the city and the state still have a way to go to adequately accommodate the growing number of EV drivers.
City Manager Jim Gailey said he believes providing infrastructure should be a preemptive move on the part of the municipality, rather than a reactionary one. And for Gailey, the primary preemptive action needed is the installation of sufficient charging stations.
“We’re of the belief that people are not going to invest (in electric vehicles) if the infrastructure is not there for them,” Gailey said.
At this point, “having an electric vehicle is a lifestyle change,” he said. Until electric vehicle batteries become stronger, or until sufficient infrastructure can support regular driving patterns, Gailey said he doesn’t see electric cars being used as a “primary vehicle, but a secondary one.”
The number of electric vehicles in Maine continues to climb, even though the state has only four high-voltage charging stations.
According to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, more than 800 electric and gas hybrids were registered in the state as of Dec. 29, 2014. Of those, 154 are completely electric: 98 Chevy Volts, 42 Nissan Leafs, and 14 Teslas.
Most plug-in electric vehicles have a battery life to sustain the car from about 50 to 100 miles on a single charge. Higher-end plug-in electric vehicles like the Tesla S model, can travel for between 250 to 300 miles before recharging is needed.
The Maine Office of the Public Advocate lists five low-power charging stations in Maine. An electric vehicle mapping website, PlugShare, shows more than 30 public charging stations in the state, at locations ranging from car dealerships, to campgrounds, hotels, colleges and municipalities. However, depending on one’s location in the state, access to a public charging station can vary considerably.
Charging power at plug-in stations is categorized as offering either an alternating current (AC) or a direct current (DC), with levels rated from 1 to 3. Level 1 and 2 stations are typically AC and offer a slower, gradual charge. Charging a vehicle at a Level 1 or 2 station for about 15 miles worth of driving takes about an hour.
The state’s four Level 3 stations, or DC Quick Chargers, offer an accelerated charge in a shorter amount of time, and can top off a battery in about a half hour. They provide a 70 mile-charge in about 20 minutes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“That’s really the future of charging stations,” said Paul Weiss, a Cumberland resident and owner of an all-electric Nissan Leaf, which can travel about 85 miles on a full battery.
Operating an exclusively electric vehicle requires planning on the driver’s part, Weiss said.
“You do get used to the driving range, but it also makes you think a lot more about how you drive and use your car,” he said. “You try to make the best minimized trips, you really think about how you’re driving and you reduce your trips for a day.”
A potential problem of recharging at a station is the lack of available spaces. Compounding this likelihood is the hour or more it takes to charge a single vehicle at a Level 1 or 2 station.
A trip to Belfast and back is about the extent that Weiss can take in his Leaf, he said, due to the limitations of the car battery and the time consumed at a charging station.
“I stopped at Nissan dealer in Brunswick and had to wait a long time because Level 2 chargers are slow … a two-hour trip turns into a four- or five-hour trip,” Weiss said.
Steps toward a solution
Through a grant from Central Maine Power Co., two DC Quick Charge stations were installed over the summer in southern Maine, one at the Fore Street parking garage in Portland, and the other alongside a Level 2 charger at the South Portland Community Center.
Following the installation of both Level 3 chargers, a third high-voltage station was added near the Hyatt Place hotel in Portland’s Old Port. Another Level 2 charging station is available in the back corner of the South Portland City Hall parking lot, near the Mill Creek Transit Hub, and the city in January will add one more at its Planning Department at 496 Ocean St. (the former Hamlin School).
While it is an upside that high-voltage chargers are now dotting a concentrated area in southern Maine, the next closest Level 3 charger is in Bangor, more than 115 miles away.
To think, “I’m going to make it there and have a spot to recharge is a gamble,” Gailey, the South Portland city manager, said.
Making Level 3 charging stations more readily available statewide would “truly give you the ability to use your car for more than just the local commuter car,” Leaf-owner Weiss said. “It would give you the ability to drive double or triple the range of your car for the day.”
The solution for a greener Maine, as Gailey sees it, requires more than increasing the number of high-voltage charging stations. He said charging station providers should be given an incentive.
Requiring a nominal fee to charge at public stations, similar to a parking meter, could be that incentive, Gailey said. But Maine law prohibits an entity from charging for secondhand use of electricity.
“I think there’s a lot of progress to be made,” Gailey said. “As the state of Maine continues to be the green, rural state, I think we have a lot to do to promote sustainable practices.”
Paul Weiss leans against his all-electric Nissan Leaf in front of a solar-panel grid that he recently installed on his property in Cumberland. Weiss, like many across Maine who own electric vehicles, has to plan ahead when he takes trips to ensure that a plug-in charging station will be nearby.