Lane Community College has come face to face with one of the biggest hurdles to petroleum-free energy: expensive infrastructure.
EUGENE — Lane Community College has come face to face with one of the biggest hurdles to petroleum-free energy: expensive infrastructure.
LCC plans to build what appears to be the Lane County area's first major electric car-charging station powered by solar energy. The idea was innovative enough to win the Eugene Water & Electric Board's first-ever Greenpower grant last year, providing $100,000 of what was expected to be an $800,000 project.
But it turns out that building solar-powered car charging stations is more expensive than the college thought. Almost twice as expensive, in fact.
Instead of two charging stations producing a total of 75 to 80 kilowatts of electricity with electric hookups for 36 cars, as LCC originally wanted, the project has been scaled back by half. The new plan calls for one station generating 35 to 40 kilowatts for 18 charging stations, at a cost now estimated at $675,000.
LCC is paying for its share of the funding, $575,000, from the $83 million bond measure voters approved in 2008 for campus improvements.
LCC expects to begin construction in August. The solar panels and hookups will be built in what is known as Parking Lot B, which faces the main entrance to campus, and is expected to be complete before classes begin in late September.
Dennis Carr, LCC's human resources director, said it was initially difficult to estimate how much the project would cost.
Partly, that is due to the required infrastructure. The solar panels will generate more electricity than needed, especially in the beginning when few electric vehicles will be on the market, and the college plans to pump excess energy back into the electrical grid.
Also, the station will have solar panels placed on supports so they provide a shaded parking area for cars that are recharging. All the electrical equipment plus building a structure strong enough to handle the panels combined to drive up costs, Carr said.
"We've had to kind of right-size our ambitions here," he said.
The college is looking for other funding to build the second charging station and complete the original vision. That station would be on the other side of campus, in Parking Lot N.
LCC President Mary Spilde strongly supports the project. Even though few electric vehicles are on the road, the charging station will prove its worth, she said.
"We're trying to do something that is part of the future," Spilde said. "You don't want to take a bet on everything that is futuristic, but we think this is a fairly good bet. We believe that electric cars are going to be part of our future, and we want to be ready for that."
Some free-market, small-government advocates disagree. Todd Wynn of the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland said it's wrong to use taxpayer money on such a project, especially considering only 400 electric vehicles are registered in Oregon.
"I see this as probably one of the most egregious examples of government waste that I've probably seen in this state in a little while," Wynn said. "It amazes me that we're using public funds to subsidize and pay for a charging station that can only benefit approximately 400 electric vehicle owners in the state."
Wynn said that if there's demand for charging stations, the market will provide them, much as many retail businesses now offer free wireless Internet service. Even if electric cars catch on in the future, he still doesn't see charging stations as a legitimate government expense.
It's unclear how many people might use the LCC charging station. Carr acknowledged it may have few or no customers right away because plug-in cars have not yet hit the market. But he said in three to five years it will be a different story.
Many government agencies are climbing on board the electric vehicle, or EV, bandwagon. The city of Eugene, University of Oregon and EWEB all have plans to set up charging stations for the cars, and several dozen already have been installed in the Portland area, said Art James of the state Department of Energy.
Although few of the cars are on the road now, several major auto companies, including Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet and Daimler, plan to introduce all-electric models late this year or next. James said projects such as LCC's will be key to their success because they will help reduce "range anxiety," the fear of running out of juice and being stranded.
"Having public charging is critical to the adoption of EVs because without that infrastructure people won't make the investment in the vehicles," he said. "What we're trying to achieve through the public charging is to have people feel comfortable and have confidence they'll be able to get a charge and return to their destination."
Tom Williams, an EWEB manager involved in EWEB's Greenpower program, acknowledged it was disappointing to see LCC scale back the project. But EWEB continues to support it, he said. It will have benefits beyond supporting a new technology, he said.
"That was a real nice grant, not only because it has renewable energy but because it has such a strong educational component," he said. "It really ties in with what LCC is pushing for."
LCC has positioned itself as an energy-training leader, with energy management and renewable energy technician programs. It hopes to build a new campus building in downtown Eugene that would be a showcase for green technology, although it has yet to line up all the financing it needs for that.
Spilde said the charging station will be built using bond and grant money and noted that bond money can't be used to help with LCC's operating budget, which is chronically short of needs. The bond measure included $18 million for utility infrastructure improvements, including a renewable energy system.
LCC Board Chairman Pat Albright said the board reviews and approves all projects financed with bond money. The charging station falls well within the college's goal of becoming a sustainability-focused community college, he said.
"This is going to be the kind of activity that is going to push the envelope just a little bit, and by pushing the envelope that's how we find out what is going to work," he said.
The solar charging station will help the college earn points for another building project already under way on its main campus. The new health and wellness building, scheduled to be completed this summer, is aiming for a gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, and the charging station will earn points toward that rating, Carr said.
"There was method with regard to our investment," he said.
A gold rating is the second-highest in the building council
s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, just under the platinum rating.
Recharging an electric vehicle at a hookup can take three to four hours at the type of facility being planned by LCC. Users could hook up for free.
Lane is considering buying electric vehicles for its own fleet once a proven model is on the market. Carr said those could be the first users of the charging station, although he said it's too soon to say how many vehicles the college might buy or how soon.
The station could get some business sooner via a federal effort promoting electric vehicles.
Oregon will be one of five test markets for electric vehicles and charging stations this summer. A federal grant will allow the Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. to bring 4,700 Nissan plug-in electric cars and 11,210 charging systems to the five-state test market.
Under the grant, people who buy the cars from dealers will get a charging station for their home. Other charging stations will be set up around the region.
In addition to Oregon, the states are Washington, California, Arizona and Tennessee. Oregon Nissan dealers will get 940 Nissan Leaf EVs to sell to individuals and fleets and 2,240 charging stations, with 940 installed in owners' homes and the rest in public places.