By KEITH MORELLI | The Tampa Tribune
Published: October 12, 2011
Updated: October 12, 2011 – 4:25 PM
TAMPA — A version of the future arrived today. At eight city parking lots, 10 charging stations for electric cars sparked to life, marking the first time in Tampa’s history that such futuristic innovations were plunked down amid parking meters and pay stations.
It’s only the beginning, city officials and industry captains vowed. Today, 10 stations. Tomorrow … who knows?
Cue “The Jetsons” theme. “Meet Bob Buckhorn … “Tampa’s mayor pulled up to the downtown Jackson Street parking lot in a borrowed, silent Chevrolet Volt, parked it next to the charging station, plugged it in and juiced up the fire-engine red compact car. “It’s as easy as that,” he said. Of course, nobody can predict what the future holds, but one vision is that electric cars will hum along Tampa’s urban landscape a decade or two down the road and charging stations will be just as common as parking spots. “We’ve got to reduce the carbon footprint,” Buckhorn said to a small gathering of city employees and reporters this morning. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done.”
He admitted later that the electric car industry is in a conundrum. People are hesitant to buy electric cars because of a lack of charging stations and there’s only a few working charging stations, which cost $8,000 each, because of the dearth of electric cars on the road. Industry speculators are hoping that will change.
“My feeling is that electric vehicles will play a very important part in the future of transportation,” said Helda Rodriguez, president and cofounder of NovaCharge, the Tampa company that is installing the charging stations in the city. “It isn’t the only technology we looking at, though,” she said. “Your vehicle has to match your lifestyle. Some vehicles will run with clean natural gas or another alternative fuel that may be available. But, electric cars will be a big part of fleets and most consumers’ lives. They do solve so many problems for us. “I don’t envision an all-electric future,” she said. “The future will be a blend of many good technologies each serving a certain function. We have started moving in the right direction.”
The unveiling of the charging stations on Wednesday marked the first time such contraptions have been placed on city property. But they’re not the first in Tampa. “We have every type of location,” Rodriguez said, “including corporate parking lots, restaurants, hotels, some shopping areas. It really runs the gamut. We have charging stations in some of the garages of the downtown high rises, the office buildings.”
She said the hope is to have 150 charging stations in and around the city by the end of the year. Thanks to a $15 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, there is no cost to the city. Under the program, Tampa became one of seven cities across the nation installing the charging stations in public parking lots and monitoring their usage over the next two years. Tampa won’t charge a service fee for use of the charging stations, but, motorists will have to pay the normal parking fee in the public lots. Each charging station can power-up all types of electric vehicles from cars to scooters to Segways; even electric bicycles, Rodriguez said. Ultimately, she said, the hope is that the industry will reduce carbon emissions from gasoline powered vehicles and create jobs in the Tampa Bay area.
“We want to see a new burst in our economy with jobs for electric vehicle mechanics and sales people for this new industry,” she said. “Each charging station provides jobs for electricians, concrete cutters and others.” The stations are in a network which allows NovaCharge to monitor which ones are being used and which ones aren’t. So, five, 10 years down the road, the company can tell where to install more stations, she said. “We’re not big believers of blanketing areas so much that we have more than we need,” she said. “We want to invest money where it will be well spent. If we see one area where there is a tremendous amount of use, we want to grow in that area, as opposed to trying to guess.”
Typically, vehicles with drained batteries will need to be on the charger for four to six hours, she said, to get a full charge. The Jackson Street lot charges $1.60 an hour to park.” So, if you’re crossing the Bay to work every day,” she said, “you can park your car where you work and leave it until it’s fully charged.”
Richard Nimphie, owner of Suncoast Electric Vehicles in St. Petersburg, said that his dealership has sold eight Wheegos electric cars and has orders for several more. He said the total number of fully electric vehicles in the Tampa Bay area likely is fewer than 100. Among the concerns of consumers is the lack of charging stations, he said. “Range anxiety,” he said. “They’re asking, ‘How far can I go on a charge?'” But most people who would use an electric car to commute to work wouldn’t need to worry, he said. Cars can go around 100 or more miles on a charge, he said, and 70 percent of working people only drive 15 to 20 miles to work. “Most people live close enough to where they work that they can charge their cars at their homes overnight,” he said. He said Hillsborough Community College just took delivery of an electric van and his sales staff is constantly making proposals to municipalities across the state to sell them electric fleet cars.
Tampa’s fleet of vehicles has no fully electric cars, but does include some hybrids, said Irvin Lee, director of Tampa’s public works department. The city gets vehicles through a bid process and manufacturers are welcome to offer up their electric models. But they just aren’t cheap enough to win bids, Lee said. “We put out the specs and if Chevy wants to bid a Volt, I’m sure they could or would,” he said, “but it’s not going to be at a cost we’re looking for.” A new Volt costs about $32,000.
Hillsborough County commissioners in June voted to install 10 charging stations around the county. Some went into parking lots of four libraries, a downtown parking garage and at the county’s Environmental Protection Commission headquarters. Charging stations also were expected on the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College and at the St. Pete Times Forum.