Here is a YouTube video of a talk I gave that lays out our thinking at Austin Energy when I was Vice President of Distributed Energy Services and leader of the utility’s efforts to install a city-wide electric vehicle charging network, juiced by 100% Green-e Certified green power.
Juiced about plug-ins
Expected to be a lead adopter of electric cars, Austin takes to them with enthusiasm.
By Claudia Grisales CGRISALES@STATESMAN.COM
Nearly four years ago, industry experts predicted that Austin would be one of the first U.S. cities to embrace the emerging electric and hybrid vehicle market.
So far, those predictions are checking out.
Austin’s electric vehicle market has grown nearly 700 percent in four years, climbing from 144 vehicles in 2010 to 988 this year, according to Austin Energy. Meanwhile, the city has gone from just a single public charging station in 2010 to 186 stations today through Austin Energy’s “Plug-In Everywhere” program.
Few U.S. cities have embraced plug-in vehicles more enthusiastically than Austin, experts say. In a Charge-Point survey, Austin was listed as the nation’s No. 4 city for electric cars, behind San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego.
“We’re happy with the progress in Austin. It’s exciting,” said Richard Lowenthal, founder and chief technical officer for Campbell, Calif.-based ChargePoint, manufacturer of the world’s largest network of electric vehicle charging stations. “We expect Austin, being a pretty progressive city with people who care about the environment, to be a leader and continue to be a leader ... we could also see a doubling of everything in Austin for everything having to do with electric. That’s what I would expect.”
Karl Popham, manager of electric vehicles and emerging technology for Austin Energy, said part of what’s driving the area’s electric car boom is an increase in options, ranging from the Nissan Leaf, with a monthly lease of about $200, to the Chevrolet Spark EV for about $26,000 to the high-end $130,000 Tesla and “everything in between.”
‘Butts in seats’
And this year, Cadillac launched its ELR electric hybrid model, starting at $75,000, while BMW this year plans to begin offering its i3 model in a handful of U.S. markets, including Austin.
“There are a lot more options available today,” Popham said. “A few years ago it was primarily the Chevy Volt, the Tesla and the Nissan Leaf. We now have around a dozen choices.”
Lowenthal said his experience is that drivers who test-drive an electric car often become converts. “They are sort of viral the way they sell,” he said. “The best selling technique is what we call ‘butts in seats.’ If you get your butt in one of these seats, you’ll want to own one.”
The price issue
While sales of plug-in vehicles in the U.S. nearly doubled from 53,000 in 2012 to 97,000 sold last year, the vehicles remain a tiny portion of the total U.S. new car market, as a total of 15.6 million passenger cars and light trucks were sold last year. One obstacle to sales of electric vehicles remains the purchase price. However, manufacturers are working to produce cheaper options, Popham said.
“What we are seeing now, very quickly, is that electric vehicle manufacturers are quickly addressing the affordability issue and for a lot of customers they are blowing it out of the water,” he said.
Lowenthal said he expects significant sales growth ahead as electric car manufactures focus on lowering costs.
One recent goal for automakers: Getting electric vehicles on the market that lease for less than $200 a month, Lowenthal said.
“The cars are getting very competitive but that’s only recently, the last three or four months,” Lowenthal said. “Everybody knows that pricing is an issue, and we are seeing the automakers get more aggressive.”
One of the key selling points for plug-in vehicle use has been that they lessen use of fossil fuels and can help lower pollution. That holds true with the Austin-operated plug-in stations, Popham said.
Austin Energy’s public stations are 100 percent powered by the utility’s GreenChoice program, which is fueled by wind energy, Popham said.
“We continue to push the environmental benefits,” he said. “We have people driving thousands of miles on these vehicles that are powered by wind and solar energy programs.”
Austin Energy also offers a rebate for those who install their own personal charging station. The utility covers about 50 percent of the costs of the stations and so far, the average rebate is $1,087, Popham said.
Having an easily accessible and well-developed network of plug-in stations is a key prerequisite to see local growth for electric cars, industry experts say, and Austin scores well in that area.
Including 186 plug-in stations through Austin’s public program, the total number locally jumps to more than 250 stations when you include private charging stations in local homes and businesses, Lowenthal said. Of those, about 44 are in private residences and more than 20 are private stations at local businesses.
The city’s public stations are dispersed throughout Austin, but many locations are concentrated downtown.
Half of Austin’s plug-in stations are at city facilities, libraries and parks, Popham said. The other half are at private facilities such as apartment complexes.
Ready to plug in
One example is Austin-based National Instruments, which joined the program after one of the company’s employees started charging his vehicle through a regular power outlet in the company’s parking garage in North Austin. Today, the company has one of the largest plug-in stations in Austin, which can charge 12 vehicles at once.
“Our employees are at the forefront of innovation when designing and creating our products, so they tend to be on the cutting edge of adopting new technologies in their personal lives as well,” said Mike Finger, vice president for global human resources. Today, he said, about 20 National Instruments employees drive electric vehicles “including our CEO and co-founder, Dr. ( James) Truchard.”
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport now has 20 charging stations as they replace diesel-fueled vehicles such as those used for baggage loaders with electric vehicles.
“The truly public stations that are not fleet or residential stations are getting one use per day. And that’s healthy where you don’t have people arguing in the street on who will get the charge,” ChargePoint’s Lowen thal said of the Austin stations. “It’s not overwhelming, but it’s a great start. As more cars come online, these stations will come up to two uses per day.”
With the local charging stations readily available and not yet facing long wait times for uses, that encourages consumers to step into the plug-in market, Lowenthal said.
“They feel the confidence needed to buy the vehicle they want,” Lowenthal said. “It really is a matter of confidence.”
CONTACT CLAUDIA GRISALES
James Truchard, CEO and founder of National Instruments, charges his Tesla electric car. Truchard is one of 20 National instruments employees who drives an electric car. VALENTINO MAURICIO / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Dean Brockhausen, principal architect at National Instruments in Austin, prepares to charge his Nissan Leaf electric car after arriving to work Thursday at the company’s parking garage, where 12 cars can be charged at once. VALENTINO MAURICIO / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN